Ecotourism in Papua: opportunities, challenges, and the way forward
by Like Wijaya, Founder of Papua Expeditions / cv. Ekonexion
Variously known as Papua, West Papua, or Irian Jaya, the western half of the subcontinental island of New Guinea, administered by the Republic of Indonesia since 1962, is one of the last great tropical wilderness areas left on Earth. At 421,981 km², Papua is about three times larger than England and roughly half the size of Texas. Most of this land surface is still heavily forested, and fuses with contiguous forests in the adjacent country of Papua New Guinea (PNG), into the largest expanse of frontier forest away from the Amazon and the Congo Basin. Papua is home to the world’s richest reefs, functional rainforests still aligned to the grand scale at which nature operates, tropical glaciers set in some of the finest alpine scenery this side of the Himalaya, violently enrapturing birds of paradise, flightless man-sized cassowaries, delightful crowned-pigeons, birdwing butterflies, and marsupial tree-kangaroos, all set against an amazing cultural backdrop. And with such an array of natural and cultural delights to experience, it would appear all the more puzzling that the territory is not simply knee-deep in tourists, but in fact remains one of the least traveled outbacks of our planet. Visitation statistics are completely unavailable for Papua, but the average annual grand total of foreign tourists over the past five-year period (2005-2009) safely lies in the range 1,500-7,500, and is believed to have gradually increased during this period from around the lower end toward the upper end of the scale.
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Map of New Guinea, showing the nearly perpendicular border at 141° longitude, deviating only at the “Fly River Bulge”, with Indonesian Papua to the west and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to the east.
Whereas PNG enjoyed a comparatively long-standing involvement with tourism, restrictive government regulations and political instability caused the vast natural and cultural wonders of Papua only recently to begin opening up for the outside world. The proclamation of Special Autonomy for Papua in November 2001, and the profound, controversial but ongoing administrative partitioning of the territory from 2003 onward, were the primary catalysts toward increased economic investment in the restive territory. Hence much of the permanent tourism infrastructure meanwhile having been deployed, essentially revolves around hotel development in the provincial capitals and regency towns, driven largely by the demands of business travelers and government officials.
The number of permanent, private up-market accommodation facilities in Papua’s rural or remoter areas can still be counted on two hands, and these operations invariably are (at least partly) foreign-owned, perhaps indicating that Papua does remain outside the comfort zone of most domestic tourism investors. Regrettably, however, very few of these lodgings bring added value in terms of genuine ecotourism and biodiversity conservation considerations, in the way that they integrate conservation targets, practices and principles into the product’s design, planning, development, and management. The only notable exception at this point in time appears to be the Misool Eco Resort (MER) in a marine environment within the fabled Raja Ampat archipelago off Sorong (see Figure 1). Currently, Papua thus lacks even a single quality lodging product, close enough to a terrestrial area of high biodiversity value, for the operation to be able to offer a rewarding nature experience “at its doorstep” as well as to exercise its full capacity to enhance the area’s long-term conservation outlook.
Following improved understanding and significant promotion effort of the Raja Ampat Islands as the global epicenter of marine biodiversity, live-aboard vessels based and operating in central Indonesia, from 2003 onward started to redirect their attention toward the archipelago, and currently there are in excess of 30 such mobile operations plying Raja Ampat waters on an opportunistic or seasonal basis.
There are hundreds of local travel agencies in Papua, most of which focus exclusively on retail of domestic air tickets, while a growing number also offers general cultural or sight-seeing tours as well as tribal experiences. The internet is rapidly transforming conventional business ties between such inbound operators on the one hand and the international travel agents or outbound operators on the other hand. Increasingly, the former are now competing directly on the internet for the discerning traveler's favor. A positive evolution, which can be expected to engender significant redistribution of revenue toward the actual host country, as well as help reduce Papua’s observable vulnerability in terms of shifting overseas market interest in the event of temporal local unrest or an increasingly adverse political situation.
