Students head up conservation in Wakatobi

Matahora is a fishing village on the island of Wangi-wangi, one of four in an island chain which comprises the Wakatobi National Park, Southeast Sulawesi.

After Wangi-wangi the chain extends southeast — Kaledupa, Tomia, Binongko — between the Banda and Flores seas. The quartet makes up the territory of Wakatobi regency, which has much water and little land: 823 square kilometers are islands and 55,113 square kilometers are ocean, 98.5 percent of its total area.

Wakatobi was declared a protected area in 2002.

“Wakatobi can claim some of the broadest biological marine diversity in the world,” said Ali Basaru, an environmental activist and public high-school teacher from Matahora.

Ali cited data on coral: Ninety percent of the world’s 850 species can be found in Wakatobi regency.

Research conducted by the Coral Reef Rehabilitation and Management Program from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (COREMAP LIPI) in 2007 recorded 942 species of fish in the region. It also discovered the world’s longest atoll, the coral island of Kaledupa, which spans 48 km.

Ali said the coral reefs around his village, particularly those along the island’s eastern shoreline, were severely damaged between 1998 and 2001.

“There was a lot of illegal fishing going on with explosives and poisons. The ecosystem was damaged, which then cut into the fishermen’s catches.”

Anggun Ciputri Pratami, 18, one of Ali’s students, said people near the village had been quarrying coral and stealing sand during that period.

“The marine and shoreline ecosystem was damaged by locals and outsiders. Unscrupulous fishing was trying to meet export needs to increase their income and they didn’t heed good conservation practices,” Anggun said.

Anggun said the rural community and administration in 2002 had begun efforts to restore the coral ecosystem around their village.

“They gave the lagoon area, Ou Matahora, special protection status…. The open-close system has been in effect in that protected area.”

The open-close system is a traditional marine conservation strategy which allows the area to be open for use by Matahora villagers but closed to outsiders. The Matahore people are responsible for protecting the area at the same time.

Anggun and her two classmates, Dian Ekawati (18) and Musriani (17) conducted research from May to August 2008 on the effectiveness of this moderate conservation strategy. The three undertook field surveys, studied relevant literature, drew up site maps and interviewed local residents.

“This system has proven to be effective for rehabilitating damaged coral reefs,” Dian said.

Based on the team’s observations, 96 percent of the lagoon’s coral is now growing better than eight years ago, thanks to the conservation effort. Fishing in the lagoon is open only during a certain period for local ceremonial practices, and then only after consulting with village leadership.

“Ou Matahora is closed to all outsiders, not just those using equipment hostile to the environment,” Dian said, adding local residents who fished near the lagoon were required to use environmentally friendly equipment.

Violators could face warnings, customary sanctions and fines.

The young researchers said they hoped other regions in Indonesia, particularly those around Wakatobi, could imitate the coral reef conservation efforts Matahora villagers have undertaken. They also suggested regional authorities facilitate the local endeavor by legalizing existing customary rules for effective control.

The group’s research efforts earned Anggun and her peers third place in the Young Innovator Contest III for Indonesia’s Coral Reef Conservation 2008, organized by COREMAP LIPI on Oct. 24-25 in Jakarta.