2016-10-12-110911_1198x1025_scrotSitting on the edge of his traditional jukung boat smoking a cigarette and drinking his coffee is a man who used to make his living through dynamite fishing. That invoved throwing cheap bombs onto the coral reef. It’s an easy way of harvesting valuable species. He explained to me what Indonesian reef management used to look like:

“Before the villages were in charge of their own reefs, anybody could do anything. You want to go spearfishing on the main reef? Okay. Especially if you’re a tourist from the West. You want fried sea turtle? Fine! There were absolutely no rules here.”

He then explained how the Indonesian government is placing reef conservation responsibilities, namely through protected area stewardship, in the hands of local villagers. He described the profound social, ecological, and economic impacts of this newfound autonomy and responsibility.

This post seeks to shed some light on the impact of locally-run protected areas in Indonesian coral reefs and their promise for coral reefs and the people who depend on them.

The Coral Triangle

Coral reefs have immense value to society, providing fish, shoreline protection from tropical storms and erosion, large amounts of foreign and domestic cash in the form of diving and snorkelling tourism, or the cultural and spiritual gravity stemming from their unique beauty. This is particularly true in Southeast Asia where The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network estimates that 120 million people depend directly on reefs for sustenance and to meet their economic needs, with many people dependent on reefs for all aspects of their livelihoods.

Southeast Asian reefs fall within the Coral Triangle Region, which contains 76% of the world’s species of coral and 52% of the world’s fish species making it a priority for global biodiversity conservation. The Coral Triangle is a critical conservation and development concern, since it includes six developing countries within which millions of people living below the poverty line depend on healthy reef ecosystems for livelihoods ranging from fishing to tourism.

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Unfortunately, there is a dramatic global decline of reefs because of overfishing, pollution, disease, and climate change.The rapid pace of the decline has led to increased pressure on governments to expand efforts to implement protected areas.

Preserving coral reefs through marine protected areas

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a major strategy that Southeast Asian governments are using to reverse this degradation defined as marine ecosystems reserved by law that can be used to conserve biodiversity, preserve areas for tourism, restore degraded habitat, or restore depleted fisheries stocks.

Even though Southeast Asia is regarded as the “global epicenter of marine biodiversity,” only 12 percent of its reefs are in MPAs of any kind.

No two MPAs look quite the same, and in fact they can have dozens of possible forms, ranging from those that are centrally managed national parks to those that completely devolve authority to community-based organizations. This leaves a lot of room for flexibility and innovation, and Indonesia is quickly becoming a global leader in the implementation of co-managed MPAs.

Co-managed MPAs involve power sharing between national government and communities that depend on reef ecosystems for their livelihoods. Co-managed MPAs build capacity in the communities themselves to look after natural resources.

The core political reason behind the Indonesian transformation was the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, and with it, the implementation of the Otonomi Daerah Act No. 22/1999 (“Regional Autonomy Act”) which transferred power from central to local government. This legislation marked the end of a long struggle between local governments and resource dependent communities for control over their resources.

Pemuteran, Bali: From fishing to diving tourism

The village of Pemuteran on the North-western corner of the island of Bali stands as a testimony to the success of co-managed Indonesian MPAs. Pemuteran has a relatively large area of coral reefs. Once one of the poorest villages in Bali, it used to generate all of its income through fishing, and now it does so through dive tourism.

Currently, its economy is rapidly expanding as the village gains reputation for being a world class, award-winning destination for reef tourism. Besides its natural reefs, it has several BioRock formations where mineral accretion technology, or charged wires that increase coral growth, are maintained by village based non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Village-based NGOs have also built up a range of facilities for environmental education, such as libraries and information centres that line the shore. Tourists are encouraged to learn about how the community acts as a reef steward.

The Sea Police

MPA management, rule-making, monitoring, enforcement, and conflict resolution is the responsibility of local people, embodied in the Pecelan Laut organization, which roughly translates to a type of spiritual “sea police” in this Hindu village.

The Pecelan Laut are best described as a social club, religious group, and highly esteemed village organisation. The high amount of admiration directed towards the Pecelan Laut meant that many villagers, especially youths, had strong desires to join.

Locals repeatedly said things like, “I will join the Pecelan Laut one day if I work hard,” or “It would be important to my family if I could join the Pecelan Laut,” or spoke of joining after monumental life events such as purchasing their first business.