While local and international conservation organizations alike have long been talking about community-based ecotourism as a sustainable development strategy in the context of protected area management, no such community-owned and –managed products have come to the fore in a lasting and meaningful way so to become a model for similar initiatives elsewhere. This is not to say of course, that there are no local guides who work hard to build understanding and trust within their communities, but simply that the road ahead is long and that, for reasons discussed below, community-based ecotourism is exceedingly difficult to implement in Papua (see also Community receptiveness). When one closely scrutinizes the few so-called community-based tourism initiatives in Papua, one invariably will have to conclude that they practically are in the hands of just a few elite people, who control the community by taking advantage of their privileged status within the tribal hierarchy, thereby look mostly after their own interests and those of their proxies, and create significant social unrest within broader segments of the community. As a direct consequence, the aggrieved then tend to respond by actively destroying the value of the tourism product (see also Community receptiveness).
Papua is home to a unique array of charismatic animals, including birdwing butterflies, marsupial tree-kangaroos, flightless cassowaries, majestic crowned-pigeons, and of course the nearly mythical birds of paradise: depicted here is an adult male Superb Bird of Paradise Lophorina superba, a widespread denizen of mid-montane forested habitats on New Guinea.
Thus tourism generally, and ecotourism in particular, essentially are just beginning to emerge in Papua, and hence there is considerable prospect at this early stage, to arrive at an integrated regional tourism development strategy that truly embraces and expands upon biodiversity conservation priorities as well as real and sustainable community development needs. The current restricted tourist flow evidently implies severe limitations in terms of securing broad acceptance, both among the various levels of civil governance as among all stakeholders recognized in the customary, so-called Adat decision-making processes, of tourism as a worthwhile alternative and long-term development option as opposed to incentive-rich but short-term and deleterious logging, mining or plantation development interests. Encouragingly, indigenous communities themselves generally are receptive toward tourism development on ancestral land, of course on the normal and expected condition that they reciprocally benefit from it (see also Community receptiveness). Moreover, environmental problems tend to be still comparatively uncomplicated in rural or remote Papua, where human population densities are low, customary proprietors tend to exhibit positive conservation attitudes, and major threats invariably stem from the “outside” destructive business interests already mentioned above. Carefully planned and implemented ecotourism may thus reasonably be expected to contribute significantly to both the well-being of indigenous people as the conservation of the natural habitats under their custody. First and foremost, ecotourism can be expected to create dignifying and long term employment opportunities where there may otherwise well be either none at all or only short-term ones revolving around deleterious resource extraction like logging and mining. Jobs from ecotourism enable secluded communities living inside biodiversity hotspots to procure basic goods and services that cannot be fulfilled from a subsistence way of living, thereby directly reducing their reliance on extraction of biodiversity products as trade commodities (e.g. sea cucumber, shark fin, sandalwood, medicinal or ornamental plants, parrots and many other animals caught in the wild for the pet-trade). Second, ecotourism can be expected to generate significant and long-term spin-offs ranging from the local organization of food supply, handicrafts and souvenirs, to the provisioning of vocational training and environmental education. Thirdly, the facilitation of cultural exchange through ecotourism, while evidently of a more abstract nature, can also be expected to be beneficial to the social and political empowerment of indigenous communities who, having evolved in isolation, on average, remain comparatively introverted and commonly experience severe identity crisis following their often abrupt incorporation into the modern world. Finally, in considering the advisability or feasibility of ecotourism, both as a sustainable community development and conservation tool, it may be worthwhile to explore which alternative sustainable income-generating economic activities can be expected to yield similar conservation returns and trade-offs. It turns out that, except perhaps for certain aquacultures in coastal environments, none are generally available. Semi-natural breeding and trade of birdwings Ornithoptera has been pursued under charitable framework as a sustainable community development strategy in the remote Arfak Mountains near Manokwari (see Figure 1) but failed completely, despite adequate financial resources allocated, and has been abandoned.
In discussing the opportunities, challenges, and future of ecotourism in Papua, it is useful to briefly touch upon the philosophy and definition of ecotourism because perceptions of opportunities and challenges, and hence of success or failure ultimately, will vary as the concept of ecotourism narrows or broadens. Indeed, the term "ecotourism" still covers many overtones, and in the absence of an independent national certification scheme in Indonesia, just about anybody presently can claim to be operating an environmentally and socially responsible travel operation in Papua. To too many, ecotourism is merely synonymous with "nature travel", which more often than not entails significant negative environmental and social impacts. Yet to a growing number, ecotourism is a deeply social and entrepreneurial approach to achieving long-term conservation goals. For the purposes of this article, set in the specific context of Papua, a narrow definition of ecotourism is adopted, encompassing the following five critical tenets:
 Locally-owned, in declining order of preference, community-, family- or partner-owned;
 Integrates biodiversity conservation targets, practices and principles throughout product design, planning, development, and management;
 Small-scale, strictly observes carrying-capacity of a given environment;
 Empowers local communities, economically, socially, culturally and politically;
 Adheres to sound business practice.
