The Story Behind Wakatobi's Visionary Plan For Coral Reef Conservation
As coral reefs around the world continue to face threats from human activity, protections are needed to ensure the continued health and survival of these unique and treasured ecosystems.
Some would say that the only solution is to limit or bar all forms of human activity. But in recent years, there's been a shift in thinking as leading voices in the conservation movement have shown the world that there's a better way to protect the reefs we love.This is the story of one visionary who helped shift the paradigms on how coral reefs can be protected through sustainable, community-based conservation initiatives.
The story begins in the late 1980s with a Swiss national named Lorenz Mäder, who spent years searching the Indo-Pacific for just the right place to build his dream resort. When he came across a small island in the Tukang Besi archipelago of Indonesia’s Banda Sea, he knew he'd found the right place. The surrounding reefs were among the most dramatic and colourful he'd ever seen and just inshore, there was a white-sand beach fronting a coconut palm grove.
It was here in 1995 that Lorenz built his dive lodge, which he named Wakatobi—a word created by taking the first two letters of the four largest islands in the archipelago: Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia, and Binongko.
Even before construction began, Lorenz was working on a plan to ensure the future health of the reefs he'd come to love. At the time, areas of the Indian Ocean were falling victim to destructive fishing practices such as netting and dynamiting. Rather than quietly sitting by and hoping the local fishermen didn't damage the reefs, Lorenz negotiated an agreement that named a six-kilometre section of the reefs as a no-fishing zone.
In exchange for this concession, he agreed to make lease payments directly to 17 local villages. This was the beginning of the Collaborative Reef Conservation Program, which was created on the premise that the best way to evoke protective behaviours was not through outside enforcement, but by engaging and empowering those closest to the resource.
Funding for the program was generated from the resort's guest revenue, making all who came to Wakatobi partners in conservation. As word of Wakatobi's spectacular reefs spread through the diving and underwater photography communities, a growing number of adventurous travellers made their way to this remote location, a 36-hour journey before the island's small airstrip was constructed in 2001. This allowed for the expansion not only of the resort, but also of the original preserve, which has since expanded to cover 20 kilometres of reef, and garnered numerous awards.
In addition to providing lease payments through the Collaborative Reef program, the Wakatobi team now provides the local community with a number of additional, tangible benefits.
The resort employs more than 100 area residents and delivers clean water and electricity to the neighbouring village. Other benefits shared to the surrounding island communities include the installation and maintenance of moorings on reefs and in harbours, the support of local schools with educational materials, the sponsorship of community awareness initiatives, and programmes that create economic opportunities at the village level.
As the Collaborative Reef Conservation program enters its second decade, local attitudes towards conservation have been transformed as the value of healthy reefs becomes evident, and local fishermen and villagers have become active stewards of the environment.
The resort has undergone a litany of other enhancements and expansions over the years. From the original longhouse, the property has grown to include a collection of 24 private Bungalows set in a beachfront coconut grove, along with 4 waterfront luxury villas. Direct charter flights connect from Bali to Wakatobi in just two and half hours. Guests enjoy five-star service and gourmet-level dining, along with amenities such as personal dive guides, private boat charters, spa services, private beachfront dinners and a range of water sports and land-based activities.
Lorenz's vision for Wakatobi not only set a precedent for private sector conservation initiatives, it put broader plans in motion, and actually changed the map. In 2002, the Indonesian government expanded the area created by the resort's conservation program to create the Wakatobi National Park. The park encompasses an expansive 1,390,000 hectares of the Tukang Besi island group.
Less than a year later, these islands became an autonomous region, and in the process decided on a new name: Wakatobi. In 2005, UNESCO listed the Wakatobi National Park as a World Heritage Site and added to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
Many see Lorenz as a visionary and forward thinker who initiated one of the world's largest privately-funded and managed marine protected areas. But he often attributes his motives to a more pragmatic goal. As he tells it, 'You can’t pack up and move your resort when the diving is no longer good. So it’s better to do what you can to protect it to enjoy it now and in the future.'