Most of my work in the Coral Triangle has focused on the Philippines, Indonesia, and Timor Leste. I had not comprehensively delved into the challenges of conservation in the Melanesian countries, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. At the CI conference, I had the great fortune to meet some conservation champions from Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands that are celebrities of conservation. I will tell you about one of these participants, George Aigoma, whom I had the great opportunity to get to know over the four days at the conference.
George, fondly known as Pops, is an influencer. He has a manner of storytelling that is simple and direct, though not concise. He makes simple points, and reiterates them several times throughout his monologues.
George has had incredible success expanding the reach of CBNRM in Papua New Guinea. He is able to challenge the misperceptions coastal communities have about declining fish stocks. He shared a story about how one community thought the fish had just moved away due to bad luck brought onto a community.
One evening, enjoying dinner with Pops at a local Warung (Indonesian restaurant) Pops told me how he helps communities understand the need to preserve coastal resources. He uses an analogy of the annual yam harvest. Communities store their yams in three piles. One pile is for feasting and includes the best yams from the harvest. These can be saved for special occasions or used for trade. The second pile is for eating. These are the second-best yams from the harvest and are a staple in the local diet. The third pile is for seeds. The last pile consists of the least desirable yams, but communities know to save these for the next harvest. They know that if they do not conserve their supply and eat from the third pile, the harvest the following year will be smaller. Pops knows that the communities understand the need to conserve the yams, and discusses this simple custom with communities and relates it to fish stocks. “If the people can understand conserving the yams, then they can understand the need to preserve the fish too.”
Its stories like this that refresh my commitment to community based conservation. Learning about cultural nuances and meeting people who can convey the imperative for resource management through simple messages are the change makers. Pops is a proud man who has worked tirelessly to support conservation in Papua New Guinea. He is well respected by the development community and coastal communities alike. He is a rare champion who is making change in a context that is incredibly challenging. Communities in Papua New Guinea have tenure, and that makes achieving agreements on protected areas incredibly challenging because everyone in the community must agree. Conservationists must be adept at mitigating conflict because there can be tensions among clans. It is a different environment for conservation, challenging, and a bit lawless.
It was an incredible opportunity to get to know Pops and his protégé Maidu at the conference. There were many fascinating participants doing incredible work in the region, Pops is just one of the many inspiring people I got to know.