Not all readers will necessarily agree to all five tenets, and it should be noted that genuine ecotourism operations prove exceedingly difficult to find in Papua if assessed against the local-ownership-criterion.
That ecotourism is inextricably linked to biodiversity and the struggle to secure its long-term survival, follows straightforwardly out of the sheer enjoyment discerning ecotourists draw from visiting untouched natural environments and getting up-close and personal there with charismatic flag-ship species, in the knowledge of course that their visit actively helps safeguarding all upon which their eyes feast. Carefully planned and implemented ecotourism can be expected to yield similar conservation outcomes to public or charitable conservation projects but without affecting public or charitable budgets. As an entirely complementary form of conservation investment, ecotourism is actively challenging the way conventional conservation is being done. While ecotourism initially evolved within the industry as a reaction to the bad emanations of especially mass tourism, the not-for-profit world quickly realized its potential as a conservation and sustainable development tool and has kept busy ever since devising so-called “innovative entrepreneurial” conservation projects, thereby elaborately flirting with accepted legal boundaries of sound business practice and fair competition, whilst on top developing an unhealthy tendency to stigmatize the private ecotourism sector as being plainly profit-motivated. There is a living and growing concern among perhaps especially local ecotourism operators and service providers to actively reclaim ecotourism as an economic activity.
This paper focuses on some of the most fundamental problems that the organization of ecotourism faces at the level of the small or micro-company in Papua, and further concentrates on the important linkages between the ecotourism industry and charitable conservation. As in many other areas of the developing world, no doubt ecotourism investment here suffers greatly from a lack of political vision, good institutions or proper law enforcement as well as corruption or domestic inflation. However, at a time when Special Autonomy for Papua is widely being evaluated as failing due to rampant local institutional corruption (see e.g. Widjojo et al. 2008), there is not much scope to write about what local and regional governments ideally could signify or achieve for ecotourism, and hence these widespread problems associated with weak governance will only be touched upon where strictly necessary to illustrate a point relevant to ecotourism in Papua.
Rapidly being overtaken by the 21st century, Papua’s tribal societies — among the last to survive on Earth — are now being exposed to immense outside pressure to develop the natural resources upon which their livelihoods ultimately depend: depicted here is an elderly woman of the Dani people, who cultivated the 80 km long and up to 20 km wide Grand Baliem upland valley in the heart of Papua’s Snow Mountains, completely unnoticed by the outside world until as recently as 1938.
Who owns paradise in Papua?
Ownership of natural resources is complex in an autonomous Papua where customary property rights on reefs, forests and natural resources, in practice, increasingly are being acknowledged and reinstated following more than 30 years of centralized state rule in Indonesia. In theory at least, the balance of power would appear to be tipped toward the indigenous communities. Traditional societies certainly may appear more receptive to long-term conservation goals through ecotourism than are governments evincing poor institutions. After all, at least throughout recorded historical times, indigenous Papuans have been guarding and sustaining functional reefs and forests — and their globally significant patterns of biodiversity — through unwritten Adat customary laws and traditional natural resource tenure systems governed by moderation and temporary abstinence. Rapidly being overtaken by the 21st century, these tribal societies — among the last to survive on Earth — are now being exposed to immense outside pressure to develop the natural resources upon which their livelihoods ultimately depend. Unfortunately, adherence to customary law, ownership and tenure of natural resources slackens as integration into the market-oriented cash economy accelerates rapidly. Today, communities often no longer principally oppose resource extraction in itself but merely expect to reciprocally benefit from it. All this opens the door toward deleterious exploitation of Papua's rich natural resources at an unprecedented scale, whereby indigenous communities by and large still are being used as mere rubber stamps and — as rural poor — invariably end up paying the highest bill: that of losing their livelihoods. It may safely be concluded that the practical reinstatement of customary property rights over natural resources in Papua, in the absence of appropriate political and socio-economic empowerment processes, hitherto overwhelmingly has served the interests of destructive resource users like miners, loggers and plantation developers. In no small part this is also because conservationists and their donor agencies have been slow to realize the opportunities, let alone seize them, and more fundamentally perhaps, essentially still are unwilling to work and connect directly with customary proprietors and indigenous communities. Meanwhile, however, the legal status of protected areas within Indonesia’s National Conservation Network in Papua increasingly is being hollowed out. In fact, several lines of evidence (a discussion of which lies beyond the scope of this contribution) indicate that a classic state-centered approach to conservation in Papua may not be tenable, and the potential of reaching deadlock within the short- to medium-term future should not be underestimated.
