Our Living World is Dying
Stacey Worman, 2006-2007 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow
Date: May 10th, 2007
To: Undisclosed recipients
Re: Interfering with Tradition & Investing in People...
I'm guessing that you likely read my last email from your desk, cubical, or office...and therefore...I also have this sneaky suspicion that at some point along the line you compared your 'job' to ours and thought something to the effect of,'Hmmm...sounds rough!'And rightfully so, you probably also wondered,'So...what exactly is what you did, actually doing?' And so this follow-up email is intended to fill in a few of the blanks that I left you with last time...
Just as easily as the monitoring team and I approached these laying creatures with a tape measure, other people can similarly approach them with weapons. And despite the fact that turtle hunting is now illegal worldwide...the one battered shell laying nearby our kitchen was visual proof and a daily reminder for me of how...law or no law...turtle hunting is still alive and well in these South Pacific cultures.
On my second to last day out on Pulau Piai, I more closely examined that symbolic shell that I had been very conscious of my entire stay. I knelt down beside it to touch the battered markings. When I stood up, something I hadn't noticed before caught my eye. I then proceeded to walk just a little bit further into the bush, only to discovered the graveyard; 16 large green-turtle shells in a pile, all with similar battered markings. 'Why did the boys forget to tell me about this?' I wondered. I called a few of them over to show them what I had found; they flashed a smile, shrugged their shoulders, shook their heads, and then simply carried on with whatever they were doing before I interrupted them. It was as if to them...it was no big deal. But to me...it surely was something out of the ordinary...and it was something which also allowed me to realize just to what extent, the practice still persists.
And so each day that those men spend camped out on Piai...they do their job and collect their data...but by simply being there...they are also deterring illegal hunters from killing the 5 to 6 sea-turtles that they encounter on a nightly basis. The world is a hard enough place for these creatures these days...with more commercial fishing and trawling nets than ever before and with more of their nesting habitats disappearing to development because they are also pieces of prime waterfront real-estate. And so by giving these mothers refuge in their most vulnerable state and in their most vulnerable hour...they are at least allowing this endangered species the opportunity to reproduce relatively uninterrupted...
Upon retuning from the island, I called my mom to tell her about the whole experience. I mentioned that people in this part of the world kill and eat sea turtles. She responded by saying that she thought that that was very sad. She paused a moment and then asked,'Well...it is actually sad or is it just their cultural tradition?' And fair enough...that's a question I've wrestled with many-a-times myself...as an outsider, who am I to pass a judgment or interfere with an ancient village that is simply continuing a practice that has been ongoing for thousands of years? (Especially when my own culture is far from perfect!).
Photo by Mark Erdmann
Well...eating sea-turtles may have been OK when these traditional cultures were living in isolation. But contact with the outside world has been made and despite their remoteness, they are increasingly becoming a part of the larger world. Many villagers have left their native villages for other villages (often for marriage) or for the mainland (often for job opportunities). And to these new areas...naturally...they've brought the things that they've always known...the practices that they've always done...their cultural traditions (i.e. turtle eating)...with them.
So traditional people relocate...they share the delicacy of turtle meat with other people in other cultures...and if no one 'interferes' anywhere...suddenly, it's not just a matter of a few traditional villages in Raja Ampat eating sea-turtles...but of all of the villages in Raja Ampat...and then, people on mainland Papua start eating them three...and then the people in Jakarta...and then the Chinese and Japanese too...and then...and then...and then...completely unchecked and 'interference' free...too many mouths are feeding on sea-turtles and POOF...combined with all the other threats they face...they disappear from our oceans for good.
So physically occupying important nesting grounds might be one way to immediately and directly combat poaching...but for long-term solutions...the problem must be approached from other angles too. And one of those other angles does happen to involve 'interfering' with ancient cultural practices. And although that word often carries a negative connotation...I hardly think that educating people about the situation in the larger world (which they are now an integral part of) and then working with them to establish sustainable practices in light of a changing reality...is such a bad thing!
After opening their field office in Raja Ampat...Conservation International (CI) proceeded by fostering friendly and familiar relations with the area's different villages. To this end...among many other things...the organization identified and invited bright and promising leaders from within these local communities to join their team and subsequently, it empowered these individuals to take a more proactive role in the process of establishing the long-term health and vitality of their homeland and homewaters.
After a shower, a load of laundry, and a few days back on the mainland...the staff of CI invited me to go with them to Ayau! Another trip to more islands in the middle of nowhere (they are actually closer to the Philippines than to the rest of Indonesia !) and also to Charlie's home! The native villages had invited us out there for a festival to celebrate the government's recent and unique declaration of Raja Ampat as a special place worthy of protection...and furthermore, because they themselves were also ready to continue their ongoing dialogue with the organization about establishing a partnership to combat the many issues threatening their waters and their livelihoods.
Interestingly enough...Ayau just so happens to also be the area where the villages are known especially for their copious turtle meat consumption. And so in addition to discussing the establishment of a Community-Managed Marine Protected Area (MPA)...it was perhaps the other most negotiated issue on the table at the afternoon long community meeting held in their community hall.
CI-Staff helped the people in Ayau understand why some of their traditional practices necessitate modification. And the communities then recognized that they essentially had two choices ...(1) they could change their traditional practices later when there are no more turtles to be found in the sea...or...(2) they could voluntarily bend a little bit now (for example, forgo eating turtles whenever they want and instead save them for special occasions and ceremonies) and work in conjunction with CI to establish an alternative and sustainable food source...
They chose the later...and so...that afternoon left everyone feeling very hopeful. Both groups were cognizant of the issues at hand and what was at stake...both groups were trying to understand where the other was coming from...and both groups were willing to give and take a little in order for everyone to come out ahead...
That night...the entire village gathered in the church courtyard. A CI-video was shown and although it was thoroughly enjoyed and well received...the real star of the evening was undoubtedly Charlie, who rocked the mic with his charismatic personality and hilarious humor.
Charlie was born and raised in Ayau. He left his home island because he was offered a better schooling opportunity on mainland Papua. With a degree and a complete lack of opportunity, he almost left Papua and Indonesia to go work in Australia ...where he would likely have been just one of the many migrant third-world workers trying to make it in a first-world country. But CI has given him a job and a reason to stick around. And they have given him the opportunity to put his education and talent to use in his homeland, the place that needs him the most.
That weekend...you could tell just how proud the older generation is of him...you could see just how much the younger generation looks up to him...and you could sense how eager everyone was to hear what he had to say and furthermore, how willing everyone was to follow his lead. And that's also when you learn that conservation isn't just about investing in land...it's about investing in people too...
As far as a more personal update? I've made it back to the States...although...no no no...I am not throwing in the travel towel just yet! Two busy weeks have flown by...I've caught up with family and close friends...I've taken a stroll down memory lane by dancing NY-NY in Walter's 50 th Review...I've met past Keegan fellows Siobhan Hogan and Kristin Fleschner...I've dumped in the freezing cold Nantahala on Wilskill's annual alumni paddling trip...and tomorrow...I'm headed out to Arizona to watch a good friend from Vandy tie the knot! I've also failed to catch up completely with my mass-emails...(so much to say!)...and so...one more will be coming containing a few final points from Raja Ampat, a few impressions from my brief travels in Papua New Guinea, and a few tid-bits from my 'vacation' in freezing-cold Japan...but it probably won't make it to you until sometime next week...after I've made it across our Southern border...
Spring is in the air...and I still have the bug...
On to Mexico for me...
Que pasa contigo?