By Barbara Ratusznik, Public Diplomacy Officer, Pacific Division, AusAID
There is no doubting the diversity of the Pacific region. Environments, languages, cultures, challenges and opportunities all vary hugely from country to country. In the same stretch of ocean, you have Papua New Guinea with a population of 6.9 million people using over 850 languages, and Tokelau which has a total land area of just 12km² and a population of only 1,151.
This diversity extends below the surface into the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific islands lie in an area of ocean covering one-seventh of the globe’s surface, boasting one of the most dynamic marine ecosystems in the world. Six out of the seven different types of sea turtle on the planet can be found here. But numbers of these grandfathers of the sea have been rapidly declining for some time. Every one of the species is now endangered.
Sea turtles have traditionally been harvested in the Pacific for their meat and eggs, for their bones to produce tools, and for their shells to create jewellery. But as populations across the region have grown, so has the number of turtles being harvested. To add to this, increasing urbanisation in the Pacific has been destroying turtles’ natural habitats and breeding grounds, and discarded fishing nets and plastic bags are causing more and more accidental deaths. Sadly, sea turtles are no longer able to reproduce at a sustainable rate because of this. Only one in 1,000 are surviving long enough to breed.
Today is the International Day for Biological Diversity, a day aiming to raise awareness of the uniqueness and fragility of marine and coastal environments. Back in 1995, the Pacific celebrated the Year of the Turtle to raise public awareness of the turtles’ demise. Vanuatu drama group Wan Smolbag took an out-of-the-box approach to the problem. Wan Smolbag has been tackling this issue by putting on interactive theatre performances about the threatened creatures, and encouraging communities to actively participate in the conservation process. The group travelled to villages across Vanuatu gathering information about people’s attitudes towards sea turtles, including how many each area was killing and why. This information was then used to create a play about the consequences of overharvesting. People were urged to change their behaviour and adopt a more environmentally-friendly approach to help preserve sea turtle numbers.
Vanua-Tai (meaning “of land and sea”) monitors were appointed in each village after the play had finished, working closely with Wan Smolbag to build community discussion on the issues raised and create a more sustainable environment for sea turtles. Over the years, the role of the monitors has grown—they now document the occurrence of turtles in their local areas, identify nesting beaches, tag turtles, and carry out research. Nearly two decades on, this hugely successful program is showing significant results.
This long-term, community-centred approach to conservation has seen a remarkable decrease in sea turtle killings in Vanuatu. In 1996 an average of 30 turtles were killed in each village surveyed by Wan Smolbag. That figure has now dropped to just one or two per village per year. A 2005 survey carried out by the Vanua-Tai monitors across five villages suggested that more than 1,200 marine turtles had been conserved in those areas since the program began a decade earlier.
There are now more than 500 Vanua-Tai monitors operating across the entire country, highlighting the power of Wan Smolbag’s work to change attitudes and build a nation-wide conservation network. In recognition of this immense effort, George Petro, the Environment Programme Manager at Wan Smolbag,received a Champions Award from the International Sea Turtles Society in March this year.
Australia has supported Wan Smolbag since 2005. This funding has enabled Wan Smolbag to create local theatre, film and radio productions on critical development
Australia is committed to working with small-island and developing states, including our Pacific island neighbours, towards better sustainable development. Protecting oceans, and marine species and vegetation, will be crucial for these communities in the wake of climate change.
About the author: Barbara Ratusznik
Barbara Ratusznik is the Public Diplomacy Officer in the Pacific Division at AusAID. Barbara has a background in communications and international development, and has previously worked with the Pacific departments of the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). She holds a Master of Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Sydney and a Bachelor of Arts in Media and Cultural Studies from Macquarie University. She has both a personal and professional interest in “Communications for Development” – using communications to create sustainable social change.