Tourism investors in Papua do tend to assess customary ownership by indigenous people as the primary source of contractual incompleteness, and more often than not, this proves the ultimate deal-breaker in a tedious negotiation process. Reefs and forests can be owned communally by all members of a village community but more commonly are being subdivided between the various kinship groups that make up a community. Known as clans or bands, these kinship groups may internally be structured hierarchically, and further subdivide ownership accordingly between the clan members. Unfortunately, customary ownership rarely proves to be as simple as perceived upon first assessment, because when an opportunity arises to “capitalize” on tribal land, informants will readily claim to be holding exclusive rights while they in fact may not. Conversely, new players may come to the fore, out of the blue, trying to seize a piece of the cake. Original inhabitants, ancient migrants, and indeed any community occupying a given sector for a prolonged period of time, all are in the game. Who actually owns the land in question thereby almost becomes of secondary importance, subject largely to exactly how far each of the opposing parties are willing to go in order to pursue their interests. Governments and tribal organizations alike have shown little interest in interfering with such potentially hazardous matters, which profoundly challenge community cohesion. While a few notorious and high-profile cases eventually have been settled by court of law rulings, the list of unresolved disputes seems endless. In short, the ecotourism entrepreneur is virtually out there on his own, with little or no institutional leverage to expect in the event of an arising dispute.
Thus, tribal groups in Papua effectively control vast reefs and forests, and when complying with destructive resource users, exercise the observable capacity to irreversibly destroy globally significant patterns of biodiversity. In order to secure the long-term viability of their product, private ecotourism entrepreneurs in Papua must convince customary proprietors and communities to terminate existing and not to engage in novel resource extraction projects. To do so, it is necessary to generate and uphold immediately effective cash-generating alternatives, enabling at least the proprietors to procure basic goods and services that cannot be fulfilled from a subsistence way of living. Inspired on the concept of Payment for Ecological Services (PES), whereby a voluntary, contingent transaction is made between buyers and providers of a well-defined environmental service or a land-use likely to produce that service (Wunder 2007), this may both most ethically as conveniently be regulated through formalized leasing of reefs and forests from the customary proprietors directly. However, for most small and micro-companies that typically deliver ecotourism products and services, this requires seriously risk-taking behavior under the current market conditions in Papua.
Indigenous communities generally are receptive toward tourism development on ancestral land, on the normal and expected condition of course, that they reciprocally benefit from it. They indeed are well aware of the potential financial benefits, besides often priding themselves even in being able to accommodate guests, perhaps especially foreign tourists. However, local communities often lack even basic notions about the concept and philosophy of ecotourism in particular, perhaps especially its incompatibility with destructive resource use. This is entirely understandable as governments, policy-makers, conservation practitioners, and indeed most recreational nature travelers themselves, likewise don’t seem to grasp the far-stretching implications of the qualifier “eco”. From the perspective of the ecotourism entrepreneur, the paramount problem in facing communities is precisely that of being put on a par with destructive resource users, thus as profit-motivated outsiders seeking to develop a commodity on ancestral land. Hence in their demands for compensation, communities most often fail to assess that genuine ecotourism does not extract but in fact is committed to preserving the natural beauty of ancestral lands. Of course, it needs to be stressed that most communities will only have had prior experience in dealing with extractive resource users as miners, loggers, and plantation developers, and that the problem is at least partially rooted in the fact that the latter essentially took over the central role of governments in providing basic services and facilities. Having evolved from very closed societies, and considering the disastrous social and environmental track record of destructive resource users, there is a normal and expected degree of overall distrust against outsiders.
