Facilitating Community-Driven Conservation and Strengthening Local Cultural Institutions in Asmat and the Greater Lorentz Lowlands, Papua Province, Indonesia

Asmat man dancing, ©John Burke Burnett IPCA has worked extensively in the Asmat area within and around Lorentz National Park and World Heritage Site in southwestern Papua, Indonesia.  IPCA has been working with Asmat leaders through their community organizations since 1999. Our program has already had significant conservation results that include stopping destructive logging and fishing operations. IPCA works as a facilitator to community-owned and community-driven projects that strengthen local awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy forest, freshwater, and marine ecosystems, and provide tools and training to empower those communities to manage their biodiversity resources.

Living in one of the world’s most pristine tropical rainforest areas, and depending on natural resources for almost all their needs, the Asmat people retain most of their cultural traditions. The woodcarving of the Asmat is renowned around the world, and the integrity of this art is tied to cultural cycles and festivals. Biodiversity and culture are closely linked in Asmat. Indeed, in many ways Asmat culture and local biodiversity are two sides of the same coin: if the forests are destroyed, traditional Bisj pole raising, ©George Steinmetzculture will lose its moorings. Conversely, if their society loses its traditional culture and systems for managing natural resources, the forests aren’t likely to remain intact. Adapting culture to new realities is important and inevitable, but the loss of key core values can have tragic consequences for people and the environment. Because of this, IPCA’s program is geared to achieving conservation in ways that also support elements of Asmat culture and society that the communities themselves identify as important.

IPCA’s program has enhanced strong local support for conservation in Asmat, resulting in significant successes for conservation – including rejection of a 150,000 hectare clear-cut logging operation and a highly destructive fishing operation.

IPCA’s approach in Asmat…

Our approach is to work closely with community leaders and representatives to understand their needs and aspirations, and to identify and support common shared goals. This dialogue is used to forge a common strategy and agenda that is built from the grassroots. IPCA is a facilitator for projects, not the implementer. Because priorities and activities are determined in consultation with the community representatives who also implement them, IPCA’s approach establishes strong self-reliance and community initiative.

Yufen Biakai (center), Chairman of LMAA and Donatus Pombai (right), LMAA leader, ©IPCAIPCA works through the Asmat Traditional Council (Lembaga Musyawarah Adat Asmat, or LMAA) and Sub-Councils (Forum Adat Rumpun, or FAR; click here to see a PDF map of FAR areas , 336KB). Our goal is to empower local communities to actively and sustainably manage their natural resources at a time of rapid change, when these globally important ecosystems are increasingly threatened by destructive resource extraction. To carry out that vision, IPCA facilitates community-driven conservation efforts by providing tools and training to build local capacity, document and map natural, social, and cultural resources, resource-use monitoring, and environmental education.

New tools in Asmat…

Basic information about the biodiversity of the Asmat region is very fragmented and incomplete. Although it is easy to guess how many “outsiders” perceive of Asmat resources in terms of economic value, local cultural, economic and social values are much more challenging to pinpoint. In addition, although the biodiversity of Asmat is a major global conservation priority area, the flora and fauna has hardly been documented -- no significant scientific surveys have ever been conducted there.

Furthermore, little is known about local indigenous knowledge regarding species and habitats, traditional medicines, the collection of wild plants and animals for food, or the materials harvested for Asmat carvings. There are probably gender differences in the social valuation of biological resources and habitats, but about this nothing is known. This information is critical to successful conservation, but requires a Members of FAR-Joirat with Neville Kemp, IPCA Papua Program Manager, ©IPCAconcerted, integrated effort to gather it and generate it in a form that can be used to illustrate the social and economic dependence of the Asmat on the “natural capital” value of their biodiversity.

IPCA is working with other partners such as the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) to combine conventional methodologies for documenting biodiversity with ethnobiological and participatory social, cultural, and economic assessments. This approach, a locally-adapted form of CIFOR’s Multidisciplinary Landscape Assessment (MLA), will identify socially critical habitat (used for hunting, fishing, and other activities) and sacred forest areas. MLA is also a tool to generate greater awareness among the Asmat regarding the importance of their natural resources, and to facilitate understanding by external stakeholders of the importance of biological resources to local people in terms of their livelihood and culture.

The Multidisciplinary Landscape Assessment is an innovative methodology developed by CIFOR that helps reveal why different aspects of the landscape and biodiversity matter to the local people, how much it matters and to whom. It also takes careful note of how both men and women value different aspects of the landscape. MLA uses participatory surveys, GPS measurements, biological assessments, and mapping to assess critical forest, freshwater, and marine habitat from biological, social, and cultural perspectives.

Members of FAR-Joirat consult on community mapping in Asmat, ©IPCAFor example, communities identify forest areas that are important for hunting, sago cultivation, or woodcarving resources, but also areas that, based on Asmat cultural traditions, are considered sacred areas. These core areas, combined with biological information, will be used to generate a map of critical habitat areas. This map will be used in dialogue with the government to define spatial development planning in ways that are consistent with the important cultural and biological priorities in Asmat.

The programmatic collaboration between IPCA, LMAA and FARs in Asmat aims to help stakeholders make appropriate decisions about the development, management and conservation of their natural resources. The primary objective of the survey is to reveal local perceptions of natural resources as a tool for their empowerment as owners of those resources. At the same time, the results of the surveys will help other stakeholders (government, conservation and community-based NGOs, private sector) to more clearly understand Asmat priorities. This will also build greater appreciation among adat communities of the economic and social value of their ecosystems and the biodiversity within them.

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