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‘Decolonizing conservation’: Q&A with PNG marine activist John Aini

  • John Aini is a prominent indigenous leader in his native Papua New Guinea who has won multiple awards for his grassroots activism in marine conservation.
  • One of the defining points of his activism is the push to “decolonialize” conservation by engaging local and indigenous communities to a greater degree than typically practiced by large international NGOs.
  • This is the first of Mongabay’s two-part interview with Aini at the recent International Marine Conservation Congress in Malaysia.

KUCHING, Malaysia — In 1993, fisheries scientist John Aini founded the conservation group Ailan Awareness in Papua New Guinea’s New Ireland province to help his community and others nearby reverse declines in the marine life they depend upon. The organization helps communities around the province’s islands develop marine resource management plans that are based on local customs and designed to sustainably improve their livelihoods.

Aini grew up in New Ireland and is a traditional leader of the Malagan culture in the province’s northern region. He has received numerous international awards, including the Seacology Prize in 2012, for his work in marine and fisheries conservation.

The Roviana Solwara Skul, or Saltwater School, is a key project that Ailan Awareness established in 2010 to teach local people about the marine environment, emphasizing both traditional knowledge and Western science. Aini co-founded the school with his brother, Miller Aini, and frequent collaborator Paige West, an anthropologist at Columbia University.

Aini believes equal partnerships between indigenous people and researchers in both designing and implementing projects lead to better conservation results in local communities than do projects heavily controlled by foreign practitioners.

He gave a plenary talk titled “Communities Matter: Decolonizing conservation management” on June 26 at the International Marine Conservation Congress, held in Kuching, Malaysia.

Mongabay caught up with Aini after the talk.

Click here to read Part 2 of Mongabay’s interview with John Aini.

John Aini. Image by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

Mongabay: Your speech highlighted this idea of “decolonizing conservation.” Can you explain what exactly that means?

John Aini: Historically, we were colonized. All the ideas about what we do at home in government, [at] NGOs, is like top-down planning. Decolonizing is getting rid of that top-down planning. It is about bottom-up planning. We tell these people who want to help us about what we want, not them telling us that they are going to come and conserve a reef or look after a species or look after an ecosystem. No, they must consult with us.

And this has been going on for so many years. Big [conservation] NGOs continue to come to Papua New Guinea and push or force their agendas, which a lot of times do not go in line with what we think, do not address what we need, the resources that we depend on. Because they don’t know how we live.

I know how we live. I know which species we depend on. Our people know which ecosystem’s being degraded. So, when we say “colonial,” it is the ideas from out there.

What inspired you to the idea of “decolonizing conservation” in Papua New Guinea?

It happened when there were things that I wanted to do, that my NGO wanted to do based on the experiences that we had with our people [and] the resources that we had. And we could not do it because of the agendas of international NGOs. They wanted to [do other] things instead. And so that’s when I said, “No.” This was in 1994, but before that, between 1993-1994, we were just puppets. Being driven around at their will.

How long did it take for your efforts to change the big foreign NGOs’ point of view in conservation efforts in Papua New Guinea?

No, they haven’t changed their minds. They’re still doing it now. I’m lucky, and with the assistance of Columbia University from Professor Paige West, to have found an alternative donor. And that’s the Christensen Fund that have put money into our organization.

How exactly is your organization decolonizing conservation? What steps are you taking?

I’ve basically given up working with big NGOs, basically given up networking with them. And we are doing our own thing now with funding that’s available, and funding from people that understand that we are in touch, that we own the land, the sea, we know the problems of our people better than BINGOs [big international NGOs].

Map shows New Ireland province in Papua New Guinea. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

In achieving conservation results, do you see any difference between efforts led by big foreign NGOs and those led by local people in Papua New Guinea?

We are all achieving the goals. But the point is the sustainability. I will continue to live with my people until I die. They are in and out of our country. We may not be achieving some goals because of the lack of availability in resources. We may not achieve our targets, and they may achieve their targets. The question is its sustainability, and are they addressing the questions or answering our people’s needs. That is the question. Also, they [have] all the money in the world to do what they’re doing, and they are producing results, yes.

