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An interview with writer, photographer and filmmaker, John Weller, on his latest adventures in conserving the last pristine places on Earth


The Guardians of Raja Ampat

It can be difficult to catch John Weller standing still, but he found some time to talk to us about his latest work using multi-media and community-building strategies to rally protection for pristine marine ecosystems in Raja Ampat, an archipelago in Indonesia's West Papua province.

"...Christians and Muslims, men and women, elders and children all spoke as one, calling for even greater protection of Raja Ampat’s waters —the richest marine ecosystem on earth."

— John Weller

Marine Photobank: John, the last time we spoke you had just come up for air after diving with Weddell seals under Antarctic ice sheets in your work to protect the Ross Sea. What has led you to Indonesia and your work on Guardians of Raja Ampat?

John Weller: The Guardians of Raja Ampat and my work in the Ross Sea are both part of the same global ocean story. Our ocean is under siege, and the Ross Sea and Raja Ampat are two of the remaining crown jewels. My work to promote protection in the Ross Sea, the last large intact marine ecosystem on Earth, led naturally to Raja Ampat, the most bio-diverse marine ecosystem on Earth.

MPB: Why Indonesia? Why is the region worth special attention and protection?

JW: Aside from being the most bio-diverse ecosystem on Earth, worthy of protection in and of itself, conservation in Raja Ampat and West Papua affects regional waters and the global ocean. For example, an estimated 75% of all leatherback turtle nesting activity in the Western Pacific occurs on two beaches in West Papua. These are animals that migrate all the way across the Pacific, some even to the west coast of the United States. Larval fish and coral dispersal from Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Raja Ampat is likely essential to regional ecosystems. Finally, the political precedent set in Raja Ampat—which currently boasts 7 large MPAs, co-governed by local, regional, and national government and supported by an armada of NGOs—is a model for successful ocean conservation.

MPB: How has it been different working directly with the people of these island communities, as opposed to working with seals, penguins, and other Antarctic species?

JW: Obviously, one of the big differences between the two areas is that Raja Ampat is populated. Working with the communities has been one of the most rewarding aspects of working in Raja Ampat. There are around 130 small villages sprinkled through the archipelago, and they have lived there sustainably for literally eons. Their traditional laws mirror all of the strategies that we think of as “modern” conservation, from gear restrictions to closed areas. The real reward for working with these communities is that they have as much to teach us as we have to teach them.

MPB: We have long been admirers of your photography. What role is visual media playing in your current work, and why is it essential to reaching your audience?

JW: First off, thank you for that praise. I believe that media is critical in pursuing conservation. We need to jump start these conversations worldwide, and reach both top levels of government and local communities with the same message. Working in close partnership with filmmaker Shawn Heinrichs, we have seen our media achieve this goal, and drive real change.

In 2014, Shawn and I shot and produced a full-length film narrated entirely by interviews with community members from the villages of Raja Ampat, and then delivered that film back to those remote communities in a film and concert tour that the audiences, and we ourselves, could never have imagined…

A thousand faces glowed in the light of the 2-story-tall outdoor theater screen, and the mood of the crowd changed minute to minute in reaction to the film: excited whispers and inside jokes as people saw themselves and their villages on screen; pursed lips and angry sideways glances as a fish bomb exploded; nods of agreement, sweet smiles and even tears at the end. But the end of the film was only the midpoint in this event, and moments later hundreds of fists flew into the air as Edo Kondologit—Papua’s most famous singer, who donated his time to headline the tour —leaned forward into the climax of his song Aku Papua, “I AM Papua.” The crowd screamed the lyrics into the night, proclaiming their heritage, declaring their solidarity in the name of conservation. Over the course of three weeks, we worked with the tireless crew and education team of The Kalabia, a 100-foot floating classroom, to haul the 3000lbs of gear and setup the outdoor theater in 12 villages, one in each district of Raja Ampat. In all, more than 10,000 people—¼ of the region’s population—participated in this unprecedented film and concert tour through the remote communities of Raja Ampat, Indonesia. In the community commentary after each show, Christians and Muslims, men and women, elders and children all spoke as one, calling for even greater protection of Raja Ampat’s waters —the richest marine ecosystem on earth.

MPB: What outcomes do you hope to see from your efforts in Indonesia, and what’s next for you?

JW: We are already seeing tangible outcomes, even aside from the Guardians tour. We worked with Conservation International to make another film about shark and ray conservation that played in front of top decision-makers at Indonesia’s National Shark and Ray Symposium, and, as it was reported to us from our partners in CI, played an important roll in securing the national legislation protecting manta rays. The Guardians of Raja Ampat tour has helped create momentum for a new marine protected area that has recently been proposed (again as reported to us by our partners in CI.) We hope to continue this successful outreach with a new project in West Papua that harnesses Indonesia’s recent declaration that West Papua is the “Provinsi Konservasi,” or “Conservation Province,” and helps drive further conservation.

I have focused the last year and much of the upcoming year back on the Ross Sea. Following my book and Peter Young’s film, both entitled The Last Ocean, I am currently editing a new feature-length film that tells the Ross Sea story in a global context. I look forward to sharing this last chapter in my work to promote the protection of the Ross Sea. And who knows – 2016 might finally bring the declaration of a Ross Sea MPA. China, one of two main opponents to marine protected areas in Antarctica, officially endorsed the Ross Sea MPA proposal in October of this year, leaving Russia as the last block to this historic moment – the largest MPA in the world, and a de facto International Marine Wilderness.

Learn more about the Guardians of Raja Ampat project at theoceanvoice.org