Just like any other activity, tourism has the observable potential to divide and create tensions among groups of relatively egalitarian indigenous people. In fact, there is considerable prospect for social unrest, the avoidance of which, while undoubtedly an important concern for the genuine ecotourism entrepreneur, is virtually impossible in the specific context of Papua with its usually structurally complex, perpetually divided, poorly schooled, and hence weakly empowered communities.
In its simplest form, a local village guide who is starting to make money from ecotourism on his own ancestral land, will soon be harassed by his extended family members, expecting to be fed and maintained (see e.g. Diamond 1997), as well as by neighboring customary proprietors, village leaders, and other members of the community, demanding a representative share of the proceeds. In addition, the local guide will need to take heed of the positions adopted by neighboring villages and the customary proprietors there as well. Because tribal societies mostly still lack functional political and social mechanisms to resolve simple problems quickly and peacefully, failure to comply to any of the above has the observable potential to destroy the value of the ecotourism product within a short time-frame and may even turn into a life-threatening situation for the guide in question and his family. These profound social problems are further being exacerbated by the overall extremely weak flow of tourists in Papua, whereby communities tend to exercise high pressure on each individual tourist or visiting group in order to reap as much financial benefits as possible from these scattered visits. Not uncommonly, this leads to uncomfortable or even awkward situations for the intrepid visitors themselves. Thus, the widespread perception that the use of local guides is beneficial because they are in the best position to make a difference is rather difficult to uphold here, and the collapse of many a community-based ecotourism initiative in Papua must be assessed against this backdrop. In any case, these Papuan realities are persistent and deeply-rooted, and anyone foolish enough to think that these can be changed given reasonable time and patience, is in for an ice-cold shower.
At the other end of the spectrum, the corporate ecotourism entrepreneur, in apportioning company shares, providing financial incentives in the form of PES-based leases of reefs and forests, or simply enrolling local workers, carefully must balance the diverse needs and aspirations of customary proprietors versus the community as a whole. During the initial development stages of an ecotourism product, it usually proves realistic only to provide incentives to the customary proprietors within a community while the obvious potential for dissatisfaction within broader segments of the community can be counteracted by the creation of dignifying employment opportunities. However, customary proprietors, while invariably enjoying a privileged position in ecotourism agreements, often are the first to free-ride from contractual responsibilities, thereby potentially dragging along the rest of the community into a mudslinging spasm of unrealistic claims. Surely, computer-typed legally-binding contracts can seem a little abstract to poorly schooled tribal people but the ugly part is that they also tend to be easily provoked and mislead by opportunistic third party interests. These can range from tourism investors attempting to take over an existing, successful ecotourism product, to destructive resource users seeking to develop the natural resources on which the product is based. Such temporary glitches are normal and expected when working with weakly empowered communities, and can usually be resolved through albeit tedious, open deliberation. However, there’s always the odd chance that things do get out of hand, and at least on one occasion, a reputable diving operation in Raja Ampat was burned down to the ground by dissatisfied local people but the underlying reasons were complex and doubtlessly extended beyond mere shortcomings in business management.
Indigenous Papuans, still intrinsically connected to the natural world around them, often possess an uncanny intimacy with the specialty component of biodiversity that allures overseas visitors. Their services as guides and general workers not only add quintessential couleur locale to a Papua experience but is a fundamental requirement of ecotourism in the light of its social responsibility. That so far no genuinely community-owned and managed ecotourism products have come to the fore in Papua in a lasting and meaningful way, painfully illustrates that indigenous communities still mostly lack the attitudes, skills and professionalism to manage their own products consistently, even given considerable outside assistance. For the same reasons, indigenous people largely fail to stream through and become employed in the tourism sector more generally. In fulfilling their social responsibility, ecotourism entrepreneurs in Papua hence also need to invest considerable time and resources into educating and training indigenous workers to successfully cater for tourists.
The competence and personality of tour guides constitute the prime determinants that “make” a trip for most participants. To appeal to a broad international public and increase positive impact locally, ecotourism requires especially skilled staff, combining on top of the usual range of social, hospitality, language and communication skills, an intimate practical field experience with scholarly knowledge on biodiversity. Such expert workers are virtually impossible to recruit in Papua or Indonesia more generally.
