Indonesia is one of the wealthiest nations in Asia, in terms of natural resources. But environmentalists say the country is experiencing severe environmental destruction, often in its national parks and preserves. A successful conservation effort on Sulawesi Island - 2,000 kilometers northeast of Jakarta - has received the prestigious Tourism for Tomorrow award from British Airways.
Bunaken National Park is a cluster of five tropical islands surrounded by coral reefs in the nutrient-rich currents of the Sulawesi (Celebes) Sea. The Indonesian marine park, which was created 20 years ago, is home to a half-dozen villages, whose 30,000 inhabitants subsist primarily on fishing.
"We were not actually planning to come here, originally, but came down from the Philippines, the diving was so good," said Tina Melson, a scuba diver from Britain who arrived in Bunaken four years ago with her partner, Nigel. "People were friendly. The environment is beautiful here. We just ended up staying."
Smitten by the walls of coral and the schools of colorful fish, Tina and Nigel built a small scuba-diving operation in several thatched huts under the palm trees a few meters from the water.
The operation did well as divers from Asia and Europe came to see what experts say is one of the most biologically diverse ocean environments in the world.
But several years ago dive operators and the villagers began to notice a dramatic drop in fish populations. The problem was that fishermen were using cyanide and explosives to stun fish, making them easy to catch alive and sell to restaurants around Asia.
Tina says the villagers and dive operators approached park officials with their concerns. "Unfortunately, their boats and engines were not in a state to patrol, so we were using the dive boats in the evening to start off with, but we had an official on board," she explained.
With help from the U.S. Agency for International Development, they began lobbying the Indonesian government and established a commission that took over managing the park from the national agency based in Jakarta, 2,000 kilometers away.
Mark Erdman, a marine life researcher who is the USAID coordinator for the project, says the commission established a patrol system that includes park rangers, water police, and villagers.
"And to fund that patrol system," he explained, "we have put into place a decentralized entrance-fee system, which was a first of its kind in Indonesia, whereby the revenues generated by the entrance fee system, instead of running to the national coffers in Jakarta, remain with the park, with the co-management board."
Nearly one-third of the fee revenue is returned to the villages in grants for community projects.
The group also discovered there were 18 types of fishing zones in the park, which confused everyone. They were reduced to three zones, one were traditional line fishing is allowed, one where diving is allowed, and a third zone where no activity is permitted.
Mr. Erdman says the local fishermen were consulted as the new zones were drawn up, so they are respected.
The group also promotes conservation awareness by giving scholarships and books to schoolchildren. And the dive operators try to employ villagers at their resorts.
Mr. Erdman says that in just three years the new measures have brought significant improvements. "The majority of bomb fishing and cyanide fishing within the park has been stopped," he said. "And with that we have seen a tremendous increase in the overall status of the resource."
Mr. Erdman says in the first year under the local management, the coral cover on the park's reefs increased by 11 percent.
Dive operators such as Ms. Melson say there are also more fish. "What we have found is the areas where there is not fishing now, there seems to be more fish than there was before," she said. "And this causes an over-spill into the zones where they [villagers] can fish."
Ms. Melson says the patrols have helped, but equally important is that the local people see benefits from the program. "They have got to want to conserve their own area," she said. "But they have got to see that they get something from it as well, a way to live."
Outside funding is due to expire at the end of the year, but Mr. Erdman believes that revenue from park fees, which has tripled since the program began, will sustain the effort. He says the program has been successful because all the stakeholders are involved and see the benefits of working together to preserve the source of their different livelihoods.