From Cyanide to Conservation

How coastal communities are making behavioural changes to conserve coral reefs and secure their children’s future.

Ian Nugrahane
Dec 3, 2016 · 6 min read

On a sunny day in the sky above Selayar island, passengers in a small plane can look out and instantly feast their eyes on the brilliant turquoise water that encircles the island and hundreds of neighbouring small islands dotted like a string of pearls. The famed Taka Bonerate marine national park, a four-hour boat ride from the main island of Selayar, has long been a destination for tourists and divers looking for less-travelled sites to visit and experience.

Located south of Sulawesi in Indonesia, Selayar is an archipelago of 130 islands, 26 of which are inhabited. It encompasses an expanse of coral, including the third-largest coral atoll in the world. In the deeper water, divers can easily spot schools of pelagic fish such as tuna and skipjack converging where currents from the Indian and Pacific oceans meet. The mesmerising beauty of Taka Bonerate marine park, with its rich coral reefs, diverse marine life and colourful fish swimming in crystal clear blue water belies the troubling reality of life underwater in the rest of the archipelago.

Mirroring the fate that has befallen numerous coral reefs elsewhere in Indonesia, the reefs in the waters surrounding Selayar’s inhabited islands are severely damaged. While half the people living on the main island work in agriculture, the rest on the main island and almost all who live on the smaller islands depend on coral fisheries for their livelihood. For decades, fishers have used destructive fishing methods such as cyanide, stunning and dynamite, while extensive coral mining has exacerbated the damage. These fishing methods are now illegal, but the damage has been done. Illegal overfishing has caused reef fish stocks to dwindle significantly, threatening not only the survival of many marine species in the area but also the livelihoods and survival of fishing communities themselves. Many reefs once teeming with life are now wastelands that even the most vigorous conservation efforts cannot begin to restore.

Fishers come home with their coral fish catch of the day

“Every year, our catch has become less and less. I don’t know if I’ll be able to provide for my family for much longer and send my two children to school if it doesn’t improve soon,” said Hasan, 46, a fisherman in Kahu Kahu village on Pasigunung Island. “I remember when I was a child, catching coral fish was almost too easy. They were large and plenty. I may have to do something else to earn money for my family, but I’m not sure what, because all I know how to do is catch fish.”

Hasan is not alone among the fishers of Selayar. A survey by The Capturing Coral Reef & Related Ecosystem Services (CCRES) project in January 2016, conducted in six villages and three districts in Selayar, confirmed that there has been a 50 percent decline in the condition of coral reefs and fish stocks over the past five years.

In January 2014, the project started with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Bank and the University of Queensland (UQ). As the project lead, the CCRES project seeks to unlock new, sustainable income streams for coastal communities in the East Asia Pacific region which rely on these ecosystems. Some of the first people to benefit directly from the project are fishers like Hasan and his family of four. It is an international research project involving universities and institutions from three different countries: Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines. It currently works in Selayar in Indonesia and Palawan in the Philippines. Selayar was selected as the pilot site due to its potential for fisheries and marine tourism, despite heavy exploitation of reef fish and minimal marine fishery infrastructure.

“What makes CCRES different from other research projects is the approach,” explained Dr. Novie Setianto, a systems scientist at the Centre for Coastal and Marine Resource Studies at Bogor Agricultural Institute (CCMRS IPB).

“It tries to make discoveries using several connected components–ecological, socio-economic and institutional. The modelling tools that will be created in this project will reflect real conditions to help policy makers to make good decisions,” added Dr. Setianto, who is also a CCRES team member.

CCMRS IPB is a partner of the project, together with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and the University of Hasanuddin (Unhas).

In the past two years, CCRES international scientists and researchers have made frequent visits to Selayar and other parts of Indonesia to work with the CCRES Indonesian team, conducting research, talking to stakeholders, and sharing knowledge gained with each other and with other researchers and projects. Research teams and activities were planned around the project’s three-component approach: 1) Quantifying the value and market potential of coral reef and mangrove ecosystem services; 2) Generating robust local economies that capture and sustain marine ecosystem services; and 3) Promoting behaviour change through outreach, decision support and regional learning.

This year, one team representing a partnership between scientists from UQ and CCMRS IPB visited selected sites in Selayar to study factors that change the way local people live with, work with, and enjoy coastal ecosystems, including fisheries and coral reefs. The team is currently analysing the results to determine the needs, values, levers and drivers that foster behaviour change among individuals and households. Once these factors are analysed the team, comprising Erik Simmons from UQ and Dr Eva Anggraini, Dr Yudi Wahyudin and Dr Arsyad Al Amin from IPB-Bogor, will co-design and pilot test an intervention (based on the principles of UQ’s Positive Parenting Program–Triple P) to change behaviours in local communities. The objective of the intervention is to reduce the risk factors that cause individuals to damage marine ecosystems, while enhancing the factors that lead to the protection of these ecosystems.

Arsyad Al Amin (IPB), Erik Simmons (UQ) and Yuni Kumoloraras in discussions with villagers in Kahu Kahu village

Another CCRES team of Indonesian researchers working to quantify the value and market potential of coral reef ecosystem services is led by Lisda Haryani. She works with CCRES as a Masters student under the supervision of Professors Jamaluddin Jompa from Hasanuddin University and Peter Mumby from UQ, both of whom are scientists and members of the project. Early this year, Lisda Haryani and her team interviewed fishers and stakeholders in three sub-districts in Selayar to analyse and understand the capacity of local communities to shift from coral reef to pelagic fisheries. Preliminary results indicate that fishers are experiencing a significant reduction in overall catches, with the biggest problems facing coral reef fishers in moving towards pelagic fisheries being a lack of fishing tools, boats, resources and skills, as well as fishing by fishers outside of Selayar. Any government program or initiatives to help coral reef fishers like Hasan to move away from coral reef fisheries towards more profitable and sustainable pelagic fishing must therefore address these issues.

“I am identifying opportunities for local fishers to shift from coral reef fishing to pelagic fishing,” said Lisda Haryani.

Lisda Haryani, CCRES researcher, with children from a coastal village in Selayar

When all the modelling and tools developed by this project are completed and shared with national and local governments, businesses and communities for uptake and implementation, and the CCRES project has successfully demonstrated the fundamental links between healthy ecosystems and the economic benefits derived from ecosystem services, then someday, Hasan need not stop fishing, and he can catch fish as big as he remembers from his childhood, all while helping to conserve coral reefs.


We share stories about how science and research improve the…


We share stories about how science and research improve the lives of Indonesians and help the region progress. Managed by Knowledge Sector Initiative. Cerita tentang sains dan penelitian yang menyejahterakan rakyat Indonesia dan memajukan kawasan, dari Knowledge Sector Initiative

Ian Nugrahane

Written by


We share stories about how science and research improve the lives of Indonesians and help the region progress. Managed by Knowledge Sector Initiative. Cerita tentang sains dan penelitian yang menyejahterakan rakyat Indonesia dan memajukan kawasan, dari Knowledge Sector Initiative

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