At first glance, the rugged islands seem uninhabited, but a closer look would reveal 100 or so villages scattered throughout the region, primarily on the few islands level enough to erect simple homes.
Our time in the villages revealed the incredibly complex pressures facing the marine environment and those who depend on it. In Yellu, the first village we visited, trash piled in the streets and decayed in heaps along the water line. All of Indonesia lacks the infrastructure to deal with waste. The solution in Raja Ampat is to simply throw garbage in the ocean, where a storm surge or current will eventually scatter it, littering beautiful beaches and poisoning marine life.
The waters surrounding Yellu were murky and devoid of life. Silt smothered the corals. Only a spattering of trees remained on the hillsides. Houses filled every inch of flat land and then spilled out across the water. Depending on who you ask immigration rates vary, but many suggest that Yellu has transformed from a quiet town of only a few hundred to a crowded and polluted village supporting almost 2,000 people. Half of those newcomers came to Yellu to work in the oyster pearl farms – a relatively new but booming industry that’s drawing outsiders to Raja Ampat in droves.
While in Yellu, we photographed and interviewed artisanal fishermen who gather their catch with simple nylon handlines from dugout canoes (some with modern sputtering motors). Historically fish were caught for local consumption, but now many fishers have now been lured by the lucrative live fish trade.
They seek out the biggest groupers and wrasse, which bring the greatest profit. But these targeted efforts have diminished local fish populations. Fishers have to travel further and further to get an adequate supply. Once caught, the fish are stored in crowded ocean pens and injected with antibiotics to stave off infection. Once a month or so a ship from Hong Kong arrives, scoops up the penned fish and returns to sell them as “fresh” caught fish in the Asian live fish trade.
Raja Ampat has remained lush and intact largely through supporting a historically small population size, roughly 35,000 people in a region about the size of France. But it has turned into one of Indonesia’s fastest growing regions. Now Raja Ampat must support this burgeoning population, growing at more than five percent a year, and a global fish market. We can look to the boom and bust trends of most global fisheries to realize the outcome. The environment and all those who depend on it will surely suffer.
But not every village has succumbed to these foreign interests. In Fafanlap, a village just one half hour from Yellu, locals still handline for subsistence fishing only. Oyster fishers have yet to settle in. Fafanlap supports one-third the population of Yellu. There’s less trash in the streets, the waters are cleaner and lush tracts of virgin forests surround the village.
New economical pressures possess incredible power and the outcome is uncertain, but we left the villages feeling inspired. Raja Ampat harbors intoxicating beauty and unparalleled biodiversity. Under Hak Adat, every village has ownership of their local ocean. Our interviews uncovered a deep pride attached to that responsibility and a knowledge that marine resources are not inexhaustible. People were eager to use their rights to find ways to protect their waters for generations to come. We’re doing our best to convey and contribute to that effort.