Raw spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and mace) and kenari (almonds) grown in the Spice Islands. Image credit: Alison Green/TNC.

This is the fourth in a multi-part series chronicling Conservancy scientist Alison Green’s trip with the Coral Triangle Center to conduct a rapid marine assessment in the Banda Sea.

The Banda Islands have a rich and violent history as the Spice Islands. Until the mid-19th century they were the western world’s only source of nutmeg and mace, which were highly valued spices the world over.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spice Islands played an critical role in world trade. They were colonized by one colonial power after another—first the Portuguese, then the Dutch (who established the Dutch East Indies Company, which had a monopoly on the production and export of nutmeg for almost 200 years), and then the English.

European control of the Banda Islands was contested until the mid-17th century, when the British traded the small island of Run for Manhattan Island (yes, the one in New York!), giving the Dutch full control of the Banda Islands.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Banda Islands were ruled by a group of leading citizens, and the Bandanese had an active and independent role in trade throughout Indonesia. Sadly, they suffered terribly under more than 300 years of colonial rule.

Prior to the Dutch conquest, it is estimated that there were around 13,000-15,000 people in Banda, including the Bandanese, Malay, Javanese, Chinese and Arab traders (who arrived in the 13th and 14th centuries). By the early 17th century, most of the Bandanese had been either massacred by the colonial forces or had fled the islands so that only an estimated 1,000 Bandanese remained.

Since 1945, the Banda Islands have been part of the Republic of Indonesia, and there are about 17,000 people living here, most of whom are descended from indigenous Bandanese or are migrants, traders and plantation laborers from other parts of Indonesia and Asia. Consequently, they’ve inherited aspects of pre-colonial practices and blended them with aspects of other cultures, giving them a distinct cultural identity.

Cakalele (warrior) dancer in Banda Neira. Image credit: Marthen Welly.

On the survey, we had a socioeconomic team comprised of 12 people from seven organizations who interviewed local villagers to identify the opportunities and challenges for conservation. Lilhy La Hadi, an officer of the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, said they found that most people here lead subsistence lifestyles based on fishing, although some still work on the nutmeg plantation and others are involved in the commercial fishery (mostly for tuna).

Since fishing pressure on coral reef fishes is low in the Bandas, this provides an excellent opportunity for coral reef conservation. However there is conflict over tuna fishing rights between local and international fishermen that needs to be resolved.

The socioeconomic team also reported that there had been some overfishing of commercially important invertebrates, particularly trochus and sea cucumber. Muhawmad Korebima, coordinator of the socio-economic team, says that the management of this fishery lends itself well to a traditional management practice called sasi, in which no-take zones are created to replenish stocks of important fisheries species.

Muhawmad says that sasi is rarely practiced in the Banda Islands anymore, but it is still practiced on Hatta Island where there is a sasi in place to replenish populations of trochus and sea cucumbers. Unfortunately, this approach is not very successful at present, possibly because of overharvesting when the no-take areas are open to fishing. This provides an opportunity for conservation groups who may be able to work with the villagers to help improve their traditional management practices.

Muhawmad Korebima discussing traditional management practices with local fishermen on Hatta Island. Image credit: Budiono Senen.

This approach, combined with modern approaches to conservation (such as marine protected area networks and other fisheries management tools), may provide a good option for the long term protection of the extraordinary marine resources of the Banda Islands.

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