Genuine ecotourism in West Papua

The term 'ecotourism' still covers many overtones, and in the absence of an independent national certification organ in Indonesia, just about anybody presently can claim to be operating an environmentally and socially responsible travel operation in West Papua. To too many, ecotourism is merely synonymous with 'nature travel', which more often than not entails significant negative environmental and social impacts. Yet to a growing number, ecotourism is a deeply social and entrepreneurial approach to achieving long-term conservation goals. Naturally, we adhere to the latter social movement while also wishing to emphasize that — however much genuine ecotourism endeavors to create social and ecological benefits — it nonetheless is a commercial activity that can only be conducted through sound business practices. The prevailing Indonesian legislation confirms this judgment unambiguously.

As our core business, we approach the practical organization of ecotourism as a 100 % locally-owned micro-company, trading as the independent travel agent Papua Expeditions with regional focus on the western half of the subcontinental island of New Guinea under Indonesian administration. Variously known as Papua, West Papua, Irian Jaya, or Indonesian New Guinea, the vast territory (three times larger than England or roughly half the size of Texas) is one of the last great tropical wilderness areas left on Earth, home to a unique array of exquisite wildlife, and set against an amazing cultural backdrop.

Sound business practices

The 2007 Oslo Statement on Ecotourism calls for sound business practices in the sector and recognizes that the business of ecotourism can be as fragile and sensitive as the environments in which it occurs, especially since many ecotourism products are provided by micro or small enterprises like ours. The foresight and investment of private ecotourism entrepreneurs is essential to achieving conservation goals through ecotourism, in partnership with protected area managers and local communities. In Indonesia, however, a special breed of ecotourism outfits persists in the form of charitable foundations (called yayasan in Indonesian) that compete directly with the private sector by providing the same commercial ecotourism services as tour organization, guiding and lodging. Such 'non-profit' organizations are often purposefully established and run by 'creative' business(wo)men, who generally have very little to say about ecotourism, biodiversity or conservation, work with little transparency, recruit clients in the name of conservation and community development, and often even collect operational funds from foreign donors in order to offset costs for their social responsibility. Their business as veiled travel operators can often readily be shown to constitute their core activity. Yet direct trading by a not-for-profit foundation is manifestly illegal in Indonesia since the enactment of Law No. 16 of 2001 regarding 'Foundations'. Moreover, the misuse of tax exemptions enables these 'charities' to provide services well below economically viable market-fares, and this in turn undermines the genuine efforts of both community-owned enterprises as the corporate ecotourism world. We urge potential visitors to West Papua to bear all this in mind when assessing and comparing travel operations.

Environmental care

Throughout Indonesia, adherence to the principles of conservation, environmental care and sustainability still is in its infancy. In the sheer absence of modern waste processing infrastructure in the territory, Ekonexion rigorously enforces its policy of garbage-prevention, whether in the office or out in the field. We operate an office as paperless as possibly can be and principally oppose printed materials for advertising purposes. In the field we see to it that biodegradable detergents and toiletries are being used at all times and that any non-combustible residual packaging of foodstuffs is being carried out back to town and properly disposed of. 'Goes without saying': we hear you shouting. Yet virtually all travel outfits visiting West Papua just continue to dump trash on site till this day, thereby creating significant waste problems for indigenous communities in the long term. Last but not least, we absolutely forbid the collection of any specimens on any of our trips, and always strive to reduce disturbance of the bird- and wildlife that we take our guests and friends to see.

Reducing our carbon footprint

We have always felt that long-haul air travel is the foremost field in which to achieve a significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions within the scope of our operations. Rather than to resort to controversial and distracting carbon-offsetting, we adopted a proactive strategy in reorienting our business toward increasingly affluent and receptive regional markets. As a direct result, we are pleased to be able to say that, since 2011, up to 67 % of our yearly guests are resident within the Australasian realm, whereas in the early days of our operations all our guests, without exception, were inter-continental travelers from Europe and the USA.

Preventing deforestation and forest degradation are also obvious ways of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 'Reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries and approaches to stimulate action', first appeared as an agenda item in December 2005, at the 11th session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP 11) in Montréal. Two years later, at COP 13 in Bali, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, commonly referred to as REDD, was the big new idea to save the planet from runaway climate change. Nearly ten years later, the world's politicians are still talking about the framework, mechanisms and modalities of an enhanced REDD+ in which the rights of indigenous peoples — initially simply skipped over — are just starting to be acknowledged in principle. All this time, however, this increasingly controversial top-down initiative did not yield a single rupiah-cent for a customary landowner in West Papua as a reward for good forest stewardship, and the territory's vast frontier forests continue to be depleted on an unprecedented scale.

At Ekonexion we certainly didn't want to wait for the world's leaders to get it right. It simply takes too long and carbon-offsetting anyway is a misleading solution to our climate problems. With our Community Conservation and Ecotourism Agreement (CCEA) for the Orobiai River catchment on the Raja Ampat island of Waigeo, we sought to start at the very bottom, where it matters most, by engaging into direct structured payments to customary landholding groups in return for carefully defined and monitored conservation and education outcomes. Our initiative is inspired on the concept of Payment for Ecological Services (PES), whereby a voluntary, contingent transaction is made between buyers and providers of a well-defined environmental service or a land-use likely to produce that service. While most definitely not conceived with climate change mitigation in mind, by avoiding deforestation and forest degradation, our initiative may reasonably be expected to yield climate benefits in addition to the tangible benefits to indigenous communities and the environment on which their livelihoods depend. In short, when you travel with us in West Papua, your visit really counts for indigenous peoples, forests and wildlife.

Finally, it goes without saying that we also spare no reasonable effort to actively reduce our carbon footprint within our day-to-day operations. We use public transport whenever this is feasible, and when a charter is required, we always ensure that efficiently-powered vehicles are being used. We fly as least as possible for general company operational purposes, and readily will undertake alternative journeys of up to 48 hrs by shipping carrier if available.

Related links

Browse the Papua Expeditions web site.

Read on about our Community Conservation and Ecotourism Agreement for the Orobiai River catchment on Waigeo Island (from www.PapuaExpeditions.com).

Read on about the natural wonders of New Guinea (from www.PapuaExpeditions.com).

Read on about the geopolitical and biogeographical delimitation of West Papua (from www.PapuaExpeditions.com).

Read on about the indigenous peoples of West Papua (from www.PapuaExpeditions.com).

Read on about the flora and fauna of West Papua (from www.PapuaExpeditions.com).

Read on about the birdlife of West Papua (from www.PapuaExpeditions.com).

Ecotourism is travel to fragile, pristine and usually protected areas that strives to be low impact and (usually) small scale. It helps educate the traveler; provides funds for conservation; directly benefits the economic development and political empowerment of local communities; and fosters respect for different cultures and for human rights. (Martha Honey, 1999)

    Five critical tenets of genuine ecotourism according to Ekonexion
  • Locally-owned, in declining order of preference, community-, family- or partner-owned.
  • Integrates biodiversity conservation targets, practices and principles throughout product design, planning, development, and management.
  • Small-scale, strictly observes carrying-capacity of a given environment.
  • Empowers local communities, economically, socially, culturally, and politically.
  • Adheres to sound business practices.

100 % Locally-owned

Ekonexion is 100 % locally-owned by an Indonesian family of mixed Papuan, North Moluccan and ethnic Chinese origin, with traceable ancestry and residence in the Sorong area of western New Guinea since the end of the nineteenth century, and rooted within the royal houses of the former kingdom of Salawati in the Raja Ampat archipelago off Sorong and the former sultanate of Bacan in the northern Moluccas.

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