THOUSANDS OF TOURISTS come from all over the world to blow bubbles in Raja Ampat. But there are people who have lived here since long before all this, people who have made their lives from Raja’s rich waters and continue to do so. These people have seen huge changes, some of which may have affected their lives and livelihoods as well.
IS RAJA’S STATUS WORKING FOR THE PEOPLE?
In 2004 Raja Ampat was listed as a marine protected area as well as the world’s first manta sanctuary. Local residents are still allowed to fish, although fishing species like sharks, mantas, turtles, and dugong is strictly prohibited, along with certain destructive fishing methods like dynamite fishing. With a steady influx of visitors, brought into the area largely by the the region’s incredible and now famous diving, the tourism industry is growing at a steady rate. As eco-resorts, homestays, and liveaboards slowly establish themselves here, they seem to be opening up a wide range of new job opportunities for people as boat captains, dive guides, construction workers and others.
From most peoples’ perspectives all these things sound like an instant win – protected waters and lots of new jobs. Winner! But it would be naive to think that everyone would perceive these new changes as a positive thing, specifically those whose lives are changing. After all, the people of Raja have been living here, in more or less the same way, for generations – making their living from what they’ve harvested from the land and sea – only to watch it all that change in less than a decade.
It recently occurred to me that maybe they don’t like sharing their fishing grounds with divers, or having tourists wandering around their villages as if they were some kind of attraction at Disney World’s Epcot Center. I decided it was time to stop just assuming everything is peachy and find out for myself.
I figured that asking some local fisherman would be the best way to get a feeling for how the local people see the evolving situation in Raja, so I set out to find some fishermen on a small sandy island called Arborek. I chose Arborek for several reasons. The first is that it is still very much a fishing village, which means lots of fishermen, and the second is that it has become quite popular with tourists. To me, it seemed the perfect place to explore some of the questions that I had bouncing around in my head.
ANSWERS IN ARBOREK
I didn’t have to walk far (about two metres) down one of Arborek’s well manicured, white-sand pathways before I came across a bare-chested man wearing an old, weathered pair of athletic shorts, as most of the fishermen in Raja do. I introduced myself and shook his hand and I noticed how powerful, calloused, and scarred his hands were. I assumed this strength had developed as a result of a lifetime of wrestling unwilling tuna and other large pelagics into his small boat. While physically he appeared to be in his fifties, his eyes looked like those of a much older man, with that thick glaze, characteristic of too much sun. That being said, I’m sure he could spot fish better than any electronic fish finder. His name was Yance, and he was indeed a fisherman and had been one for nearly 40 years.