Unfortunately, local Indonesian companies are bureaucratically being discouraged from employing expert foreign labor under the pretext of domestic labor protection. On the other hand, poor law enforcement in Indonesia allows international travel operators and their adequately skilled foreign guides to operate opportunistically in Indonesia without adhering to basic immigration and labor laws. The gist is that while these foreign companies normally will be making use of local ground agents, albeit of varying legal plumage, the core guiding service unambiguously is being delivered on a commercial basis by a foreign expert, illegally engaged into working in Indonesia. The widespread practice negatively impacts the market position of the Indonesian tourism sector generally, and directly results in significant loss of revenue and tax income for the country. In addition, tolerating foreign companies to operate opportunistically in Papua and hence allowing them to gradually secure a certain market share, will increase the territory’s observable vulnerability as a tourism destination in the event of temporal local unrest or an increasingly adverse political situation, when these players will readily and equally opportunistically redirect their clientele to more conducive destinations.
Sound business practice
The 2007 Oslo Statement on Ecotourism called for sound business practices in the sector and recognized that the business of ecotourism can be as fragile and sensitive as the environments in which it occurs, especially since many ecotourism products are provided by micro or small enterprises. The foresight and investment of private ecotourism entrepreneurs is essential to achieving conservation goals through ecotourism, in partnership with protected area managers and local communities.
In Indonesia, however, a special breed of ecotourism outfits persists in the form of charitable foundations (called yayasan in Indonesian) that compete directly with the private sector by providing the same commercial ecotourism services as tour organization, guiding and lodging. Such "non-profit" organizations are often purposefully established and run by "creative" business(wo)men, who generally have very little to say about ecotourism, biodiversity or conservation, work with little transparency, recruit clients in the name of conservation and community development, and often even collect operational funds from mislead foreign donors in order to offset costs for their corporate responsibility. Their business as veiled travel operators can often readily be shown to constitute their core activity. Yet direct trading by a not-for-profit foundation is manifestly illegal in Indonesia since the enactment of Law No. 16 of 2001 regarding "Foundations" (see also The way forward). Moreover, the misuse of tax exemptions enables these "charities" to provide services well below economically viable market-fares, and this in turn undermines the genuine efforts of the private ecotourism world. Paradoxically, ecotourism companies are thus expected to implement ever more stringent industry standards, pursue costly certification, and generally uphold high levels of social and environmental responsibility, while also having to tolerate unfair competition from manifestly illegal charitable business constructions.
Equally detrimental to the social and environmental mission of ecotourism are the large number of so-called “free-lance” guides, local and foreign, touting about undeclared services on the internet’s travel advisory forums. Perhaps the most worrying part is the observation that anything that remotely smells toward promotion for a commercial indeed yet entirely legal business entity, categorically will be banned from these opinion-making travel forums, while touts who obey to no rule tend to be given full play. This may actually be symptomatic for a wider free-riding spasm in recreational nature travel, whereby individual responsibilities to help protect visited wild places tend to be elbowed aside as being a public task. Worryingly, tourism associations as well as global conservation actors disappoint in failing to open a constructive debate here and help spread genuine ecotourism’s universal message to consumers world-wide, namely that carefully choosing who one entrusts with organizing a travel experience, in no small part, can help to make a difference. Unfortunately, under these generally unconducive circumstances of consumer receptiveness, voluntary green tourism certification generally, and eco-certification in particular, cannot realistically be expected to make much headway.
It must be acknowledged that, in revising tax regulations for the tourism sector in 2008 (effective fiscal year 2009), the Yudhoyono-administration in Indonesia has done an excellent job in empowering and strengthening the sector’s small and micro-companies through the implementation of entirely reasonable novel taxation regimes. It also needs to be said of course that tax payers in Indonesia generally receive below par standards of basic government facilities as electricity, running water, telecommunication, or public transportation, the organization of which, as well as the still widespread practice of corruption, bring about considerable costs that need to be calculated as well. Nonetheless, all things considered, small and micro-companies in Indonesia couldn’t realistically ask for more conducive tax conditions. All the more reason then perhaps, for fraudulent charities and touts alike to finally get their act together and start complying to a basic rule of law. The good news in this respect is that the present world-wide economic impasse appears to demonstrate genuine ecotourism’s considerable resilience to adverse economic conditions, and that the touts are being hit harder. A crack-down on the illegal tourism practices outlined above is nonetheless desirable in order to scale up the efforts of ecotourism. As such, there is considerable prospect to significantly boost the Indonesian state budget and contribute to the development of its constituents within the short- to medium- term future.
