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Sea Women of Melanesia recognized

To most people, fins, masks and neoprene wetsuits are recreational gear. But to the non-profit group Sea Women of Melanesia who were recognized as this year’s Champion of the Earth for Inspiration and Action, they are the tools of change.

The Sea Women of Melanesia were recognized as Champions of the Earth under the category Inspiration and Action under the United Nations Environment Program’s Champions of the Earth Award is the UN’s highest environmental honour.

The group’s 30-plus members chart the health of the fragile coral reefs that surround Melanesia, a grouping of island nations in the South Pacific.

Their goal is teaching local women scuba diving and biology skills so they can monitor the health of coral reefs and create and restore marine protected areas.

Scuba Diving

The SeaWomen work in what’s known as the Coral Triangle, which covers some 5.7 million square kilometres between the Great Barrier Reef and the island archipelagos of Melanesia and South East Asia. Brimming with marine life, it is one of the world’s premier destinations for underwater tourism and home to a major fisheries industry. It is also exceptionally threatened by surging human populations and waste levels.

As a member of the SeaWomen and Marine Biologists, Israelah Atua recalls the first time they approached a fishing village.

“I remember the first time I went and talked to a fishing village to try and recruit some women to join our programme, but they didn’t even want to hear us. But we convinced them that marine conservation is necessary to protecting all of our livelihoods”, said Atua.

The SeaWomen initiative now UN awarded group,  is run by the Coral Sea Foundation, has since 2018 worked across the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to promote restoration of coral reefs and support the establishment of no-fishing areas.

Sea Women of Melanesia

According to the Executive Director of the Coral Sea Foundation Andy Lewis, Sea Women are simultaneously changing narratives about a woman’s role in her community and her opportunities for leadership.

“Having a woman in the community who can advocate for the marine reserve process and marine conservation, in a local language, is important to get the initial messages out about the importance of marine protected areas. There can be no conservation work done in these countries without explicit recognition of indigenous culture”, explained Lewis.

But equally, the Sea Women say, they are challenging indigenous conventions about a woman’s role in her household, community and society.

Co-director of the Sea Women programme based here in PNG, Evangelista Apelis is also vocal about teaching women to make a change and protect marine life.

“When you train a woman, you train a society, we’re trying to educate women, get women on board, so they can then go back and make an impact in their own families and their society as well. What I love most about my job is being able to experience the beauty of the underwater world,” said Apelis.

Each of the SeaWomen is supported through internationally recognized scuba diving certification, and taught how to use GPS, underwater cameras and video to survey fish and coral populations on the Coral Triangle’s reefs. 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.

Research and discussion session

As for Naomi Longa, a team leader for the SeaWomen in the West New Britain Province helping create marine reserves means that she is not only a leader in her community but also setting a course for the future.

As population pressures on land add to the stress on the sea, the marine reserve programme is an investment into long-term well-being for communities vulnerable to stresses and shocks.

“We are actually saving food for the future generation,” she said. “There are species dying out, so some of the species that are living in those marine reserves may be the only species left when our future generations are born, said Longa.

Being recognized for their inspiration and action to educate about marine life, the Sea Women were congratulated virtually by the UNEP’s Executive Director, Inger Anderson.

“Coral reefs are a sanctuary for marine life and underpin the economies of countless coastal communities. “Coral reefs are vital to the future of our planet and the work done by the SeaWomen to safeguard these beautiful, diverse ecosystems is nothing short of inspirational,” said Anderson.

The Sea Women of Melanesia’s award is yet to arrive on the shores of PNG.

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