Between the Great Barrier Reef and the island archipelagos of Melanesia and  South East Asia, you will find what is known as the Coral Triangle. A 5.7 million square kilometre marvel, home to some of the richest marine life and office of The Sea Women of Melanesia. Hundreds and thousands of tourists flock each year to see this underwater phenomenon for themselves. It is estimated that the revenue generated by nature-based tourism in the region in 2013-2014 was $25 billion, and the industry is expected to be worth more than $204billion in 20 years. Not to mention, the overall number of tourists visiting Asia and the Pacific is set to double to more than 530 million across the same period and it is already home to a major fishing industry. Surging tourism, human population and consequentially waste levels are an increasing threat the Coral Triangle faces today and will continue battling tomorrow.

If you’ve had the chance to scuba dive recently or have watched the 2017 documentary Chasing Coral, you will be familiar with the severe bleaching of corals resulting from climate change, overfishing and pollution. Since 2009 alone, around 14% of corals have disappeared. If nothing changes, it is estimated that by 2034 there will be severe bleaching events every year and by the end of the century every reef in the world will bleach.

On the bright side, coral reefs can improve if their marine environment is preserved. The Sea Women Initiative, run by the Coral Sea Foundation, promotes the restauration of reefs and creates no-fishing zones across the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. The initiative not only proactively maintains the sustainability of these areas but also raises awareness of its ecological and social value, promotes gender equity and provides support in training and humanitarian aid to partner villages. The Sea Women of Melanesia training program consists of empowering indigenous women by educating them in the skills required to adopt active roles in raising community awareness and monitoring marine protected areas on their own coral reefs, as well as providing any tools or resources needed. The Sea Women train in marine science, coral reef ecology, practice reef survey techniques and also learn to dive.

To date, over 30 women have been trained through the program and it has led to more than 20 new marine reserve areas being proposed and surveyed in high conservation-value locations in the Coral Triangle marine biodiversity hotspot. Keeping in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals of Gender Equality, Sustainable Communities, Climate Action and Life Below Water, it is no surprise the non-profit group have been named Champions of the Earth
the UN’s highest environmental award in the Inspiration and Action category.

“Having a woman in the community who can advocate for the marine reserve process and marine conservation, in a local language, is important to get the initial messages out about the importance of marine protected areas. There can be no conservation work done in these countries without explicit recognition of indigenous culture.”  - Andy Lewis, executive director of the Coral Sea FoundationThe combination of indigenous knowledge with science keeps communities engaged while preserving marine preserved areas in the most sustainable and efficient way. Furthermore, they are also defying indigenous conventions about a woman’s role in her household, community and society. “When you train a woman, you train a society,” said Evangelista Apelis, a Sea Woman and co-director of the Sea Women programme based in Papua New Guinea. “We're trying to educate women, get women on board, so they can then go back and make an impact in their own families and their society as well".     
                                            
And if that wasn’t enough, as Naomi Longa, team leader for the Sea Women in the West New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea, says, by preserving marine environments and life they are ensuring there will be food for the future generation as “some of the species that are living in those marine reserves may be the only species left when our future generations are born".

 

March 25, 2022 — Alex Maxwell

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