“What if you are married … but your husband is dying? Who will come in and feed you? Who will help you to look after yourself? “
Evangelista Apelis and her team convinced some communities in Papua New Guinea that women who had previously been banned from diving should be allowed to go to it to protect their local coral reefs.
Papua New Guinea is an archipelago of more than 600 islands, home to a vast coastline and an unparalleled biodiversity of coral reefs. The reefs are a vital source of food, income and protection from storms.
Sea Women Melanesia works with indigenous communities to create and manage temporary marine sanctuaries that allow reefs and fish stocks to renew.
To do this, they train women from local communities to monitor and assess the reefs. But it doesn’t work without indigenous knowledge, explains Evangelista, biologist and co-director of the project.
“They have a whole idea of their sea,” she says. “They know where to get the best fish, what species, specific locations, and so on.”
When these women tell them that there are many different species in a certain place, “that tells us that this reef location has really good coral cover,” she says.
In return, the project teaches the women how to snorkel and how to use fins, underwater cameras and GPS and pays a grant. Sometimes they can provide medical supplies and water tanks in a country where 87% live in rural areas and 38% live on less than $ 2 (£ 1.50) a day.
Evangelista grew up in an indigenous community in the coastal village of Ulingan in Madang Province and spends her free time swimming, fishing and collecting shells in the mangroves. She learned that many people depended on the sea for a living, but that the rise in sea levels due to climate change is forcing people to move inland.
“My connection to my indigenous community and the skills and local knowledge I acquired as a kid really helped me … working with other indigenous communities,” she said.
More than half of Papua New Guinea’s communities are patrilineal, which means that men own the land and are inclined to make the decisions.
“It’s really heartwarming to see women actually step outside their comfort zone and not go behind the scenes, but actually take on a leading role in nature conservation,” she says.
“They talk very loudly about overfishing” and tend to convince their husbands and children to get on board too, she added.
The project has just been recognized by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and won a Champions of the Earth award previously won by the likes of Al Gore.
“Coral reefs are vital to the future of our planet and the work of Sea Women to protect these beautiful, diverse ecosystems is simply inspiring,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.
The honor motivated Evangelista to do more.
“Achieving this recognition means that even though the project is in a small society, it actually has an impact on the world.”
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