Seventythree Field Notes 01: Redefining Conservation

August 22, 2016
Dominic Elson

redefining conservation

How communities in Raja Ampat are shaping their world, and what their experience teaches us about empowerment.

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This article tells the story of the Raja Ampat Homestay Association – a community organisation located in the Dampier Strait off the western tip of New Guinea, in Indonesia. In four years, the Association’s members have built an ecotourism sector consisting of over sixty, family run homestay businesses, with an annual turnover of USD 1.5 million. In doing so, they have recast the conservation agenda as a means to control, sustain, and make a better living from the places that they have inherited through custom. In this article, we explore the impact that this has had on Raja Ampat’s people and environment. We describe how we worked with the Homestay Association to support this transformation, including the methods we used. Finally, we reflect on what it takes – as facilitators – to empower people as agents of their own development.

Lessons learnt

i) Local people take control of conservation if it empowers them to tackle the things that they feel strongest about. In grabbing the opportunities presented by ecotourism, and setting up homestays, people in Raja Ampat found a way to prevent their land from being swallowed up by the resort industry; to be fully self-reliant business people, not mere dependent labourers; and to put their children through higher education. People felt more emotional about these issues than any other.

ii) Where top-down development has created division and mistrust, people need time to rekindle community. Homestay owners in Raja Ampat know that the survival of the natural places on which their businesses are built depends on their relationship with relatives who also own and use those places. They have spent four years cementing the bonds between families and villages, through dialogue, job creation and helping others to set up businesses.

iii) It takes real businesses, formed, owned and managed by local people to create sufficient economic incentive for conservation. To people in Raja Ampat, economic incentive is not just about money. It is also the ability to self-actualise as an entrepreneur, and to inspire others in your community. Working for someone else, or waiting for government assistance, is no longer enough.

iv) Real community organisations start with how people wish to organise themselves, not with how outsiders think people should be organised. In Raja Ampat, people started by setting up family businesses and later set up an Association when they saw the need to discuss common problems. The idea of a collective business, to provide services such as transport and online bookings to Association members, has only now emerged four years after the Association was founded.

v) There are no shortcuts to empowerment. As facilitators working in Raja Ampat, we learnt how important it is to: (a) let people name and act on their own solutions to their own problems, and not to put answers in their mouths; (b) work in ways, and at a pace, that the people we facilitate choose to, and not to impose our own logic or timetable; (c) create motivated change agents with the skills to influence others, and not to advocate or broker on their behalf; and, (c) limit our presence to just a few strategic interventions in a year, such as skills training and quarterly reflection, so that people have the space to make and learn from their own mistakes.

Seventythree Field Notes share our project experience and reflect the fact that project impact is an outcome both delivered and received.