The Papua New Guinea women harnessing indigenous knowledge and science to protect coral reefs


“What if you’re married… but your husband dies? Who is going to come in and feed you? Who is going to help you look after yourself?”

This is how Evangelista Apelis and her team convinced some communities in Papua New Guinea that women, so far banned from diving, should be allowed to take it up to conserve their local coral reefs.

Papua New Guinea is an archipelago of more than 600 islands, home to vast amounts of coastline and unparalleled coral reef biodiversity. The reefs are a vital source of food, income and protection against storms.

Sea Women Melanesia works with indigenous communities to create and manage temporary marine protected areas, allowing the reefs and the fish stocks to replenish.

To do this, they train women from local communities to monitor and assess the reefs. But they can’t do it without the indigenous knowledge, explains Evangelista, biologist and co-director of the project.

“They have a whole idea about their sea,” she says. “They know where they can get the best fish, what species, certain locations and all that.”

When these women tell them that there are a lot of different species at a certain site, “that tells us that that reef site has a really good coral cover”, she says.

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In return, the project teaches the women to snorkel and use fins, underwater cameras and GPS and pays a stipend. Sometimes they can provide medical supplies and water tanks, in a country where 87% live in rural areas and 38% live on less than $2 (£1.50) a day.

Evangelista grew up in an indigenous community in the coastal village of Ulingan in Madang Province, spending her free time swimming, fishing and collecting shells in the mangroves. She learned that many depended on the sea for their livelihoods, but that sea level rise driven by climate change was forcing people to move inland.

“My connection with my indigenous community and the skills and local knowledge I have learnt as a child growing up has really helped me… when engaging with other indigenous communities,” she said.

More than half of Papua New Guinea communities are patrilineal, meaning men own the land and tend to make the decisions.

“It’s truly heart-warming to see women actually stepping out of their comfort zones and they’re not taking the backstage, but are actually taking a lead role in conservation,” she says.

“They’re very vocal about the issues of overfishing”, and tend to convince their husbands and children to get on board too, she added.

The project has just been recognised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), winning a Champions of the Earth award, previously won by the likes of Al Gore.

“Coral reefs are vital to the future of our planet and the work done by the Sea Women to safeguard these beautiful, diverse ecosystems is nothing short of inspirational,” says Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director.

The honour has motivated Evangelista to do more.

“To gain that recognition means that the project, even though it’s in a small society, is actually making an impact in the world.”

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Listen to fish noises caught in coral soundscape

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