PRESERVING BIODIVERSITY THROUGH THE HUMAN CONNECTION – AN INTERVIEW WITH SHAWN HEINRICHS
People protect what they love…a simple, yet powerful truth. This truth is what drives Shawn Heinrichs, the humble Emmy-award winning cinematographer and one of the co-creators of Racing Extinction, photographer, and marine conservationist, in all the work he does. At age 19, Heinrichs became aware of the harsh realities the oceans and marine life were facing, feeling disgusted and heartbroken by what he saw. His duty became to find the truth, connect with it, and share it with the world. He set out on a journey, for more than two decades of intense undercover journalism, to some of the most remote and even dangerous places in the world to expose the darkest realities, like the global shark fin trade and mass killing of manta and mobula rays. He hoped that he could shock people into reality and inspire conservation, but even with increased awareness of these issues, nothing changed. This is when Heinrichs took a different approach, stating, “that’s when my work transformed into a deeper form of storytelling. I needed to bring humans into the story and show our connection with nature. I began to use a much more inspired, artistic approach where I connected humans with charismatic marine life and created imagery and stories around that.” With this transformation, people began to care. Heinrichs had found a way to reawaken the childhood passion that exists within people. This newfound connection people began feeling for the ocean, prepared them for the hard truths of marine issues. This philosophy is what Heinrichs describes as “a marriage of inspired, connected beauty with a dose of strong medicine to say we need to act now.”
Heinrichs is best known for his pivotal role in the global protection of sharks and manta rays, but his work does not stop there. “You can’t just focus on one species, if you don’t focus on other issues, we will still lose it all.” His mission became to protect as many species, in as many locations, as quickly as possible. This continues to be his measure of success. Heinrichs partnered with renowned photographer, John Weller, known for his role in driving the initiative to establish the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area, the largest MPA on earth, and together they founded the Blue Sphere Foundation.The Blue Sphere Foundation is dedicated to raising awareness and inspiring fierce change using art and activism. The Foundation’s current projects include halting tuna extinction, creating successful ecotourism, and preserving treasures like West Papua, a province of Indonesia and one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
In 2005, he began working in Raja Ampat, in Indonesia, and became deeply passionate about protecting the area, as the heart of biodiversity, and working closely with a dedicated and passionate team from Misool Resort they succeeded in creating what many consider to be one of the “most impressive and successful marine conservation stories in all of Southeast Asia.” It was during this time that Heinrichs became very aware of the interconnectedness of the land and ocean issues. Even with the success they were having, development and resource extraction on land was damaging the surrounded marine ecosystems. Teaming up with Conservation International Indonesia, Heinrichs and Weller began working on The Guardians of Raja Ampat, a multiyear film project that documented what was occurring, and how communities were cementing their commitment to conserve their natural resources for generations to come. They captured the remarkable story and commemorated it in the voice of community leaders, members, fisher women, and children and presented their story to them. Their film reached more than a quarter of the population of this region and helped solidify the next decade of commitment to effective conservation, and even landed the second largest MPA in that region. During this time, the Governor took notice of the immense success and expressed a desire to take this model and scale it up to a larger area. This film and project became the predecessor to Provinsi Konservasi (Conservation Province) in West Papua, what Heinrichs calls the “most important work I’ve done in my life.”
West Papua is one of the last great biodiversity hotspots, home to the world’s second largest rainforest, the largest mangrove forest, and one of the most abundant and biodiverse reefs. Heinrichs calls it “a critical buffer to climate change” and “one of the greatest gems in history.” There are few places on the planet with this magnitude of biodiversity, which is why its protection is imperative, ridge to reef. Once again, harnessing the power of film and art, and teaming up with Conservation International, Heinrichs and Weller began documenting the stories of the communities and ecosystems, creating Provinsi Konservasi, which will be released online for global audiences later this week. When they began filming the project almost three years ago, the governor made a declaration of commitment to make the entire region a conservation province. With growing commitment of community leaders and members, Heinrichs, Weller, and the team from Conservation International launched a film and community engagement tour across the entire province of West Papua, reaching more than 25,000 members of the community during six separate showings on their mobile 27ft cinema system. Heinrichs describes the support from the community as “unbelievable,” as members saw their story on the big screen, “projecting their voice and their community and beautiful natural history, right in their village.” The films sparked even more support, with more than 700 of the most influential people in the local cities and communities signing a petition of support for the initiative.
