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Inspire to empower as reef Guardians.

Sea Women of Melanesia after receiving their Open Water Dive Certificates.

The Sea Women of Melanesia program entails the vast aspects of coral education, protection and sustainability. This program taught our 17 women how to identify areas that need protection, how to work closely within their communities and neighboring communities to establish ways not only to protect their reefs but help sustain their traditional livelihood, assisting traditional resource owners for many years to come.

The Conflict Islands had been the host venue for a two-week long program that started on 31st of August through to the 13th of September.

Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative (CICI), in collaboration with the Coral Sea Foundation ran a successful Sea Woman of Melanesia(SWoM) program to help the natural marine environment but empowering local Papua New Guinea women to be custodians of their local reefs, in their traditionally matrilineal societies.

Sea Women of Melanesia posing for a groupie

Milne Bay Province is the biggest maritime province of Papua New Guinea being a diverse area of many smaller islands’ groups spread over a wide expanse. The income of the islands is low, most island communities and villages support themselves through using what used to be the most abundant natural resource available, the marine environment. Fishing for the village is commonplace, but it’s the illegal side of fishing that is causing the problem. To meet the needs of the local fishermen and their families, with the growing need of modern society, some fishermen have resorted to unsustainable of key stone species by fishing for shark fins and/or turtle poaching. Thus, effecting all aspects of this delicate coral reef ecosystem. Conservation International’s ecological report found that the reefs around Milne Bay held an identified total of 418 Scleractinia coral species, which is more than half the world’s species. Seven of which are newly identified species. It’s so diverse in this area, that losing it would be catastrophic. The protection of the coral reefs and all its inhabitants through the establishment of LMMA’s will ensure that there is abundant fish life for the villages to survive on in the future.

General Manageress, Hayley Versace says engaging the surrounding island communities is one step for the best.

“I only want the best for our neighboring island communities. They are so kind and generous even when they have nothing. It seems they have been abandoned by the government of the day and the rest of the world with global climate change and access to reliable resources becoming increasingly harder. Running these programs will give the communities the tools to manage the oceans natural resources for the future. This will be for the betterment of our neighbors and surrounding oceans. The ocean has given be so much over my lifetime, it is time I start giving something back,” Hayley Versace (BSc).

The Coral Sea Foundation aims to raise awareness of the ecological and social value, as well as being proactive in its sustainable management, of what Coral Sea & the Eastern Coral Triangle has to offer. These areas contain the last great reservoir of ultra-diverse coral reef in the world. Due to the remoteness, it’s very rarely visited and off the main radar of everyone’s awareness, but it’s for this reason that it’s in urgent need of our assistance.

The combination of these two organizations has led to the program – The Sea Women of Melanesia.

The goal of the Sea Women of Melanesia (SWoM) Program, is to train, educate and to promote awareness within their island communities, about Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMA’s) and their benefits. As well as to continue to support the SWoM on their journey to becoming diving professionals and marine advocates for PNG, especially the Milne Bay Province.

Through the course, the women learnt how to identify areas that need protection, how to work within their communities and neighboring communities, and to become advocates for marine conservation. These tools and skills acquired are a combination of science, ecotourism, and sustainability, which in turn will help them develop marine reserves that will enhance fisheries and ecotourism resources while improving the basic quality of people in the far-flung rural areas.

The 17 enthusiastic Melanesian women were all chip-chapping in the first week of the program when where they were being taught how to assemble scuba and snorkel gears and with the amazing support from the PADI Dive Instructors, they settled in the water like they belonged there. PADI generously donated 50% off all training materials for the participants, hats and t-shirts for the women.

A few of them had never seen the wonders below the surface and others had deep water phobia, nonetheless, as soon as they got comfortable there was no stopping them.

Bathsheba, enjoying the seaside after a dive

Bathsheba “Benita” Gaunedi from Deboyne Group of Islands shares her experience.

“I never considered the underwater world to be this beautiful. Growing up, my life literally was surrounded by the sea- it was where we washed our cooking and eating utensil; washed our clothes and importantly it was our garden,” Benita smilingly said.