The way forward
From all the above, it will be clear that securing and maintaining the long-term viability of an ecotourism product in Papua is a time-consuming, if not hair-tearing process, intrinsically connected to the diverse needs, aspirations and sometimes frustrations of indigenous communities. While these Papuan realities undoubtedly appear utterly discouraging to ecotourism investment, they may also engender innovative solutions that actively challenge the way conventional conservation is being done.
A for indigenous communities beneficial synergy may result from far-stretching collaboration between the private ecotourism sector and the not-for-profit conservation world, each with their own competences, responsibilities, duties, as well as restrictions or obligations, respectful of each other and applicable law. Both ecotourism entrepreneurs and conservationists are struggling to get their respective yet largely overlapping messages across to local communities. Both are keen on seeing ancestral lands and reefs inside biodiversity hotspots preserved and actively protected. Both are keen on seeing indigenous communities prosper and having their livelihoods sustained through wise natural resource management and best practices. Both are keen on seeing the sustainable economic value of biodiversity hotspots recognized and increased. In addition, ecotourism invariably constitutes the default type of tourism being recommended by international conservation agencies as a sustainable development tool in the context of protected area management. In short, ecotourism entrepreneurs and conservationists have a lot in common and would be natural partners if it weren’t that conservation organizations or their funding agencies tend to evince high aversion of commercial business entities and to perpetually relapse into conceptual or principal impediments to collaboration, whilst at the same time elaborately flirting with accepted legal boundaries of sound business practice and fair competition through so-called “innovative entrepreneurial” conservation projects.
The financial resources dedicated to global conservation actors in Papua have increased dramatically over the past decade to form a potentially formidable force for conservation. Comprehensive historical funding data are unavailable for Papua but in Raja Ampat for instance, where no meaningful conservation involvement had been forthcoming until 2001, US$ 500,000 is now apparently available per year for each of eight Marine Protected Areas established there. From the general reality on the terrain in Papua it would appear that this tremendously increased funding strongly correlates negatively with enhanced habitat protection. While it is true that environmental problems have become more complex in the wake of the administrative partitioning of Papua and opening up of remote areas, there may be a deeper, underlying reason. Being bound by the convictions and conceptual principles of their donor agencies, conservationists tend to continue to invest heavily into a state-centered approach to biodiversity conservation through protected area creation and management based on the general rule of law. Leaving out of consideration the imminent potential for reaching stalemate in the face of the reinstatement of customary property rights throughout Papua, this state-centered approach consistently falls short in failing to appreciate that indigenous communities effectively control the area at stake and exercise the observable capacity to irreversibly destroy its conservation value when complying with destructive resource users. Moreover, because securing strategic long-term funding commitment of donors usually proves unrealistic, such conventional conservation projects typically are short-lived (<10 years) with little or no institutional follow-up. That a number of years typically are first being spent on scientific data-collection, priority-setting, policy-development and legal strategizing is difficult to justify against this backdrop. But perhaps the most controversial ascertainment on the subject is corporate conservation’s apparent principal unwillingness to prosecute against widespread illegal intrusion of protected areas in Papua. Isn’t this in fact the last yet absolutely critical step in the tedious legal process that starts with the formal establishment of a protected area in the first place? And should this be interpreted as a tacit yet telling admission on the part of corporate conservation of the impracticability of the state-centered approach in itself? In any case, this begs the obvious question as to why conservation is not radically reconverting to invest massively in alleviating the increasing claims to deleterious resource extraction by tackling the root cause of poverty in all its forms. As ecotourism entrepreneurs are actively demonstrating that it is possible to connect directly with indigenous proprietors and communities in order to set up sustainable and viable income-generating mechanisms decoupled from resource extraction, the answer can only in part lie in the observable inconsistency or unpredictability of local communities. It turns out that, in line with accepted sound business practices and fair competition rules, following enactment of Law No. 16 of 2001 regarding "Foundations", there are now unambiguous legal impediments to direct trading by charitable foundations in Indonesia. In order to set up an income-generating mechanism involving trade, foundations can establish a separate legal business entity or partake in an existing such entity, thereby engaging no more than 25 % of the charity’s net assets, nor delegating its founders, trustees, administrators or supervisors into the business entity’s boards of directors, commissioners, administrators or supervisors. While the legislative power in Indonesia must be commended for its efforts to minimize the possibilities of collusion and corruption in this respect, this now raises considerable practical constraints as well as moral hazards, including but not limited to electing or recruiting the honest members of the business entity’s boards competent to manage the venture entirely independently yet in line with the charity’s mission and vision. Part of the problem is that most charitable foundations in Indonesia aren’t grassroots or popular movements but in fact entirely closed organizations unable to exploit the many potential benefits of broad and dedicated membership. This follows straightforwardly out of Law No. 16 of 2001 regarding "Foundations" where the provision of open membership is not being accommodated. In addition, the important issue of fair competition with the business world remains unresolved wherever charitable capital and not-for-profit ideas form the basis of or strengthen a business entity. In short, even if they wanted to, charities in Papua are poorly equipped to help raise the sustainable economic value of biodiversity hotspots.
