Jan Piter Renuth is the Raja (King) of Loorlobay, one of the three kings of Kei Besar, a small island in Indonesia’s Eastern Maluku Regency. At 86 years old, the Raja is deaf in both ears. As he greets us, he jokes that having lost both his hearing and his teeth, his eyes will be the next to go. He passes around a brass prayer box containing a coconut kernel, some tea leaves, a small bowl of water, and 17,000 rupiah (the equivalent of about US$1.25). He asks that everyone gathered stare into the prayer box for long enough to reveal his or her soul. He nods in approval as the box is passed from person to person. Behind him, a saltwater crocodile as long as a man is tall lies asleep in a cage; its presence is never explained.
We’re meeting with the Raja as part of a multiyear ecological and social monitoring project, for which WWF—in collaboration with a diverse team of experts (see below)—is gathering much-needed data on the impacts of marine protected areas (MPAs). Our conclusions will help inform local marine management decisions, shape global policy on when and where MPAs can be effective tools for conservation, and influence the design of new MPAs in Indonesia.
One of our tasks is to learn from the people who live here what they are doing to protect the marine resources they rely on. The Raja begins by describing sasi, a traditional resource management system that is common among coastal communities in eastern Indonesia. It is primarily a set of rules regarding the use—or restriction of use—of natural resources. To clarify the rules, the Raja displays an array of signs, made mostly from coconut palm, and explains the varying degrees of sasi prohibition that each denotes. Punishments for noncompliance start at a stern telling off, he claims, but escalate with astonishing quickness to capital punishment. He drives this last claim home with one of the many swords he has laid out on the table. The Raja is as theatrical as he is observant of tradition.
Sasi and related forms of customary property rights are just some of the many factors that make marine ecosystem management so complex in Indonesia. A bewildering patchwork of policies; more than 300 ethnic groups; and a mix of interconnected coastal systems (including mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass beds) and oceanic ecosystems make a one-size-fits-all approach to conservation impossible.
That’s why WWF’s Gabby Ahmadia, senior marine scientist, and Louise Glew, lead scientist for monitoring and evaluation, have taken up the challenge of disentangling all the myths, half-truths, and unproven theories about the impacts of MPAs across the archipelago. It’s no small task. Glew jokes: “Since my wedding, I’ve spent more time with Gabby than with my husband.”
Five years into the monitoring study, almost half a million fish have been counted and more than 3,500 households have been interviewed, making it by far the largest study of its kind ever conducted.
“Getting to the right amount of data takes time and thoughtful planning,” says Glew.
“And the right amount of data is lots and lots,” Ahmadia adds with a smile.