Sasi, the Tradition Safeguarding West Papua’s Marine Biodiversity

Raja Ampat archipelago in West Papua is an important region that lies at the centre of the Coral Triangle, encompassing roughly 40,000 km² of land and sea and including a series of more than 1,500 islands surrounding the main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo. In addition to being a well-known tourism destination, it is blessed with the richest tropical marine biodiversity in the world. It is estimated that the region possesses 1318 species of fish, 699 species of molluscs, and 537 coral-dwelling species. In addition, Raja Ampat is blessed with diversity in its coral reefs, mangrove forests, and scenic beaches with rocky cliffs. Considering the staggering diversity, it is important for local communities to take steps to protect it.

The Misool people of Raja Ampat, West Papua have a tradition for the conservation biodiversity within its marine ecosystems, namely the Sasi tradition. This traditional practice by local communities for many years have contributed to the maintenance of its environment and biodiversity. Sasi is a form of local wisdom which, when defined simply, is the prohibition of over-exploiting marine resources, in order to conserve them and ensure their quality and plentiful supply. The practice may take many different forms and can be practiced on both the sea and land.

The way Sasi is practiced in Papuan waters is by prohibiting the catching of fish and other marine life which includes clams, and sea cucumbers for a period of roughly 24 months. After that period expires, communities are welcome to fish as much as they require. This is known as the harvesting period and is limited to a period of one month to prevent overfishing.

The Sasi period also prohibits the catching of fish within certain zones. The zones are designated based on decisions based on local customs, which are then given specific signs. Based on local beliefs, those who violate these zones will receive divine punishment which can take various forms including serious illness.

The tradition usually begins with a special community meeting held at a house of worship such as a mosque or a church. During the meeting, the village head or traditional leader prepares an offering to mark the Sasi tradition. The offering is made from a Ketapang tree which is decorated with spices and colourful paper. After some prayers, the tree is paraded along the beach and planted there. The start and end of the Sasi are marked by a traditional ceremony performed by the local traditional leader.

The ceremony can take between one to seven days which usually begins with the presentation and designation of markers. This is then followed up with a parade of the markers around the village accompanied with music from flutes and drums. The parade shows the markers that will be planted on the Sasi areas to the community so that they do not violate them. At the ceremony’s conclusion, the markers are planted at the Sasi zones.

Communities with such local customs that help conserve nature and its resources understand that their lives are very dependent on it. They rely on these natural resources for their daily lives and are thus motivated to conserve and maintain them. Overall, oceans play a major role in Indonesia’s economy; according to the World Bank, its fishery sector is worth US$ 27 billion, supports 7 million jobs, and provides 50% of the country’s animal protein needs. The country faces challenges to its marine and coastal ecosystems which could undermine its ocean economy. Over a third of the country’s marine fisheries are overfished, around a third of its coral reefs are in poor condition, while marine debris costs the economy over US$450 million per year.

Githa Anasthasia, a conservation advocate, seen here after a diving mission to observe manta ray behavior. Nature preservation brings economic benefits to the community. Photo credit: Donny Fernando/National Geographic Indonesia.

The Indonesian government has stated that it is working towards a blue economy strategy to improve the governance of marine and coastal ecosystems, achieve equal economic opportunities, and promote livelihoods, including through the conservation of mangrove and other ocean ecosystems. The local wisdom of Papua is important for helping achieve the government’s targets. In fact, the World Bank argued in its recently-launched Oceans for Prosperity report that it can be replicated in other areas of Indonesia through a rights-based approach granting harvesting rights to coastal communities or enterprises under specific terms and limits.  This will serve to encourage better management and increase fishery productivity.

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