Indonesia poses a major challenge for environmental conservation. It is an archipelago of over 10,000 islands, the citizenry are relatively poor, the central government is extremely weak and corrupt, and yet it is home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the world, under constant pressure for exploitation. For these reasons, Indonesia has been a focal point for major international conservation groups — the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the World Wildlife Fund all have major operations in the country.

I recently returned from a nearly month-long trip to Indonesia, where I had the opportunity to meet with many of the people in the conservation community who have been instrumental in the formation of Indonesia’s marine protected areas (MPAs). My appreciation for the complexity and difficulty of their work grew enormously. It is one thing as an academic to discuss environmental policy (even with lots of real-world examples), and another to get a sense of the struggles from people who confront them firsthand.

The efforts by the Nature Conservancy to turn Komodo National Park into a model of sustainable development are particularly fascinating, given the complexity of the undertaking. Komodo, as many know, is famous for its Komodo Dragons, but its underwater environments are virtually unrivaled (in fact, Raja Ampat and Komodo have the greatest concentrations of marine biodiversity on the planet). Before the Nature Conservancy began its work, blast fishing was common throughout the region and responsible for decimating the underwater ecosystems. The tourist infrastructure was in disrepair, the local inhabitants had few economic opportunities, and there was very little constructive engagement with the government.

This all changed in 1995 when the Nature Conservancy partnered with the Indonesian government to revamp all aspects of the park. The strategy the Conservancy implemented for expanding economic opportunities for the local inhabitants, while at the same time preserving and restoring the immense biodiversity, was essentially threefold:

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  1. No-take zones for fishing
    These are enforced by floating ranger stations, in order to allow the reefs to regenerate and allow for sustainable fish populations. The rangers carry weapons and, unfortunately, there have been violent exchanges with poachers who refuse to honor the protected areas. The efforts have been largely successful, however, and the reefs and fish populations are making a major comeback.
  2. A system of concession fees for tourist operators
    These were established in order to help fund park maintenance and provide local communities with an additional revenue stream. This has been crucial to making the park economically sustainable, but again, it hasn’t been easy. Some tour operators are refusing to pay the concession, which threatens the entire arrangement, and efforts are underway to get the government to enforce the law.
  3. Increasing ecotourism and opportunities for alternative livelihoods
    In addition to the construction of additional tourist infrastructure, efforts are underway to provide economic opportunities using aquaculture and fishing outside of the protected areas. Discussions are ongoing concerning the appropriate scale and footprint of these operations.

The Komodo project is still a work in progress, and its ultimate success is not guaranteed. In exchange for severe restrictions on resource use, the local people expect a lot in return, and do not hesitate to express their impatience or frustration. (One thing that struck me throughout my trip was how it is mostly wealthy foreigners like me who have the opportunity to experience the natural wealth of Indonesia, while the locals rarely get the chance to travel, let alone go scuba diving.) As with all attempts at economic development in isolated and poor areas of the world, change is slow and ensuring an equitable distribution of economic benefits is difficult.

So what are some of the lessons from the Komodo experience?

While we in the developed world largely take for granted basic law and order, establishing enforceable rules is a necessary precondition for conservation in many parts of the world. Even if property rights are not ultimately set up for the purpose of promoting private ownership, they still must be established, along with clear rules as to the allowable uses of resources.

In the case of Komodo, the Indonesian government clarified its right to declare certain marine areas off-limits to fishing and backed this up with law enforcement. Just as important, if we want to limit direct access to biological resources for local populations, we need to provide the people with alternative forms of economic development. This is not only fair, but the only strategy that has the potential to permanently align their interests in the direction of long-term conservation.

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The local inhabitants may well care about biodiversity, but their first priority is improving their standard of living.