Ailan Awareness was founded in 1993 by three locals, John Aini, Bernard Aini, and Michael Ladi in response to declining fish populations within their home waters in New Ireland Province. A main threat was the extensive use of poisonous derris root for fishing. In addition to harvesting specific species, the root caused harm to the reef ecosystem. In the past, only certain people in the community had knowledge and the right to use this special fishing method. With the decline in traditional knowledge, which is associated with a strong governance system, some important and sustainable practices were at risk.
A kap kap is a traditional ornament typically fashioned from the shell of the giant clam and overlain with a delicate filigree of turtle shell. Image: Paige West.
The malagan carvings of northern New Ireland are among the most intricate sculptures in Oceania. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Ailan Awareness’s approach to the conservation challenge was to design appropriate methods suited to the cultural context and environmental setting – championing the decolonising of marine conservation. Empowering communities from the grassroots level is key and is often overlooked by the government and international NGOs.
Ailan Awareness supports communities to use a mix of traditional and scientific methods to manage marine and cultural resources. Ailan Awareness’ work includes conducting ‘awareness roadshows’ with communities in New Ireland, supporting efforts in developing and implementing Indigenous-based marine conservation plans, running marine education programmes (including the Ranguva ‘Solwara Skul’, which translates as ‘Saltwater School’), and the ‘Malagan’ Cultural Revitalisation Project. This last piece of work is focused on Malagan ceremonies, which are the core of the belief and knowledge system in the Malagan cultures of New Ireland Province. These important ceremonies unite and maintain relationships within and between communities.
The honouring of relationships also extends to ancestors and the natural environment including the land and seascapes. Intricate Malagan wood carvings are central to these ceremonies, with the motifs containing detailed inscriptions of family histories and the connections with spirits, and plants and animals. Across its work, Ailan Awareness’ efforts contribute towards strengthening biological and cultural diversity.
Since 2008 Ailan Awareness has worked in partnership with Barnard College, Columbia University (New York, USA). This partnership allows John Aini and Paige West, an anthropologist with 25 years of experience working in Papua New Guinea, collaborate on current approaches of marine conservation, fundraising efforts, and improve understanding of marine conservation sovereignty for Paige’s students.