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Sasi Customary Law in West Papua and Marine Conservation

By Senia Febrica, Dysi Polite Dyspriani, and Nurhani Widiastuti

Photo Credit: Nurhani Widiastuti

The West Papua region of Indonesia is known for its rich marine biodiversity. This area has the richest coral reef on earth. It has more than ten times the number of hard coral species found in the Caribbean and a record-breaking number of nearly 1,000 tropical fish species (WWF, 2020). In order to conserve and sustainably use marine resources the West Papuan local communities’ have long implemented sasi customary law and practice.

The word sasi means ban or restriction. Sasi enables the local communities from each village to locally managed their customary marine area. This customary law and practice are grounded on traditional knowledge of the local communities. In Tomolol and Fafanlap villages for instance, from April to September when the winds blow from the south sasi is instituted for a six-month period and restrictions are lifted from October to April (McLeod 2007: 9). Traditional knowledge guides the local communities to decide which species should not be harvested from the ocean when sasi is instituted, the length of the ban period, types of ban (either partially or fully ban the ocean from collection of marine resources), and areas of the oceans that are designated for the implementation of sasi.

Photo Credit: Nurhani Widiastuti

Under Sasi practice different types of restrictions to manage marine resources can be introduced. Sasi can be put in place to limit or eliminate harvest of only one species, but it can also be instituted to limit harvest for all marine resources except fish (McLeod 2007:00-100). It can prevent anyone, both people from within the local communities or from outside from harvesting “banned species” during a specific duration of time as agreed by the local communities (Septiari 2020; Hehamahua 2020; McLeod, 2007). These include species that have high economic value, such as sea cucumbers, lobster, and oyster. The duration of sasi varied from one village to another. Sasi can be instituted for several months, one year or two years based on an agreement made by clans and leaders of traditional council, village, and church (McLeod 2007: 99; Septiari 2020). The local communities will lift sasi only when they deem that specific species have entered the maximum sustainable harvest period. Once sasi is lifted the local communities will allow both members of their communities and outsiders to harvest marine resources that were previously banned.

The specificity of sasi systems varies from one village to another. For example, sasi in the villages of Folley, Tomolol, and Fafanlap in Raja Ampat; and Kaimana village, in Nggama entails limiting and eliminating the harvest of certain types of species such as sea cucumber, lobster, and lola (Septiari 2020; Hehamahua 2020; Patriana, 2016 ). In comparison, in Menarbu village, Wondama Bay, as part of sasi practice the local communities designated their customary marine areas into two types of locations. In one location people are allowed to fish, but not to harvest specific species such as sea cucumber, shells, and batulaga (Manohas, 2019). In the other area no one is allowed to anchor their boat let alone fish in that location (Manohas, 2019). In Sombokoro village, Wondama Bay, the institution of sasi means everyone is prohibited from taking any single species from the “sawora” (pledged) location during the duration of the sasi (Manohas, 2019).

The practice of sasi customary law is closely related to local communities’ belief systems. There is a widespread belief that disaster such as illness or other misfortune will fall on members of the communities if they break sasi law and practice (Hehamahua,2020). This belief system is central in contributing to the community members level of compliance with the customary law. Most cases of non-compliance had been conducted by fisherfolks who are not members of local communities.

In Indonesia sasi customary law and practice has been formally recognised. At national level, in 2004, the Indonesian government introduced Law No. 31/2004 and Law No. 45/2009 which recognised local communities’ customary law in fisheries. Law No. 45/2009 places customary law and practices as one of the principles in national environmental protection and management. The Law requires government and other stakeholders involved in the planning of marine protection measures and environmental management to take into account the biodiversity and ecosystems functions, population distribution, distribution of natural resources, customary practices, communities’ aspirations, and climate change (Halim 2017). The Law obliges stakeholders to consider customary practices and law of the local communities in environmental management and place participatory approaches at the heart of the locally managed areas (Halim, 2017). Law No. 31/2004 and Law No. 45/2009 have formally granted local communities fisheries management rights. This formal recognition means local communities can participate in policy planning, in deciding criteria for locally managed marine areas, as well as be involved in the implementation and monitoring of fisheries management policy in their customary marine area. Sasi customary law and practice have also gained formal recognition at local level. For instance, sasi customary law and practice in Malaumkarta village, Makbon district, Sorong, West Papua have been adopted into local government regulations through the introduction of Sorong Regency Regulation No. 7/2017.

Sasi has contributed to the promotion and implementation of the environmental rule of law in three ways. First, sasi is based on a long history of traditional marine tenure which dates back to pre-colonial Indonesia. It is crucial to understand this customary law and practice of marine tenure to be able to integrate it better into future conservation plans (McLeod 2007:9).

Second, sasi is a concrete example of the recognition of customary law and practice by State formal-legal system. This form of recognition is important because it paves the way for local communities that are often marginalised in decision making processes to be able to meaningfully participate in ocean governance (Febrica and Keradjaan forthcoming; the One Ocean Hub, 2019). The adoption of sasi into a formal legal structure can also increase compliance not only within the local communities but also among those who live outside the communities.

Third, sasi speaks directly to the discussion of the Convention on Biological Diversity post-2020 global biodiversity framework that calls for methodologies and guidance for identifying, monitoring and assessing the contributions of indigenous peoples and local communities in its implementation. It is important to recognise that “the knowledge, innovations, practices, institutions and values of indigenous peoples and local communities and their inclusion and participation in environmental governance enhanced their quality of life as well as nature” (CBD, 2019).


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