West Papuans say the province they call home is “a piece of heaven that fell to Earth.”
West Papua, Indonesia is the epicenter of diversity in the world’s ocean. Its waters harbor more types of fish and coral than anywhere else on the planet — more than 1,700 fishes and more than 600 hard corals, equivalent to 75 percent of all described species. Its complex ocean currents carve a rich assemblage of habitats from the limestone islands and connect the area to the greater Indo-Pacific, carrying marine life to and from the reefs, a flowing bank that distributes wealth across the ocean: translucent commensal shrimp stick to the swaying arms of yellow sea anemones; banded travallies, batfish, silversides, and barracudas drift between locations as they shimmer in filtered light; giant manta rays materialize out of the blue at intervals.
This forest is the unsung hero of climate regulation and species diversity. If you stand under a mangrove for even a few minutes, you can witness the trees absorbing carbon from the air as their leaves fall off and sink into the sea. Dinosaurs rule the sky, with the raucous cries of hornbills echoing across the still water. Below, hidden in the roots of the mangrove, is the nursery. Juvenile fish of all species find refuge in this perfectly crafted maze, protected from predators, currents, and storms. Acting like a liver, the mangrove also filters terrestrial runoff—the most immediate threat to the bountiful reefs.
Even a short walk into the West Papuan rainforest — one of the largest rainforests on Earth still intact — requires a machete. The forest is overgrown with thousands of species of plants, all interlocking in a nearly impenetrable tangle. It overwhelms the senses, but perhaps most powerful are the jungle sounds: overlapping calls of hundreds of species of birds; the buzzing and chattering of insects; a chorus of tree frogs. The wilderness drips with life. Hidden in the understory, exquisite aliens — the birds of paradise — meticulously maintain secret dance floors, transforming themselves into near fictional creatures in the throes of their passion.
To visit this place is a pilgrimage. New species are regularly discovered throughout this vast center of life on Earth.
Paradise at risk
However, there is another side to this story. Throughout a difficult and often disturbing political history, West Papua’s natural resources have been the target of industry. Illegal fishers flooded into the region, strip-mining the reefs with tides of longlining, shark finning, and dynamite fishing. Practitioners of this last particular horror hurl homemade bombs off a boat, turning the vibrant reefs to rubble and stun-killing all the fish within a 30-foot radius of the blast.
Mangroves were cut down to make room for piers and barges; lowland forests were plowed under to make room for oil palm plantations. The beaches became covered in garbage, and the rivers ran brown with the runoff from logging operations aimed at the trillions of dollars worth of hardwood in the West Papuan rainforest. By the late 1990s, all the beautiful wildlife, and the ancient wisdom of West Papuans, was in imminent danger.
Now, this rich province is engaged in a race to turn conservation traditions into modern law before it is too late.
The man sat cross-legged on a floor mat from Mecca, a clove cigarette dangling from one well-weathered hand. Soft grey light and the sound of pouring rain filled the room, entering unimpeded through the windowless window frame.
Haji Kaidat Soltief is the imam as well as the kepala adat, or traditional leader, of his remote village of Fafanlap in Raja Ampat, the westernmost regency of West Papua.
His eyes went dark as he denounced the destructive fishing practices sweeping through the heart of the Coral Triangle. Haji gestured outside to the street, where children were collecting rainwater as it streamed off the roof of the mosque, dancing in celebration of this simple gift. “The future of these children,” he said, “demands that we conserve — that we stop destroying the very source of life.” As he finished speaking, he took a drag from his cigarette, and curls of smoke floated toward the open window and out into the rain.
West Papua is set apart by its varied set of cultures. People first arrived by canoe more than a thousand years ago, and clans found homes for themselves all the way from the coast to the depths of the rainforest. Completely dependent on these ecosystems, they developed sophisticated methods of conservation both on land and in the sea, which we now know mirrored every type of modern-day process in the playbook — from fishing gear restrictions to protected areas. Paired with recognized exclusive ownership of resources — giving communities the ability to enforce their own rules — these measures created a sustainable way of life that lasted for more than 1,000 years. Encroachment of the modern world was inevitable. However, even in the twenty-first century, West Papuans have maintained significant power over their own resources and have understood the importance of conservation rooted in eons of sustainable practice.
Since the beginning of my journey in West Papua, I have worked in partnership with photographer and conservationist Shawn Heinrichs, who stepped onto his life’s true path almost 15 years ago when he made a commitment to protect this place. Over a period of ten years, we have had the honor of recording the wisdom of nearly 100 different people, interviewing everyone from local fishermen and small farmers to traditional leaders and the provincial governor. We listened to the Salawati leader of adat — a traditional form of governance still observed in parts of Indonesia—explaining a key principle of their culture.
