By Brenda Senior, Program Manager, Mahonia na Dari
Kimbe Bay, on Papua New Guinea’s West New Britain Island, is the jewel in the crown of the Coral Triangle, boasting more than 900 species of fish and 400 species of hard corals. Unfortunately, PNG is one of many developing countries where hunger for fossil fuels, minerals, logs and even palm oil is bringing about massive changes in the way people live and interact with their environment. With development comes inevitable downsides, such as increase in population and pollution, but just as important is the loss of cultural practices, which in the past have helped to maintain harmony between the people and their surroundings.
Until the 1960s, most of the population of West New Britain lived a sustainable, subsistence lifestyle. But with the advent of the palm-oil industry, all that changed, and economic migration into the province –– along with high natural rates of population increase –– has resulted in a steadily rising population density in the urban areas. This, in turn, has caused increased pressure on the local terrestrial and coastal ecosystems with a rising demand for food, firewood and building materials.
Enter Mahonia na Dari (mahonia.org), or “guardian of the sea” in the local language. Mahonia is a marine conservation and research center dedicated to the preservation of Kimbe Bay’s ecosystems. Its goal is to provide a model for conservation education, community action and sustainable development for the island regions of PNG. Mahonia accomplishes this by implementing community- and school-based education programs to help the people living in local villages understand their impact on the environment, whether it be from overfishing, pollution, destruction of coral reefs or any other ecological impact felt from growing populations.
In the words of an old Chinese proverb, “If you are planning for a year, plant rice; if you are planning for 10 years, plant trees; if you are planning for 100 years, plant education.” Mahonia does just that through its Marine Environmental Education Program, which is taught primarily in a single-story building constructed of sustainable bush material on land donated to the organization by Walindi Plantation Resort ( www.walindi.com ). The MEEP is tailored to suit the needs of school-age children up to grade 11, teaching them about local marine ecosystems, the effect that man has on those systems and what they can do about it. The younger children learn through reef-walks, drama, discussion, presentations and puppet shows. The emphasis is on giving the children a unique learning experience that’s actually fun; for many students, it’s their first opportunity to glimpse the underwater world.
The older students have a more intensive program, in which they learn marine biology and are able to snorkel and monitor the condition of the reefs. Mahonia also travels to many schools and communities in the province to provide a course for teachers, enabling them to deliver the marine-conservation message in many more classrooms. It’s estimated that in its 12 years of existence, Mahonia na Dari has directly and indirectly reached more than 200,000 individuals through its programs, helping them develop a better awareness of the marine environment and hopefully affecting the way they choose to manage their local natural resources.
And there are encouraging things happening. A group of students recently formed a marine club at their school and next year want to help Mahonia spread sustainable practices to their home villages. There have also been successes with the implementation of locally managed marine areas, where communities have developed very personalized management plans to help preserve marine resources for the future. The entire community has to embrace the concept for it to work, which is why educational programs that focus on the importance of reefs to communities, the interrelationships between reefs and other ecosystems, and ways to manage marine resources to ensure the preservation of the high levels of biodiversity found here are so important.
Mahonia’s approach is a grassroots one, hoping that the promise of conservation will spread through the individuals it reaches. Sammy Kiri is a great example of how this tactic is working in PNG. Kiri became interested in conservation when a Mahonia awareness team visited his village and has since trained to become one of the organization’s traveling marine educators. He grows palm oil, cocoa and coconut to make a living, but he also has a traditional vegetable garden and spearfishes, following traditional sustainable practices. So far the fishing is good. However, with the population in his village increasing at a fast pace, Kiri worries that soon there will not be enough fish for everyone. So he’s taking his knowledge to other communities, recently visiting Kapo Island to speak to the villagers about the problems facing their coastal reefs as large-scale agricultural development moves into their community. The people were eager to discover a way to preserve their resources and asked him to come back to teach them how to manage their reefs. On leaving, Kiri told them he would keep the sand of their village in his shoes to remind him of his promise to return.
In the past, Mahonia found it necessary to spend up to two years working with communities to get them to the point where they wanted to develop Marine Management Plans for their reefs. Now they find that communities are seeking the organization out, showing that a dedication to education and awareness programs can work — particularly when the local people are actively engaged in the process.
Dive operators interested in collaborating to set up sponsorship of individual reefs in Kimbe Bay can contact the program manager, Brenda Senior, firstname.lastname@example.org .
University students doing their marine research projects with Mahonia regularly monitor Kimbe’s protected reefs and have shown that Mahonia is making a difference in Kimbe Bay; in order for our work to be implemented, Mahonia needs to continually raise funds. To make a donation, please contact Mahonia na Dari’s finance officer, Nathan Wakou at email@example.com for more details.
Volunteer or donate to marine conservation and education programs, from organizations as regional as your local aquarium to global entities like Oceans Watch ( www.oceanswatch.org ) –– a not-for-profit organization that gives marine conservation and humanitarian aid to coastal communities and marine environments in developing countries.
Boycott plastic bags and bottles –– the plastic island in the Pacific is not going to go away.