I’ve got a ton of people now working, but not for money, not to be paid, but interested in the work that we are doing, and assisting in their own little ways. Some of which we don’t know that they exist, but they are working, and we learn about them some time later or a couple of years later. I’m talking about local New Irelanders, local people from New Hanover.

How about the big foreign NGOs, have they become more interested in the work that you do?

They don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want to know them now. I’ve given up networking with them.

What do you want them to do differently?

If an NGO comes and takes interest in my NGO and assists us, and they’ll be there advising and say “John, Ailan Awareness, go ahead with your work” — that is what we want them to do. When they say we become partners, we must be partners in reality, we must become partners with all honesty. Not just being partners on paper. Not being on papers to just write a proposal, to be the partner of an indigenous people’s organization in a bid to get funding. But then when the funding comes, we don’t see the funding.

Can you share more how to strengthen that partnership with the NGOs?

They need to understand that we are there at home, and that these are our people, it is our culture, we cry with them, we sleep in their houses, we do customs with them. We will be there forever. They need to understand this. They need to support us in all the ways of supporting us, not just paper support.

Do you think that kind of partnership will achieve better conservation results?

Yes. If we partner, they understand us, they know where we’re coming from, I think all of us will work in harmony … International NGOs and the little indigenous NGOs that we have back at home, we’re all working for the same goals. And the bigger picture is to improve livelihoods.

Can you share an experience in which the big foreign NGOs try to do a project, but it clashes with the traditions and cultures of local people in Papua New Guinea?

There is an example, not in New Ireland, but in the country, where this big NGO went in and promised our people about income and benefits from their conservation work, ecotourism projects that never panned out. It never came about, so the people got frustrated … This is the Crater Mountain Conservation project.

What made the project not work out?

Because there was a clash between the big NGO and the indigenous people, what the big NGO promised them, in terms of economic returns and in terms of tourism projects. And the people just heard about them. But nothing tangible, they [local people] did not witness anything about all the talk [of] them getting income from having tourism projects. Nothing.

Can you share a project within your NGO that’s fully run by local people but receives support from foreign organizations?

The Malagan Project is one. [Editor’s note: This project teaches about the connection between conservation and Malagan cultural ceremonies through traditional carvings.] The people are in charge of it. We only get assistance in funding [for] tools, but we do our own work. There are conservation and management areas around New Ireland, around New Hanover, and they [local people] are doing them themselves. We’ve got a site that we’re working on, people come and see, and they go back and do their own thing.

That is why a lot of the conservation management areas around New Hanover … I have not worked with them to write up management plans. I don’t want to institutionalize these areas. I let them do it as long as it is … producing results. Like more fish are coming, people are not throwing rubbish in the sea.

You know, we don’t talk about big things. We talk about little things, like poisoning the reefs, throwing garbage at sea. We cannot achieve anything without the help of the local people, without the understanding of the local people. Even [though] I’m a local, I still face obstacles in some of the communities. Because our people are not exposed to so many things, like they have not gone out, they have not witnessed destruction of vast mangrove forests, of vast forests, or destruction in the oceans.

They’ve lived with these things for so long. And a little damage used to not matter to them. But now we talked [them] into understanding these things because the population is growing. If we continue to do the little things that we are not supposed to be doing now, for example throwing plastics at sea, it will have an impact.

John Aini delivers his plenary talk on June 26 at the International Marine Conservation Congress, held in Kuching, Malaysia. Image by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

Is there any tradition or culture that foreign NGOs often fail to understand and that hampers their conservation work?

Well, they don’t understand that we have sacred places. The sacred places and spiritual places contributed to resource management and conservation. Now they go and dive in those areas. Or in the forests where some places are off limits. They don’t respect it. They are demeaning the power and value of the sacred places we have.

Do you think this type of colonial conservation also happens elsewhere in the world?

I think so. I’m meeting a lot of people that are talking about it. They are talking about foreign agendas driven by international governance, international scholars.

