AUKI, Indonesia — “We ladies have eyes on our feet,” Susanti Maryen says after a morning spent collecting saltwater clams and snails at a beach in Auki, an islet off the northern coast of Papua, in Indonesia’s far east.
She’s only half joking: clamming here, a way of life for generations, involves traipsing the beach and finding, just by feel, the small crustaceans hidden in the sand underfoot.
While the women of Auki forage for the community’s food along the shore, the men are taught to fish from a young age. What they don’t eat, they sell; Susanti says a plate of saltwater clams can fetch 50,000 rupiah ($3.70), or double that during the off-season.
In this sense, the Papuans of Auki are like the myriad other coastal communities spread out across the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia, each hewing to age-old traditions of subsistence that revolve around the bounty of the sea. The waters and coasts of Cenderawasih Bay, where Auki is located, are home to 95 species of coral, 155 fish species and seven types of mangrove.
But foraging for clams hasn’t always been easy for the women of Auki. Susanti, now 50, remembers when a magnitude-8.2 earthquake struck the region on Feb. 17, 1996. It was followed by a tsunami that washed over parts of Auki and nearby islands.
The twin disaster not only destroyed many houses there, but also laid waste to the coastlines the residents had always been able to depend on; for a period after the quake and tsunami, there were no shellfish of any kind to be found on the devastated beaches.
“The earthquake and tsunami caused erosion; the coastlines changed, and even new coral islands emerged,” says Matheus Rumbraibab, the chief of the indigenous council in Auki.
But the disaster also brought with it a valuable lesson for the people of Auki: that they needed to better protect the natural resources, in the sea and on the coast, that were so central to their lives.
In the years since, they learned how to adapt to the new conditions wrought by the quake and tsunami. In 2006, 10 years after the disaster, they decided to formalize those practices in a regulation governing the protection of Auki’s coastal ecosystems, which today covers mangroves, seagrass and coral reefs, among others.
The regulation includes prohibitions on fishing in certain areas of the sea around Auki, to allow fish stocks to replenish; in other areas, fishing is permitted, but catches are capped. Beyond these zones, Auki’s fishermen can operate freely, but may not use destructive methods such as blast fishing or poison fishing.
The system in force here is a miniature of the Indonesian government’s own policy of staking out and managing marine conservation zones, but with a key difference: here in Auki, the people get to discuss and decide on the zones.
The women, for instance, are responsible for monitoring the population of marine animals along and just off the coast every six months. They submit the figures to local authorities, who use them to compile routine reports. These reports, in turn, serve to warn the fishermen of any decline in the population of a particular species.
“We wanted the population of saltwater clams, snails and reef fish to recover, that’s why we decided to regulate fishing and collecting,” says Frans Wandosa, the Auki village chief.
Faithfully practicing this sustainable way of life for the past two decades has borne fruit for the people of Auki, particularly over the last three years, when saltwater clams have bloomed beyond the restricted zones.
Residents of nearby islands have also adopted similar regulations, Frans says. But he’s also aware that despite the success in protecting local marine resources, the people of Auki and the other islands face a threat more relentless than a one-off earthquake and tsunami: rising sea levels as a result of global warming.
“I think a portion of Auki’s coast will end up underwater,” Frans says. “That’s why we’ve established a program to gradually move people’s houses to higher parts of the island.” The villagers have gone along with the program; many still remember losing their homes to the tsunami.
They also have plans in place to protect the coastal vegetation to mitigate the impact from rising sea levels or tsunami waves. The 2006 regulation bans the felling of mangroves, and also requires residents to report first before cutting any other trees on the island.
“We keep asking the village authorities, representatives of indigenous communities and religious leaders to remind the people not to cut down trees,” Frans says.
At her home on a January evening, Susanti cooks the saltwater clams gathered earlier that day. A small portion will be for dinner; the rest she will sell at the local market the next day.
Even here, on the stovetop of her kitchen, the sea is ever-present.
“The trick to getting the clams to open up,” Susanti says, “is to cook them in seawater.”
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