To thrive in an uncertain future, islanders look to the past


Editor’s note: Conservation International’s film “Gwala Rising” won the 2018 Sylvia Earle Ocean Conservation Award. This award will be presented on June 2 by the My Hero International Film Festival and is sponsored by the MacGillivray Freeman’s One World One Ocean Campaign.

In the islands of Papua New Guinea, a movement to protect nature is spreading.

“Gwala” is the traditional practice of temporarily closing off a reef when it begins to show signs of decline, allowing the ecosystem to recover — and it’s one tool Conservation International (CI) is using to help island communities ensure a steady supply of fish.

Climate change, population growth, illegal fishing and overfishing are spurring precipitous declines in the health and abundance of marine life in the Pacific Islands. Together, these issues threaten the livelihoods of those who depend on the reefs. And so, for hundreds of years, Papuans have practiced gwala, protecting their main source for food and prosperity. Yet with the rise of technology and urbanization in recent decades, gwala and other traditional practices have fallen away.

After witnessing years of stark declines in marine life on Anagusa Island, off Papua New Guinea’s southeastern coast, local community leader Madiu Elama Peter knew it was time to take action. Peter approached Conservation International and local NGO Eco Custodian Advocates (ECA) to ask for their assistance to implement gwala as a way to save the reefs. CI and ECA worked with local leaders to evaluate the health of the reefs and to identify the species most important to the community, which helped the village decide what areas should be protected and for how long.

“We have to do something to conserve and manage our resources, so I believe it is right for us to make gwala,” Peter said. “I want our children to experience Anagusa’s resources, because they belong not only to this generation, but to younger generations.”

Gwala in action

In first few months of 2017, villagers in Anagusa designated a large protected area on the north side of the island, marking the area with the traditional symbol of gwala — large wooden poles adorned with palm fronds and coconut shells. A year later, the community is seeing huge spillover effects: Restored fish populations in the protected area spread beyond the area’s boundaries into waters where fishing is permitted. Fish, clam and shellfish populations are on the rise, creating a welcome surplus of food.

The gwala movement bridges generations and blends science-based information with traditional practices. In support of the movement, CI and ECA hold storytelling sessions where community elders share their knowledge of how reefs were managed in the past. CI and its partners are also training the next generation by teaching youth in their teens and 20s how to conduct biological surveys.

Growing a giant clam garden

Gwala has already proved its value on one island.

Several years ago, Marida Ginisi, the matriarch of Wiyaloki Island in PNG’s Engineer Islands, initiated a protected area around her island. As a result, giant clams thrived in the reefs around her island. These clams that can grow to more than a meter in length and weigh more than 200 kilograms (440 pounds).

In 2015, an extreme drought in Papua New Guinea caused crops to fail and coconuts to rot, leading to food and water shortages. Ginisi’s giant clam garden made all the difference for her village: Since she had managed her reef sustainably, there was still food available. Ginisi shared a few of her giant clams — one of which can feed a whole community — to help her neighbors get through a difficult time.

As word of her giant clam garden spread to nearby islands, people started seeking Ginisi’s advice, and she is now sharing baby clams to help other islands start their own clam gardens. Though this work, Ginisi is inspiring neighboring communities to protect their oceans.

In the distant past, gwala was a widely practiced tradition that provided food and prosperity to communities. Today, CI and partners are working with communities across Papua New Guinea to revitalize this practice and raise awareness about gwala as a conservation tool. The goal: for gwala to become a staple of a new management system that incorporates traditional practices and modern science to protect marine areas.

“Though we are a small island, we are rich,” Peter said. “We are satisfied with what resources we have.”

Watch the video.


CI would like to recognize Eco Custodian Advocates, a close partner that actively supports Anagusa and other island communities in Milne Bay to protect and manage the coral reefs.

Whitney Anderson is program manager for CI’s Coral Triangle Initiative.

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Cover image: Pink Anemonefish, pictured above, off the coast of Papua New Guinea. (© Jeff Yonover)

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