Lamakera, the island that has to revise its economical background

Written by Bianca Thiglia

It has been widely debated whether the protection of endangered species is a threat to indigenous people. Hunting might be vital for their economical systems, especially in harsh environments that face a natural lack of resources. It could be the case of Arctic local communities engaging in seal hunting. Natives might see these practices as means of cultural identification as the Faroese claim in keeping on with their Grind, targeting hundreds of pilot whales every year.
In many cases, local communities retain the privilege to opt out from the international protection of these species and are allowed to maintain their customs. Arguments in favour or against these clauses are various. 

It is not the case of Lamakera, a small Indonesian island that has become the world most significant supplier of manta ray body parts. Historically, its inhabitants have survived thanks to the hunting of mantas and sharks and their activity has reached the industrial scale when the conversion to diesel boat engine happened. Their massive catch would be mainly sold to the Chinese market, only interested in the small gills that these gigantic animals use to harvest plankton for traditional medicine – mantas’ meat is not appreciated and its consumption is not diffused. This trade involved and employed every family in Lamakera, from fishing to processing and finally selling. This activity only, impacted mantas population to such an extent the seriously threatened the survival of the specie and the feasibility of its hunt in the long run. 

In 2014, manta rays became protected and its hunting and trade were declared illegal. In order not to engage in criminal activities, Lamakera inhabitants had to find an alternative source of sustainment. It happened, and the alternative is not only sustainable but also more profitable. The island is located in a unique environment where various species of sharks, dolphins, whales and other rare sea creatures migrate and can be seen in abundance. With them, of course, manta rays, animals so large that it takes five people to transport and one hour of struggle to kill one. 
Fishermen are still startled when facing the enthusiasm of divers asking them to use their skill and expertise to look for these animals not to hunt them but to watch them.
It has been estimated that global manta ecotourism yearly yields USD 140 million, 15 of which in Indonesia. Manta fisheries only provide USD 400’000 and, catch after catch, destroy its future value by harvesting a threatened species at a rate that remarkably outweighs its growth.

The change, however, is complex and the traditions of a community that bases its development on hunting is involved. Many things might have gone wrong, being the event exclusively top-down, leading to uncertainty regarding its reception and implementation. To smooth the change and provide support, conservationists and NGOs have set up an educational project that would kick-start the reform of the whole economical system of Lamakera. They engage both younger and older generations in fora where the importance of the species for the ecosystem is explained, leveraging on the already present concerns regarding the last drastic decrease in mantas and doubts regarding the sustainability of the hunt. They show that the value of these creatures when they are alive overshadows the one of their body parts. All of the families are involved and presented, for the first time, with an alternative. A cultural change is indeed needed but not one that denies the identity of the community. The advent of tourism actually helped revive other cultural aspects that were nearly extinct, providing the new awareness of the value of one’s cultural heritage.