The sea is their highway, the only way island communities can get to other places and access resources like hospitals, it also produces all the resources which are the communities to take. “We cared less about the health of the corals, the reefs and all that lived in the sea. But then came a time when seashells were hard to find, fishermen returned with small fishes or no catches at all and illegal deals struck by greedy individuals with outsiders for bech de mer and shark fins.”

“I wanted to be the change, to stand up and do something, but being a Melanesian woman, I was taught to respect my elders, to not have a say in decision making.”

Bathsheba’s wish came true when she was selected to come to the Conflict Islands as one of the Sea Women of Melanesia.

“I was glad to attend this program because being a woman in my culture leaves me no choice but to follow rules and decisions set by elders of my community who are all men. This opportunity will give me the power to make the change I have always wanted to do.”

She enjoyed the two weeks; day-in-day-out. Dancing to the beats of the music after dives and just been on top of the world. This young mother is determined that all that she achieved and learnt from the SWoM program will not go to waste.

“With this training, I am confident that I will now be able to take back what I have learned and implement in my LMMA that my island community has set aside. Importantly, I can now be able to bravely stay underwater with confidence to monitor the life and growth of marine life.”

Full of cheer, Benita expresses with tears of joy “This program has opened doors for job opportunities, in which I am thankful to Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative, Coral Sea Foundation and Pelagic Dive Travel for this golden opportunity.

Train up a woman in areas not only man can dominate

Sheba as she was known to all her fellow SWoM friends’ journey aligns with the other sixteen women’ experience throughout this once in a lifetime opportunity.

“I wish to thank all my fellow participants for assisting in one way or another and a big appreciation to my dive-buddy for watching my back in and out of the water and to Terry from Pelagic Dive Travel for his patience and never giving up on me.” Sheba said.

Sea Women of Melanesia is truly an inspiration, giving second chances and a platform for empowering indigenous Melanesian women.

CEO and Director of the Coral Sea Foundation, Dr. Andy Lewis shared the journey of the foundation and emphasized with passion that the SWoM Program was inspired by Lorie Pipiga, a young girl from Fergusson Island, Milne Bay Province.

“The goal of the program is upon selecting intelligent and determined young Melanesian women and train them in conservation theory, scuba diving and marine biology survey techniques so they have the skills to communicate and identify the need for LMMA’s and its benefits to their local island and coastal communities.”

Dr. Andy says that women can play a vital role in educating other communities and of their own as well.

With numerous trips that Dr. Andy makes to PNG, he realized that there were more girls going through the marine science programs in the Papua New Guinea universities.

“Students going through the marine biology program in University of Papua New Guinea and the University of Natural Resources & Environment were mostly women.”

“It was inspiring and moving to see that these women were committed to conservation, however there was lack of additional training. It is now my hope that with the support from all our partners and sponsors, we are committed to expanding the reach of this program in PNG and the Solomon Islands from this training program.”

One can agree that this Sea Women of Melanesia Initiative hosted in the Conflict Islands was a success and had been a progress – from one Sea Women of Melanesia in 2017; two in 2018 and a huge leap this year, 2019 where 17 women successfully completed the training.

Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative will continue to educate, train and raise the bar for marine conservation advocacy for Milne Bay and PNG.

The Management and Directors of Conflict Islands wishes to acknowledge P&O Cruises, PADI Australia, and Waterlust for their direct support towards the SWoM program.

Additionally, as Management and Directors of CICI, we extend our gratitude to The Coral Sea Foundation and its significant financial support for the SWoM program and the CICI expedition, the training of the women and the aid materials delivered to the local landowners was also provided by:

  • Anna Sheppard at Bambuddha Group and their partners at Cisco and Sea Life Trust

  • Sheree Marris and Unico Conservation Foundation

  • Jock Clough Marine Foundation

  • PADI Australia

  • P&O Cruises

  • Melanesian Luxury Yacht Services

  • Solutions 4 Health Australia

  • Steve & Bronwyn Dearnley

  • James Blee and Asia Pacific Superyachts Indonesia

  • Reef Ecologic

  • Dr Lesley Bretherton

  • Dr Daniela Ceccarelli

  • James and Linda Fox

  • Hazel Watson

  • Trevor & Judith Punnett

  • Larry & Di Mitchell

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