News + Opinions

Guardians of Raja Ampat Goes on Tour

Dec 11 2014
Vulcan partnered with two critically-acclaimed photographers and filmmakers to promote ocean conservation through film.

Guardians of Raja Ampat Film Tour from John Weller on Vimeo.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

The 1,600 small, mostly uninhabited, islands of the Raja Ampat archipelago are scattered across 15,000 square miles of sea at the northwestern tip of Indonesia’s West Papua Province. Raja Ampat’s waters are the richest in the world, harboring more than 1,300 fish species, 600 mollusk species, 8 species of whales, 7 species of dolphins, and 75% of all known coral species. The global center of marine biodiversity, critical to preserve, is a bucket list location for hardcore divers. Apart from the splendors of the sea, this area also has some of the most stunning topside views in the world: limestone islands, big cathedral-like caves, quiet lagoons with crystal white sand, and water in every shade of blue and green.

Sprinkled through the jeweled islands are 130 small villages, some tracing their roots back over a thousand years. The people of Raja Ampat are intimately tied to their resources, and have practiced conservation throughout their history through their traditions of sasi laut (taboos of the sea) and hak adat, a traditional marine tenure system. However, the modern world has presented challenges that these small villages were ill-equipped to deal with on their own. Outside pressures have included deforestation, mining, dynamite fishing, shark finning, and other destructive fishing practices that jeopardize the future of the pristine ecosystems and the communities themselves.

Luckily the villages have not had to fight these modern battles alone. By working closely with regional government officials and NGOs over the last 10 years, the communities have begun to reclaim their riches, creating seven large, protected marine areas and establishing a management system to ensure the health of the ecosystem and sustain the people of Raja Ampat for generations to come. The results have been staggering. In just a few short years, Raja Ampat has witnessed both a recovery of natural resources and a rejuvenation of culture and pride.

With these bold steps, Raja Ampat has become the pillar of local conservation in action. Shawn Heinrichs and John Weller, two renowned filmmakers and marine conservationists, have worked in the area for 10 years. Recognizing the need to celebrate this profound community-driven conservation, further galvanize regional collaborations, and expand existing commitments, they decided to make a film. But they knew that to be effective, this could not to be a film shot in Raja Ampat and shown in air-conditioned movie theaters in the United States or Europe. It could not be a film with an American celebrity narrator telling the story. This film needed to be from the community’s perspective, in their voices, and brought back to the communities themselves in a powerful cinematic package that they would never forget. 

Guardians of Raja Ampat is a story told solely through local voices and highlights the work of local communities as they protect their marine resources. Over the last three weeks, Shawn, John, and their now-very-tired team have completed a film and concert tour, the likes of which has never been seen in Raja Ampat. Moving nearly 3500lbs of gear by hand into and out of a new village each day, the team delivered the film back to communities with the Ocean Theater (another Weller/Heinrichs creation) - a massive, mobile, outdoor cinema including an 8 meter wide by 6 meter tall screen, a 12,000 lumen projector, and a full surround sound system. The team also brought along an inflatable 22 foot wide manta ray – sure to capture people’s attention! Edo Kondologit, a national singer from Papua, known as the ‘Ray Charles’ of Indonesia, joined the tour and performed for the villages each night to help kick off the grand celebration. The chariot for the Guardians tour was a 100-foot sailing classroom called the M.V. Kalabia, a centerpiece of Raja Ampat conservation outreach which emanates a spirit of hope and change.

The Guardians film and tour were made possible through the incredible support of a host of partners including Conservation International, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and Vulcan Inc., The Walton Family Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Henry Foundation, The Blue Sphere Foundation, The Safina Center, and the good will of the communities of Raja Ampat.

The tour started in the capital, Waisai, went on to visit the northern most inhabited islands, then traveled all the way south to Misool, covering the entire regency by the end of the three-week journey. With screenings in 12 remote communities, more than 10,000 villagers, 1/4 of the entire population, saw the show. After the film, villagers were invited to get up and speak, addressing their community. These statements proved that the tour was not just a celebration, but also a motivator for the communities of Raja Ampat to continue their conservation efforts.

We believe that the film connected communities to each other and broke through geographic and cultural boundaries. The strongest evidence can sometimes be the most subtle, like when a Muslim leader in a southern community addresses his village and quotes the final words of the film, which were uttered by a Christian priest from a northern community. People laughed, cringed, and cried at the same points in the film across communities. They saw their own struggles reflected, heard their own thoughts reiterated. 

Conservation is not a stand-alone victory; it is a culmination of effort and intention. The moment you stop pushing forward, you start slipping back, and one result of the tour was the sad realization that outside bomb-fishermen are returning in force. Every community we visited talked at length about these newly emboldened criminals. There is more work to be done in Raja Ampat.

The three week tour culminated with a final showing at the US Embassy in Jakarta last night (December 9). Top ranking officials including Ambassador Blake spoke on behalf of Raja Ampat and the future of marine conservation in Indonesia. 

Raja Ampat is one of the most special places on Earth with endless beauty and supreme biodiversity, but the true reason it’s so extraordinary is because of the people there taking bold action to protect their resources for future generations. Their passion and work on behalf of the environment is inspiring and the Ocean Theater tour has been a way to thank these communities and encourage them to continue pushing forward with their conservation efforts. To this motivation, we must continue to add our support, because the sad truth is that the better Raja Ampat does at protecting its precious seas, the more attractive they will be to those that want to extract every last resource. Now more than ever, we must recommit globally to the protection of Raja Ampat.

Despite all of the devastation and wrongs in the world there are reasons to be hopeful, reasons to keep fighting, and a real chance to restore this beautiful planet we all share to its fullest potential. We can all be guardians in our own ways, but we must take action collectively. Every great movement throughout history has depended on people coming together, putting aside their differences, and working towards a common goal. Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” The communities of Raja Ampat are proof that despite enormous and daunting challenges, anything is possible. Imagine if the guardians of Raja Ampat can serve as a model by which others take the necessary steps to protect what is rightfully theirs… 

Be on the lookout for more updates when the team returns from Indonesia!