Seventythree and the Raja Ampat Homestay Association: How communities in Raja Ampat are shaping their world.

March 3, 2016
Dominic Elson

Homestay Association members' meeting

“I was an illegal logger. I brought all [these] investors here to log the forest. Then I discovered this homestay business and my life changed completely. I now stand on the front line trying to defend our environment.”

This is the testimony of a homestay owner at Sawinggrai, Gam Island, Raja Ampat, in December 2013. Many more local people have stories like that to tell: people who previously had no choice other than to make their living from bomb fishing, and from the illegal timber and wildlife trade, in order to survive and to send their children to school.

This article on the Walton Family Foundation website describes how people in Raja Ampat are have grabbed the possibilities offered by ecotourism and related services to take control of their own lives and of the places they have lived in for generations. They have created a new politics in which they have redefined conservation as part of their struggle to liberate themselves from poverty.

Seventythree is a partner of the Walton Family Foundation. We have worked in Raja Ampat as part of the Bird’s Head Seascape Initiative since 2013, alongside Starling Resources and other partners. Our work aims to create the social and political infrastructure for locally controlled Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to work, and to improve the lives of Raja Ampat’s people.

We work with many of Raja Ampat’s customary communities, but specifically we are dealing with local homestay owners, women’s groups, village heads and councils, church and youth now represented by the Raja Ampat Local Homestay Association.

Creating a new politics of conservation.

After years of economic neglect, people in the Dampier Strait have carved out an entirely new market for ecotourism, which they own. In just three years they have built a sector that generates gross revenues of around USD 1.5 million per annum and that has created at least 600 new local jobs in homestays, fishing and agriculture.

The Raja Ampat Local Homestay Association currently represents just over fifty family-owned businesses. These are not private individual businesses, but collective family entities, similar to a traditional joint stock company, that support and employ an extended network of relations.

The Association is now the largest community-owned business grouping in Papua and West Papua. First concentrated around Mansuar and Gam in the Dampier Strait, the Association’s membership is spreading to include communities from other parts of Raja Ampat such as the Fam islands, Batanta and Saleo in western Waigeo.

The Association’s members understand that their businesses depend on the integrity of their environment. They also believe that they and others in their communities are best positioned to protect that environment, and that their businesses give them the means to do so:

“It’s obvious isn’t it? As more homestays start up in places under greatest threat from bomb fishing – such as Batanta and western Waigeo – less of it will happen. There will be more of us around to keep watch as we go about our business, and we will not need to be paid to patrol. Who would dare bomb the reef around Mansuar now?”

The Association delivers a range of business services to its members, including on-line promotion and bookings, business skills and training and mentoring, and government relations on issues such as the management of MPA entrance fees. It is now setting standards on diving, transport and hospitality to govern the conduct of its members’ businesses.

The Association is also a social movement motivated by the desire to prevent family land being sold to resorts and to stand on their own feet as economic actors. “Homestays are our way to defend our land… we do not want to be bystanders or someone else’s workers”. The pain that people feel when they have lost land remains the single most important factor in driving people to set up the Homestay Association.

The Association is a community organization that, for the first time, gives people from multiple communities their own, shared space to discuss their lives and businesses; and also to find solutions to the problems that most concern them, such as waste management, illegal fishing, illegal logging, and the loss of culture and identity.

The Association is inspiring youth. Over half its board are in their twenties and embody a new generation of community leaders that could serve Raja Ampat for the next forty years. The opportunity to work for the family business means that youth now want to come home after completing their studies. Much of the money that their families’ homestays generate now pays for their younger brothers and sisters to also go to college.

The Association is inspiring women. The Association understands that it will fail if men and women cannot work together, and if women do not feel empowered. Some of the Association’s most energetic directors are women. They are now organising other women in their villages to set up kiosks and a market for local organic produce to keep homestays supplied.

The homestay is therefore serving, not only to protect the marine environment, but also to regenerate community. Where this serves to build a supporting ecosystem of extended family and other social relations then it only reinforces the likelihood that conservation will succeed.

This is what we call a new politics of conservation in Raja Ampat. Among homestay owners, conservation is no longer somebody else’s agenda for which they need “livelihood alternatives” and “compensation”. People have redefined conservation as a factor that enables their own efforts to control, sustain, and make a better living from the places that they have inherited through custom – inside and outside MPAs.