The reef systems of the Coral Triangle contain the highest concentrations of marine biodiversity on earth. But with the focus falling on these impressive marine habitats, it is easy to forget their connection to terra firma. Marine conservation understandably focuses on the sea. But what happens on land can have an indelible impact on the ocean.
The Birds Head Seascape of West Papua is thought to be the very epicentre of biodiversity in the Coral Triangle. Conservation International (CI), WWF, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the local government are working to secure the future of this singular environment and much has already been achieved in establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). But West Papua is developing rapidly and attention must now turn to the land, if we’re to succeed in the water.
In any developing country the construction of roads seems to be a step in the right direction – well-planned road networks can link people together and facilitate economic development. However, poorly managed projects create problems for both local communities and coastal ecosystems alike. In this light, development in West Papua is causing serious threats to near-shore reef ecosystems.
The developing road networks are placed so close to the shoreline that they not only fragment the delicate ecological systems they cut through, but facilitate the extraction of marine resources, and support the appearance of linear strip settlements. The construction of the roads themselves disrupts the earth, eliminating the protection it offers from heavy rainfall. Tonnes of sediment can be deposited onto corals and seagrass, blocking sunlight, halting photosynthesis, and compromising the functionality of the entire ecosystem (see image). Polluted runoff, discarded fishing gear, and introduction of invasive species, which inevitably accompany new settlements, will add further damage to the fragile seascape.
The rich and delicate coastal environments of the Coral Triangle are clearly no place for major highways. Not only do they threaten high value ecosystems, they are not even used by the local population, for whom boats provide a far more practical means of getting around. A road recently constructed in Raja Ampat (See image) is adjacent to the Teleuk Mayalibit MPA; another is planned that would severely threaten the western Pacific’s most significant Leatherback turtle nesting site. Last month CI, TNC, and WWF presented a signed declaration to national lawmakers ordering a stop to the imminent construction of this road. They cut deep into the forests, upsetting nature’s balance and bring big changes to the local communities. Locals have traditionally used boats as their main form of transport. The decision to move to land based transportation is not necessarily their own, and roads typically bring newcomers.
The challenge faced by conversationalists and communities alike is to hold an active and meaningful involvement in the further planning of these developing areas. The Birds Head Seascapes’ unique marine ecosystem is in desperate need of preservation. This cannot occur if the current development of highways continues behind closed doors, in isolation of marine conservation efforts and contributions from the local community.
Applying ‘integrated coastal zone management’ (ICZM) principles would be the logical next step. This approach should ensure marine and terrestrial planning occurs in consort. The past decade has seen Indonesia and other Coral Triangle partner nations receive significant international support to implement ICZM; it is now time to put this into practice.
By considering ‘Ridge to Reef’ connections in planning we can enhance the effectiveness of MPAs by increasing and safeguarding ecosystem connectivity. We do have to ask weather this is the right move for community growth. Coral Triangle nations can have world class MPAs alongside sustainable economic development. This will require a symbiotic relationship; more dialog, and true cooperation on what is happening on both sides of the watermark.