The West Papuan peoples speak hundreds of languages, but this idea of a vow crosses them all. With these vows come responsibilities to their families, communities, faith, and environment. And with those responsibilities come extraordinary acts of conservation.
A vow to the sea
The rain broke through the clouds just before sunrise, and the island glowed orange as our ship sailed into view of the newly built ranger station and jetty. Even at this early hour, the waterfront was alive with people making preparations for the celebration. Everything was hung with yellow ribbons made of dried palm leaves, decorations associated with the ancient tradition of sasi laut. This was the reason we had returned to the Fam Islands of Raja Ampat, Indonesia in 2017 — to witness these communities make a sacred vow to the sea.
Raja Ampat is one of the most incredible ocean conservation success stories to date. Building on centuries of traditional conservation, a variety of organizations led by Conservation International worked with local leaders and the regional government for more than a decade to catalyze the creation of seven substantial MPAs — marine protected areas. With wise management, these MPAs have seen recoveries that are nothing short of miraculous, including increases of 300 to 600 percent in the numbers and sizes of fish and increases of 2,500 percent in the total number of sharks. However, despite years of work in the Fam communities, there was not yet an MPA in the rich waters of the Fam Islands.
Shawn and I had last visited the Fam Islands in 2014, when we hauled 3,000 lbs of gear into one of Fam communities and set up an outdoor theater as part of our Guardians of Raja Ampat film and concert tour. That night, the town center was filled with people celebrating the region’s history of conservation. When the film ended, and Edo Kondologit — Papua’s most famous singer — sang his final notes, something magic happened. Men and women, elders, and children all spoke as one, calling for even greater protection of Raja Ampat’s waters. The head of the village spoke to the crowd, pointing behind him and saying, “We want our faces on that screen.”
Fast-forward to two and a half years later, to the same Fam community on February 16, 2017, and longboats were landing one after the other, filled past capacity with residents from the surrounding islands. Soon, there were hundreds of people on the usually uninhabited beach, all looking out to sea and waiting for the guests of honor. Traditional dancers greeted the regency head of Raja Ampat and the director of Conservation International Indonesia, ushering them into the ceremony as the crowd flooded in around them.
It quickly became clear that this was a theatrical performance — a mix of ancient traditions and modern religion, seamlessly bound together in a single play. The high priest entered stage left on a small boat, stepping onto the beach barefoot in a reenactment of the arrival of the first Christian missionaries. Sixteen women dressed in white paddled furiously in a ceremonial 40-foot long palm-frond canoe suspended from their waists, carrying the priest through the crowd to a grass pulpit at the other end of the beach. As the crowd sat in the hot sun, the priest spoke for a long time about the ancient history of stewardship, the future of the Fam communities in a changing world, and the honor due to God in the form of protection for the sacred waters.
When the sermon concluded, the women in white navigated their ceremonial canoe back along the beach, leading the crowd to the final act of the play.
A blueprint for the future
In 2015, noting both the remarkable successes in Raja Ampat and the challenges West Papua faces, the provincial governor of West Papua created the world’s Provinsi Konservasi, or conservation province. The declaration was uniquely farsighted in its intent to implement comprehensive ecosystem-based protections from ridge to reef, establish sustainable development practices across all industries, and empower communities to control and protect vital natural resources.
The governor’s order was just the first step in implementing a true conservation province. Conservation International worked side by side with the provincial and national governments to draft legislation that would codify marine protection laws. Once again, Shawn and I would be fortunate enough to help cement commitments to conservation. We spent three years making a new film, shooting in more than 30 locations across the province, and then brought the film back to West Papuan audiences in a second film tour with our outdoor cinema.
We wish you could have felt the energy in the crowds, as 5,000 faces glowed in the light of the two story-tall screen. We wish you could have felt the resolve in the meeting rooms, as leaders from across the province signed the petition to protect their lands and waters. We wish you could have felt the surge of pride when hundreds of fists flew into the air as Edo Kondologit, who joined us again for this tour, leaned forward into the climax of his song Aku Papua — “I AM Papua.” The crowds screamed the lyrics into the night, proclaiming their heritage, declaring their solidarity in the name of conservation.
In 2019, after four years of intense effort and negotiations, West Papua and the Indonesian national government passed the legislation that solidified the governor’s initial declaration. The legislation sets goals to protect 70 percent of the rainforest and 50 percent of all reefs and mangroves. It also mandates that all industries be sustainable, demanding the re-regulation of almost every type of industry to align with these goals. This is where the rubber hits the road — where vision is turned into action.
West Papua is just now embarking on this new leg of the journey and it is vital that we continue to offer our support.
At a time when the link between our own health and that of the natural world has never been clearer, we must join together to celebrate Indonesia in continuing its bold stand for a sustainable future.