Manuai Matawai – Island Voyager

Connecting conservation areas, culture and climate change in the Pacific

Manuai Matawai building his canoe Photo: James Hardcastle

I have just returned with my crew from a 12 week canoe voyage between the islands of Papua New Guinea and the Solomons. We covered over 5,000 kilometres and visited 21 island communities on the way. We shared stories and documented experiences in conservation, culture and how to deal with climate change. We were warmly welcomed everywhere, from New Ireland to the Arnavon Islands.

The entire crew and I are from the Titan people. We come from villages and the islands of Pere, Mbuke and Baluan, in the island province of Manus, the largest of the Admiralty Islands, off the north coast of Papua New Guinea. All our communities are involved in conservation, and both Mbuke and Pere have successful protected areas in place as part of local development and natural resource management strategies.

The Titan people are a seafaring and island culture and we pride ourselves on our sailing, boat-building and navigation skills. I learned these skills from my father, a locally famous canoe-master. I led my first voyage five years ago, from Manus across the Bismarck Sea to Madang, on the northern coast of Papua Island, and from there along to our neighbours in West Papua. I began building my own voyaging canoe two years ago, with a mission to share our experiences in Manus with other communities in Papua New Guinea, Melanesia and the Pacific. I named it Climate Challenger. Our current voyage was the culmination of a lot of planning and effort, but it was a resounding success. The story of our voyage, and a map of the route, can be found here,

View photos of the voyage:


Among other roles, I am on the management committee of the Pere locally-managed marine area. Established just a few years ago, the evolution of our conservation area has been challenging and exciting. We now have very effective protection in place, and the benefits to our community are numerous.

It was not an easy task, however, to establish and manage an MPA. It took time and patience to win over the community, in addition to a lot of trial and error. External support and back-up, both technical and financial, has been very important. We have also been able to network in and around Manus, and worked with other communities and the provincial government to expand a network of protected areas across the islands. Our planning efforts can be seen in this video clip:

The connectivity of our local efforts can make a really big difference, especially as more development is planned for Manus, and as the effects of climate change affect us more and more–paticularly sea-level rise, which causes flooding and coastal erosion, and periods of warmer seas, which causes loss of corals, altered fish migration routes, and unpredictable weather.

Everywhere on our voyage, we came across island communities facing similar challenges, particularly with erosion, flooding, loss of mangroves and shoreline vegetation and the depletion of coastal resources and local fisheries. However, in every case, people were doing something to meet these challenges, using diverse experiences, solutions, successes and failures. Though we had lessons of our own to offer–and through our traditional garamut dance we shared our cultural stories too--we learned much more than we provided.

In Kavieng, the local fisheries college supports the surrounding communities to implement local fisheries management; on Lihir we witnessed first-hand the impacts of large-scale mining on the coastal villages and their ecosystems, and discussed how to implement recovery measures as well as support advocacy and campaigns to raise awareness of these issues. On Anir island, we were the first outside visitors to discuss conservation and climate change, and helped the villagers think through the problems they have with flooded gardens and an invasive bird pest. On Nissan and Buka islands, we really saw the impacts of sea-level rise and coastal inundation, but were impressed with the strength of the traditional chief system and how the community have mobilised to protect their environment.

From the Bougainville Islands, we crossed into the Solomon Islands. We were met in Taro, Choiseul Province, by a local organisation, the Lauru Land Conference of Tribal Community, and the local government and administrators. We learned how, like Manus, the people of Choiseul are working at an island-wide scale to establish marine and forest protected areas in every community, protect coastal defences, conserve cultural heritage sites, preserve fisheries and maintain forests for future needs.

We sailed the length of Choiseul, visiting many communities and sharing ideas on managing and benefiting from conservation areas. Towards the end of our journey we were fortunate to spend a few days on the Arnavon Islands, a community-managed conservation area and turtle nesting reserve. The islands' management is shared by three different cultural groups. Their success in turning an area of previous access and resource conflict into a shared cultural and natural sanctuary is a real inspiration.

Before our voyage, we learned how to use a video camera, and practised making short films with villagers using ‘participatory video’, with assistance from New Zealand film-maker, Kat Gawlick. We worked with our hosts all along our voyage to document their hopes and fears for their environment and island cultures, and we are compiling the footage and editing a documentary. I look forward to sharing this in the near future.

We hope that others in the Pacific can be inspired to take to the seas to tackle a conservation challenge. We are working to raise awareness and funds to enable others to do this. In making and sailing our traditional canoe further than any Titan voyage in living memory, we have revived and showcased our skills, and efforts to preserve our culture and our island environment. Our faith and our courage made sure the voyage was a success, and we will continue with our conservation efforts to ensure that these continue to bear fruit over the coming years and into the next generations.

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