The vibrant habitat below the surface of the ocean is where Brad Wilcox, founder of Reef Artisan Collaborative Inc., imagined he’d be working when he graduated with a marine biology degree from American University in Washington, DC. Instead, he found himself submerged behind cubicle walls conducting research far from the marine animal and plant life he studied in school.
“In marine policy, it is hard to get a good job, especially one that makes you feel like you are making a meaningful impact personally. I felt like I was a long way from what I was working on,” Wilcox said.
Inspired by his desire for a more hands-on role in marine policy, Wilcox conceived of RACI, a US-based NGO that implements community-based, marine conservation-focused initiatives in developing countries within the coral triangle including Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. “I knew that you had to be over here in order to really achieve something,” Wilcox said.
So, in 2008, Wilcox entered Indonesia on an exploratory mission with current RACI creative director Michael Lawrence, technical director Erik Osterholm and communications director Jeff Weintraub to scout out RACI’s flagship project.
They landed in Bunaken National Marine Park, located off the coast of North Sulawesi. Declared Indonesia’s first marine park in 1991, Bunaken National Marine Park is 340 square miles of protected marine area. It is widely considered one of the most important such areas in the world because it contains almost a quarter of the world’s reefs, more than 2,500 species of fish, seven of the world’s eight species of giant clams and 70 genera of corals (compared to 10 in Hawaii), according to the North Sulawesi Tourism Board Web site.
As such, Bunaken National Marine Park is a popular location for two industries that are both lucrative and destructive: diving and fishing. “As with most of the region, the integrity of the natural ecosystem of the park is threatened by human activities that are both marine and land-based, such as resource over-exploitation, destructive fishing practices and unsustainable tourism developments,” stated a 2003 ecological report posted on the Bunaken National Marine Park Web site.
Fishing is a particularly harmful industry, as many partake in illegal reef fishing, which employs nets, dynamite or poison. According to the same Bunaken National Marine Park ecological report, “levels of use in many of Indonesia’s coral reef areas are already high, being major suppliers of fish and other seafood to both local fishermen and fishers from further afield. Many reef areas are already heavily over-fished. Harvest methods cover the whole gamut for tropical fisheries, including destructive blast and poison fishing, muro-ami — trawling close to reef areas — use of strong lights and with attendant careless anchoring — all of which have caused serious damage and depletion of resources.”
Enter RACI, whose mission is to diversify local economies by developing alternative sources of income to improve local residents’ livelihoods and protect their natural resources. They do this by implementing a triad initiative: hydroponic farming, an artisan community and a youth camp educating young people about the environment, sustainable livelihood practices and an appreciation for natural resources.
RACI’s hydroponics plan was developed in 2009 by hydroponics specialist Dr. Howard Resh of Canada, who received his PhD in plant science from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The proposed 100-meter greenhouse, constructed of bamboo, will be used to grow tomatoes, herbs, lettuce, onions and peppers, among other vegetables. These plants will be used as a food source and sold to local hotels, to generate income.
“We are producing diversity of produce — tastes you wouldn’t normally be able to pull out of a garden in Indonesia. And there’s a huge demand for it here. It is an ethical micro-business that is spread to local farmers,” Wilcox said.
Launched over the summer, the artisan community is the second part of RACI’s threefold plan to establish new revenue sources in Bunaken. The program offers artisan workshops, cooking classes, exhibitions, cultural exchanges and educational events to raise sustainable livelihood awareness.
The goal is to “give people hands-on experience with local culture by encouraging interaction with local artists and visually giving a history of their local culture,” said Wilcox, adding that the relationship will be developed via RACI’s Web site with an online store and short Internet videos documenting the daily lives of residents in the area.
These three-minute episodes, shot and produced by Lawrence, will eventually become a full-feature documentary called “Simalakama” (an Indonesian proverb meaning no-win situation).
The third component of RACI’s program is the BunaKids Youth Conservation Education Camp, which educates Bunaken’s youth about conservation and sustainable development, and cultivates leadership skills.
Currently, children must travel outside Bunaken to attend both high school and college. Wilcox said this led to a brain drain as educated youth often seek work opportunities elsewhere. While RACI recognizes that the education camp will not solve the problem completely, its hope is to teach hands-on practical skills grounded in marine and rain forest ecology, conservation and cultural preservation, to develop an early appreciation of sustainability among Bunaken’s youth and eventually establish a job market to which they can return.