For most people, fins, masks and wetsuits are recreational equipment. But for the non-profit Sea Women of Melanesia , this year's Earth Champion for Inspiration and Action, they are the tools for change.
Dressed in scuba gear, the more than 30 members of the group retrace the health of the fragile coral reefs that surround Melanesia, a group of island nations in the South Pacific. Their goal: to teach local women skills in scuba diving and biology so that they can monitor the health of coral reefs and create and restore marine protected areas.
"I remember the first time I went to talk in a fishing village to try to recruit women to join our program," says Israelah Atua, a member of the Sea Women. “They didn't even want to hear from us. But we convinced them that marine conservation is necessary to protect all of our livelihoods. "
Sea Women work in what is known as the Coral Triangle, which covers some 5.7 million square kilometers between the Great Barrier Reef and the island archipelagos of Melanesia and Southeast Asia. Bursting with marine life, it is one of the world's top destinations for underwater tourism and is home to a significant fishing industry. It is also exceptionally threatened by the population explosion and high levels of waste.
Coral reefs are a sanctuary for marine life and support the economies of countless coastal communities.
Coral reefs around the world are besieged by climate change, overfishing and pollution. Since 2009 alone, nearly 14% of the world's corals have disappeared, according to a recent report of the United Nations Program for Environment (UNEP). Many of those that remain are endangered.
Healthy reefs are essential for resisting the impacts of climate change, including ocean acidification and extreme events. But the report shows that unless drastic measures are taken to limit global warming to 1.5 ° C, a 70-90% decrease in living corals on reefs could occur by 2050.
The good news is that coral reefs are resilient and can recover if the marine environment is safeguarded. The initiative Sea Women, managed by Coral Sea Foundation, has been working since 2018 with the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to promote the restoration of coral reefs and to support the creation of non-fishing areas . It also supports marine protected areas in both countries, to ensure that there is abundant fish life that villagers can rely on in the future.
The Sea Women simultaneously change narratives about a woman's role in her community and her leadership opportunities.
“Having a woman in the community who can champion the marine reserve process and marine conservation, in a local language, is important in getting the first messages across on the need for marine protected areas,” said Andy Lewis, Executive Director of the Coral Sea Foundation. “There can be no conservation work done in these countries without explicit recognition of indigenous culture. "
For the "Women of the Sea", the combination of indigenous knowledge and science is at the heart of their engagement with communities. Learn from community members about where fish are most abundant at a certain time of year, or match color change in coral reefs with underwater survey data, or understand how the tides can change according to climate change is essential to raise awareness and demonstrate the urgency to preserve and protect marine areas.
"What I love most about my job is being able to snorkel and discover the beauty of the underwater world." Evangelista Apelis, Women of the Sea of Melanesia
In addition, the "Women of the Sea" report that they often come up against indigenous conventions on the role of a woman in her household, her community and her society.
“When you educate a woman, you educate a society,” said Evangelista Apelis, SeaWoman and co-director of the Sea Women program based in Papua New Guinea. “We try to educate women, to involve them, so that they can then go back and make an impact in their own families and in their society. "
Sea Women undergo a rigorous marine science training program, which is complemented by hands-on training in reef study techniques and coral reef ecology. Then they learn to dive.
"Before you go down, you imagine all kinds of things, but the reality is even more fascinating - the fish, the wrecks ... it's like everything has just come to life."
Each of the Sea Women is backed by an internationally recognized scuba diving certification and learned to use GPS, underwater cameras and video to study fish and coral populations on the reefs of the Coral Triangle. Their work since 2018 has led to proposals for more than 20 new marine protected areas in the waters of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
The Sea Women follow a rigorous training program that includes practical training in study skills reefs and coral reef ecology.
“Coral reefs are a sanctuary for marine life and support the economies of countless coastal communities ,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “Coral reefs are vital to the future of our planet and the work done by the women of the sea to safeguard these beautiful and diverse ecosystems is simply inspirational. "
For Naomi Longa, team leader for Sea Women in West Papua New Guinea province, helping to create marine reserves means that she is not only a leader in her community, but that she has also set a course for the future. As demographic pressures on the land add stress to the sea, the marine reserve program is an investment in the long-term well-being of communities vulnerable to stresses and shocks.
“We are actually saving food for the next generation ,” she said. “There are species that are disappearing, so some of the species that live in these marine reserves may be the only species that will be left when our future generations are born. "
The Champions of the Earth and the Young Champions of the Earth of the United Nations Program for the Environment recognize individuals, groups and organizations whose actions have a transformative impact on the environment Awarded each year, the Champions of the Earth award is the UN's highest environmental honor.
The UN General Assembly has declared the years 2021-2030 the United Nations Decade for ecosystem restoration . Led by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Organization of Food and Agriculture United Nations (FAO) with the support of partners, it is designed to prevent, stop and reverse the loss and degradation of ecosystems around the world. It aims to revitalize billions of hectares, covering both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. A global call to action, the United Nations Decade brings together political support, scientific research and financial might to massively scale up restoration. Visit www.decadeonrestoration.org for more.