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In West Papua’s Arfak Mountains, local leaders plot ecotourism boom

A tree frog in the Arfak Mountains. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • The governors of Indonesia’s Papua and West Papua provinces recently signed a pledge to conserve 70 percent of the land in their jurisdictions, home to some of the best forest left in the country.
  • In the newly established district of Pegunungan Arfak, local leaders believe ecoutourism can boost the economy while also protecting the environment.
  • They hope to follow the example set by Costa Rica, an ecotourism success story that generates almost $3 billion in annual revenue for that country.

MANOKWARI, Indonesia — High in the northwestern mountains of Indonesia’s West Papua province, the newly established Pegunungan Arfak district has a bold idea: Its leaders hope to achieve economic prosperity through conservation and ecotourism rather than selling off their land to mining and plantation companies.

With peaks reaching 2,955 meters (9,695 feet), Pegunungan Arfak is the highest district in West Papua. And while a pair of lakes make for a compelling tourist destination, local officials believe the biodiversity and unique culture of the area can bring visitors in droves. Other regions in Indonesia have pinned their hopes on ecotourism as a driver of economic growth, but Pegunungan Arfak has a secret weapon: a mandate from provincial leaders to prioritize sustainability and conservation in economic development.

Last month, the provinces of West Papua and Papua, which together compose Indonesia’s half of the island of New Guinea, reaffirmed their unified goal to essentially become the next Costa Rica — an ecotourism success story that generates almost $3 billion in annual revenue for that country.

In 2015, West Papua declared itself the world’s first “conservation province,” with a mandate to prioritize conservation in all decisions of economic development. The move came on the heels of a 2014 national law that reversed some aspects of decentralization by partly transferring governance of Indonesia’s natural resources from the local level back up to provincial level. While some saw this as a huge step forward — allowing for more consistent and enforceable laws — others worried that the rights of local indigenous peoples would be ignored as more land-use decisions were made at higher levels.

With these concerns in mind, in October 2018 West Papua and Papua provincial leaders signed the Manokwari Declaration. The agreement changes the two regions’ development framework from “conservation” to “sustainable development,” a subtle shift that de-emphasizes Jakarta’s control over local land issues. By making this alteration, they hope to place responsibility for sustainability more firmly in the hands of local governments, who are more in tune with the rights of their indigenous constituents.

A Mouley family in the Arfak Mountains. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Part of the Manokwari Declaration includes a review of the regions’ spatial mapping to more accurately record the claims by indigenous communities to the forests they inhabit, as well as a review of all current land concessions for agribusiness, logging and mining.

Currently, only 36 percent of West Papua province is delineated as protected land, while the rest is available for development. The governor of West Papua, Dominggus Mandacan, wants to flip that around, and has declared his intention to set aside 70 percent of the province as protected or conservation areas. Papua’s governor made the same pledge, enshrined in the Manokwari Declaration.

This will not be an easy task, since as of 2017 there were already 171 mining permits, 114 oil palm plantation licenses, and 53 timber and industrial forestry permits issued for West Papua, according to activist groups KPRHPB and KMSTRP. Many of these overlap with conservation areas, or with each other, and most were drawn up with little to no consideration for the land rights of the local indigenous groups.

A 2014 regulation attempted to sort out part of the mess, requiring all existing mining licenses to be certified as “clean and clear” — meaning they have fulfilled all necessary exploration and environmental commitments, have clear property delineation, and have obtained necessary forestry permits and have no outstanding tax debt. Currently, 139 permit holders have still not achieved this standard.

While these issues are being worked through, however, some companies are plowing ahead with their own development agenda. Since 2008, more than 1,700 square kilometers (660 square miles) of intact forest have been cleared in West Papua.

Yosias Saroy, the elected head of Pegunungan Arfak district, is optimistic that income from ecotourism can be a viable economic alternative to plantations and mining, and hopes to shift the tide while there is still forest left to attract visitors.

“Many foreign tourists are already coming to Pegunungan Arfak to enjoy the natural beauty, endemic animals and local culture,” Saroy told Mongabay. And they’re coming despite the current limits of infrastructure; many of the villages are isolated, lacking easy access and electricity. Saroy is confident that with a little investment — he has a plan to build a homestay in every village in the district — more visitors will come.

A traditional house in the Arfak Mounatains. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Implementing ecotourism as a method of conservation has a long history worldwide, but there is surprisingly little data to confirm just how effective it is. A recent meta-analysis of ecotourism’s effects on forest cover found that of 111 articles on the subject since 2000, only 17 were peer-reviewed studies that looked at empirical evidence for ecotourism’s effects on forest cover. These show that ecotourism can actually lead to deforestation in the absence of clear conservation mechanisms, as infrastructure development like roads and housing carve up forests, and an influx of job-seeking immigrants taxes resources.

Where ecotourism has succeeded in conserving forests, protected areas are well-established with defined boundaries and strong governance. Local families receive direct economic benefits from ecotourism activities, and communities are engaged in monitoring and enforcement of conservation areas.

An overview of Costa Rica’s ecotourism-based conservation legacy emphasizes the importance of local engagement but also notes the critical role that research scientists and conservation NGOs play in the early establishment of an area’s ecological importance as well as value as a tourism destination.

“Without the scientists’ and conservationists’ work,” the authors write, “little would have been known about Costa Rica’s rainforests and their denizens, few if any national parks would have been created, and little international interest would have arisen for trekking through steamy tropical jungles before they disappeared in the name of progress.”

The Arfak mountain range first appeared on the world’s radar in the early 1800s, when European researchers spent several years collecting the area’s wildlife. Since then, scientists have recorded 110 mammal species, 350 species of butterfly and 320 species of birds. Key tourism draws include the black tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus ursinus), the large birdwing butterflies (Ornithoptera spp.), the endemic Arfak astrapia (Astrapia nigra), a stunning bird-of-paradise, and the hut-building Vogelkop bowerbird (Amblyornis inornata).

A structure built by a bowerbird as part of a courtship display. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

With a little investment in the necessary tourism infrastructure, leaders in Pegunungan Arfak, neighboring districts and the provincial administrations of West Papua and Papua hope they can replicate the success of Costa Rica. They believe that by providing safe and compelling ecotourism opportunities they can create economic prosperity while preserving their natural resources and protecting the rights of indigenous communities. But, more important than hope and belief, they now have a mandate to do everything in their power to make it work.

Banner: A tree frog in the Arfak Mountains. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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