What kind of agendas?

Like conservation in Papua New Guinea and in New Ireland must be focused on species that support livelihoods. [A] big NGO comes to work and conserve … a butterflyfish, but how does a butterflyfish support our livelihoods? But then, understanding science, butterflyfish helps the underwater ecosystem. There are some things that these people come and try to conserve, try to create marine boundaries to save them, that do not support our livelihoods.

So there’s a disconnect between what they try to do and what the local people actually need?

Yes. You cannot come and do research and do conservation work on something in my area that does not support me, that I don’t eat from. If you come to help me conserve emperors [fish], trochus shells, sea cucumber, then yes, these are the resources that we benefit from, that we get money from.

Marine life in Papua New Guinea. Image by martinnemo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Have you ever experienced a situation in which foreign conservation workers come for a short period of time and then they think that they know about Papua New Guinea?

I have witnessed a lot [of] this. I can give you one example. Two scientists from Australia come to New Ireland to study sharks and they study for three days and go back and think they know all about sharks in New Ireland, and go and write about it. That is bullshit. How can you learn about sharks in three days?

Do you also see a form of colonialism in the research arena?

We don’t get attributions, we don’t get acknowledged. When they come, they don’t see us as guardians of these things, they don’t see us as we have been there and we know a lot more than you scientists. The cultures, we know where the species are and we know when the species are coming out to breed or where the species stays. They just think that we are stupid and common … we don’t speak the right type of English, write papers, we have not completed degrees. But we have been educated to a level where we know what is happening. We can be on the same level with them. A lot of them come, and blah blah blah, and they go and do what they want to do.

However, I don’t care if they don’t acknowledge me in scientific papers. I don’t care … as long as another reef is saved, as long as the seagrass is healthy, as long as there is fish for tomorrow. As long as they help us in whatever expertise they have, we have got the local knowledge, and together we must work. They have come all the [way] from up there … and I believe they have interests in us, not just come and spend three days and tell the world that you know all about sharks.

Can you tell us the story behind Saltwater School?

The idea came about as [my brother Miller Aini and I] were coming back from an awareness campaign. And we ran short of fuel. I was funding it from the salary that I got from fisheries [ministry] when I was working there. And we ran short of fuel and the arguments started.

Like, my brother said “John you should’ve bought more petrol to take us from this point to this point, now look at us, now we are going to paddle,” and it was a long way to paddle back home. And I was just sitting down, and then the swearing started. He was very cross, I was cross. There was nearly an exchange of punches. And then we quieted down on the boat in the ocean, and then we started talking, and I said, “In order for us not to experience this experience, drifting out at sea, let’s build a school.”

So the idea came from that. Instead of us drifting out at sea, let them come to us and [we’ll] teach them scientific and cultural knowledge about the sea. And then we use the metaphor, we won’t let them drift out at sea, we won’t let our people drift out to sea. We must build this school, so that they know the importance of marine management and marine conservation. So it was a fight … that built the school. And with the assistance of these people, the anthropologists, the archaeologists, Paige, and those guys, out of our private [salaries].

Is that the kind of partnership you’d like to see more of in Papua New Guinea? Local people coming up with ideas and foreigners assisting in making them happen?

Yes. But I don’t want to talk yet about all of Papua New Guinea. I start worrying about my little village, and then work our way up.

Do you think indigenous people can spearhead conservation work across the nation in the future?

I do, but starting from your roots. That can’t be done in a place like Papua New Guinea, so many ethnic groups, 10 million languages, different cultures and customs. I think we need to start small. I go back to my province, to my village, to my island and slowly work the way up. Because if I start to worry about the country now, my God, it is just hard. I’m different [from] some guy from 20 kilometers away, and they speak a different language, and is very different from someone from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, who are so aggressive and huge and have big beards. I’m going to run away if I see them.

Yes, when we move slowly all of our forests will probably be gone and our lands will be stolen from us, or our gold will be taken away. But at least we will have some of our land without being destroyed.

Marine life in Papua New Guinea. Image by Anderson Smith2010 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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