Private ecotourism capital, on the other hand, is both flexible as well as long-term-oriented (simply because return of investment cannot realistically be expected in the short-term), tending to respond swiftly to arising opportunities provided that political conditions are broadly conducive in Papua. Genuine ecotourism entrepreneurs, just by deploying a sustainable business in proximity to secluded indigenous communities within biodiversity hotspots, thereby generating tax revenue and providing dignifying employment opportunities for local communities, actively increase the sustainable economic value and hence the likelihood of conservation acceptance among governments and local communities alike. In addition, by entering into meaningful and complementary conservation agreements with customary proprietors through essentially PES-based leases of reefs and forests, innovative ecotourism entrepreneurs are actively helping to map out the future of conservation in Papua. Operating in remote locations, ecotourism entrepreneurs also exercise the unmistakable capacity to effectively patrol and hence actively protect surrounding habitat where the organization of independent patrolling by conservationists would incur very considerable and essentially complementary costs. Unfortunately, in their endeavor to scale up efforts and increase positive impact locally, ecotourism entrepreneurs are financially being restricted by weak market-conditions in Papua, and hence the possibilities to source additional charitable funds, or even to reorganize the essentially not-for-profit part of a company’s activities under a charitable framework, may come into sight. Just as charitable foundations legally can establish subsidiary companies, ecotourism entrepreneurs can resort to establishing charities in order to facilitate their not-for-profit agenda. However, the practical constraints and moral hazards outlined above in the case of establishing subsidiary companies by charities mutatis mutandis also apply to companies setting up charities. Besides, reorganizing not-for-profit activities under a charitable framework would undermine the essence and credibility of ecotourism as an entrepreneurial approach to achieving long-term conservation goals. This is not a circular argument in the light of all the foregoing because true entrepreneurship assumes the coming into force of a sustainable income-generating mechanism. Hence by default, this should perhaps only be further pursued when all alternative avenues for collaboration with the vested conservation world have been exhausted.
The naked truth is that ecotourism entrepreneurs and conservationists in Papua thus need each other more than they would perhaps openly be willing to admit. Imagine charitable conservation funds and programs, reconverted to match and accommodate the real development needs and expectations of indigenous communities, and making responsible use of and strengthening the permanent representation and anchorage that ecotourism operations already have within remote communities living inside biodiversity hotspots. This could combine to mold a formidable novel force for conservation, with potentially mutually rewarding and cost-saving opportunities for collaboration in fields as diverse as protected area patrolling and associated prosecution of intrusion, vocational training, macrobiotic agriculture, sustainable fisheries and aquacultures, environmental education and management, or health care. The starting-point and paramount consideration thereby should be how respective funds and assets can be combined on an ad hoc project-basis to maximize community outreach of the partnering ecotourism and conservation actors. It may well be the last taboo in conservation but we owe it to the gravity of the biodiversity crisis to earnestly consider pragmatic hands-on solutions as long as they are mindful of applicable law, and this paper unashamedly is a pledge for more understanding, mutual consultation and ideally far-stretching cooperation between the ecotourism and conservation sectors in Papua. Hopefully, this International Year of Biodiversity will help strengthen the important linkages between ecotourism and biodiversity conservation and put some of the remarkable on-the-ground achievements of ecotourism worldwide into the right perspective.
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