What if your family’s lives depended on your backyard? And what if your backyard was disappearing?

I recently had the good fortune to attend a dinner honoring Indonesia’s President, His Excellency Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for his contributions to the environment. In his speech, President Yudhoyono made a point about his country’s coral reefs that stuck with me.

“Our people fish, swim, sail and play in these amazing waters,” he said, speaking of the Coral Triangle region. “Our way of life and our culture and values are all about Mother Earth and her wondrous oceans. We cannot help but admire and love them. What we often forget is the responsibility to protect these seas and the riches in them.”

The need for protection is felt most acutely by the people living near those oceans. Almost 96 percent of Indonesians live within 100km (62 miles) of the coast, and — as a new study conducted by Conservancy scientists and published in the World Risk Report attests — those people are most threatened by a changing planet.

Coral reefs line much of Indonesia’s coast, and they perform a number of crucial tasks, such as protecting the shoreline from storm surges and sheltering juvenile fish. But, as the new Conservancy study finds, reefs are in severe decline, placing the livelihoods — and lives — of millions of Indonesians in the crosshairs of natural disasters.

It’s a problem I’ve observed repeatedly throughout my career in conservation, and it’s not isolated to reefs. For example, there are the forests of Berau in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Drive down the dusty dirt road you see above and there’s not much to look at except for a sea of tree stumps.

That, and the beginnings of rice paddies and small plots for the cultivation of other crops. This is the visible manifestation of subsistence living, people growing basic food crops on recently deforested land. They have moved into these areas as they’ve given up traditional lands — lands that, for generations, provided essentials such as food, shelter, medicine and other goods — to oil palm plantations. But, with limited alternative sources of livelihood, they need to go somewhere and do something in order to survive. Technically, these plots are illegal but these rice-growers often don’t have other options and the authorities are loath to exacerbate conflicts over land use along the forest frontier.

For many of us, it’s difficult to understand the hardships faced by these communities. When my wife’s grandparents sold their farm in the American heartland, for example, they — like millions of others — simply moved the family to town and opened a small business. They had the education, skills and the means to do so. But many forest and coastal communities in Indonesia (and other countries — the World Risk Report estimates that 200 million people worldwide receive important benefits from coral reefs alone) lack that kind of mobility.

Forests are safety nets. They protect watersheds and prevent landslides; like coral reefs, they provide people with a crucial buffer against the elements. And the resources provided by these sorts of local ecosystems are both irreplaceable and indispensable.

In a world where more people are being displaced and disenfranchised by a variety of environmental and economic factors — including both sea level rise and deforestation — it is important to create opportunities and alternatives for social and economic development.

The Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI) is helping to achieve that balance. A multi-country initiative that’s supported by the Conservancy, the CTI unites governments, NGOs, universities, corporations and communities behind the shared goal of connecting marine conservation to the health and security of local people.

President Yudhoyono’s dinner was about honoring the leader for his commitment to the CTI. He understands better than most that a world at risk needs to rededicate itself to empowering people to protect and sustainably manage the resources they need to survive. This means conservation consideration has to factor into broader national development plans. Here’s hoping we all learn from his example and take responsibility for protecting our world’s riches.

[Image: Berau regency, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image Source: Bridget Besaw]

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