Village-based NGOs supplement the work of the Pecelan Laut by removing invasive species, running a turtle nursery, facilitating social programs such as a youth dance class, and building artificial reef formations. Some global NGOs support local NGOs with financing, and assist in scaling-up co-management efforts across Bali. They also provide ecological monitoring support.

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Clockwise from the top: Pemuteran Pecelan Laut in their office; Meeting area and office; The office.

Buy-in for the co-managed protected area is palpable and widespread in Pemuteran. During a recent research expedition, a strong majority of local respondents assigned a high degree of legitimacy to the co-managed MPA.

This perception is best illustrated by the following words of a boatman working in the dive industry:

“Of course our reef management cooperative manages the reef, nobody else would do it if they didn’t do it. Local government doesn’t know how, and it is our responsibility by law. But it is also our livelihood. If we did not look after our reefs, we would have no tourists and no money. We get the job done.”

“Villages realised they were in charge”

In the eyes of many reef communities, the Indonesian government lacks the capacity, knowhow, and proper anti-corruption measures to protect coral reefs.

Take the following excerpt from a conversation with a one-time dynamite fisherman who had since reformed his ways and now works in dive tourism in the Lovina area just east of Pemuteran:

“Through time, as villages realised they were in charge, key people rose up and really took control. We go to the same temple, we are connected in my village through family and through religion. These connections and the changes where the village was put in charge of our local environment converted me from a dynamite fisherman in the 1970s to a dive tourism worker in the 1990s. We have to make changes like these because the reef is ours.”

The flexibility of the co-managed MPA leaves local stakeholders plenty of space for innovation. The Reef Gardeners organisation, founded by local conservation leader Chris Brown is based at a well-known dive resort, Reef Seen. Brown and local partners formed this organisation in response to the periodic outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci). Local men from Pemuteran were trained to recognize these organisms, which feed on living coral and can rapidly destroy a reef, and harvest them from the reef using spears.

The Reef Gardeners’ office space on the beach became a monitoring point and educational post for tourists looking to learn more about the periodic outbreaks and how the community deals with them. A well-respected local conservation leader, when asked about the program’s impacts said:

“We know that the science says that Acanthaster outbreaks are too many and too big to eradicate by hand, but this is a social program just as much as it is an ecological one. We are training local young men that in order to be respected in their community, they need to have an idea of what is going on in their local reefs, and they need to know how to intervene if there is a problem. There was a period where we saw massive outbreaks here. Locals expressed an urge to respond, and Reef Gardeners gave them that way, but in doing so it also spread knowledge, learning, and awareness.”

Another villager said the following about village empowerment in reef management: “we saw these crown of thorns starfish killing our reefs and we acted. Nobody stopped us, we did it ourselves.”

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An NGO worker with the BioRock Programme holds up a wire nameplate that tourists to Pemuteran can buy. These are placed underwater where corals grow on them, aided by an electrical charge which enhances the rate of growth.

Saving Indonesia’s reefs

In the co-managed MPAs in Indonesia that I visited between 2012 and 2015, 83% of the locals that I surveyed felt that their livelihoods were linked to reef health and conservation. This opinion spanned age, economic sector, and job description.

Nearly every respondent spoke of reef systems as synonymous with livelihoods.

“Without reefs, I could never have earned enough to buy my hotel,” said Ketut, a hotel owner in Pemuteran who has a newborn, two children, and a small hotel with three rooms.

“My father was a fisherman. He would make [1 dollar] a day selling fish to market, and my mother sold salt. I made [20-30 dollars] a week giving sunset tours on my father’s fishing boat, I saved, and built this hotel.”

Stories like this were common in co-managed MPAs. Ketut continued, “without these reefs people like you would not come. Without these reefs, I would earn a dollar a day like my father did.”

Indonesian reefs are benefiting from the actions of local communities who are innovating and fighting for the future of their reefs.


Dr Kelly Heber Dunning has a PhD in Natural Resources and Environmental Policy from Massachusetts Institue of Technology. As Visiting Research Scientist in Ecosystem Services with the MIT Science Impact Collaborative where she spent three years researching marine protected areas in Southeast Asia funded by a U.S. Fulbright scholarship.

This research will be released as a book in 2017 titled Communities of Coral: an Ecological and Institutional Analysis of Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity Conservation in Southeast Asia, published by Anthem Press.

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One thought on “Guest Post – Kelly Heber Dunning: Locally Managed Marine Protected Areas in Indonesia. Helping local people and ecosystems

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