Now, “at the one-yard line,” the government of West Papua will vote on whether to make this region the first ever conservation province in December. This decision has the potential to make huge waves in biodiversity conservation. If the legislation passes, it would mean several things for West Papua. It would mean designation of an immense portion of land and water resources (more than 60%) to a no-take protected area, as well as commitment of the governor to enforce environmental standards across all industries, such as mining, fishing, and logging, basing their economy on sustainable development. In addition, this decision would reinforce and restore indigenous rights and voices, so community members have a say in how their resources are used. This pivotal decision has the capacity to be a model for the entire world. Heinrichs is now working with Sea Legacy to gather signatures from around the world. This is the final step, to present the signatures from the international community as a “testament to the members of Congress about how important this is to the rest of the world.” Each signature says that the world is watching, and we care. Each signature is holding them accountable asking, “Are you going take progressive, landmark steps to preserve what is your birthright and one of the greatest marine and terrestrial treasures left on earth?” Each and every single one of us has the capacity to show we are watching, and that we care by adding your voice to the petition here.
Even after the legislation decision, the work is not finished. “We aren’t just raising our hands for a policy win; we are going for a real win.” The next moves are just as critical. If the initiative passes, there will be an entire multi-year policy plan implemented in West Papua. This plan will become a model for the ridge to reef communities, sustainable industries, and “everything rolled into a concept that truly preserves species, communities, and livelihoods.” Heinrichs is confident that if we create this model and see it through then it undoubtedly can be replicated anywhere in the world. This is why Heinrichs’s work in West Papua is so important. It is not only the chance to protect “one of the greatest gems in history that the earth has ever known,” but it is the chance to catalyze new conservation. Heinrichs passionately states that “not only are we saving this gem, but we are creating something that we can take to the rest of the world, and begin a process where we can engage anyone, whether you live on a mountaintop or on a boat…everything you do touches the oceans and the land. It’s all connected. That is why it is the most important work that I’ve done in my life. It is because of the connectivity and the opportunity to amplify what unto itself is already such a special opportunity.”
We are at a critical point in our history where we must support efforts like the initiative in West Papua. Heinrich cannot express the necessity enough, saying “if we don’t protect massive forests and massive swatches of the ocean very quickly, we are going to see collapses that we’ve never imagined…we need to move now.” We ALL must continue to support and demand more conservation. The work and effort cannot fall on the few passionate voices like Heinrichs. It will take a large movement to turn things around. The intensity and issues can be overwhelming, leaving many of us feeling helpless. The beautiful truth is that each and every single one of us has the potential to make an impactful change in the world. We all can make simple changes in the oceans favor today. We can commit to eliminating our dependence on single-use plastics. We can all also begin supporting companies committed to being environmentally and socially conscious. Another change that has huge beneficial impacts is making the switch to a plant-based diet. The less strain and negative impacts we have on our valued resources, the bigger difference we can all make. Lastly, we each have a loud, powerful voice we can use. Heinrichs found his voice in marine conservation through photography and film, and without any professional training or qualifications he took it upon himself to soak up everything he could from anyone he could, so he could get his message out to the world. When asked how others can use their own skills or passions to create change, he points to social media as a great way for more people to engage others, saying, “Today, we have more power than ever before…we all become publishers and participants.” In order to be successful, one must become educated, and now there is no shortage of accessible documentaries and films, like Racing Extinction, that enable so many of us to become incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about environmental issues. This “layer of wisdom” is critical to creating an informed voice along with a passionate one, and that is how powerful movements begin.
Communities, like those of West Papua, realize something that many of us forgot a long time ago…our deep connection with nature. This lack of connection with the natural world creates a void, a void that can only be filled with “a sense of purpose and the ability to connect with other beings, not just humans, but all nature in a way that truly nurtures us.” Being connected with nature is part of what it means to be human. These beautiful communities feel this connection because their existence is rooted in it and depends on it. We all must find and maintain that connection with nature. Heinrichs believes that the human connection is essential for conservation, and without it, efforts will falter.
When we wholeheartedly know that we are one with nature, we can begin to feel and hear what it is telling us. Heinrichs hears the ocean and powerfully states that the ocean’s voice is saying, “Help me. I have nothing left to give. Enough is enough.” Even though the ocean is mighty and resilient, we cannot wait for the next generations. If we wait, there will be nothing left. We each have the power within ourselves to be the voice for the ocean. To stand up for the future, we so desperately need…a future with healthy, abundant oceans. Turning the tide starts with every single one of us. Heinrichs ever so perfectly states that “the greatest lesson is understanding the inescapable truth that our fates are inextricably tied to nature, and we are not separate. The sooner people realize that maybe the sooner we will see change happening.”
The time is now.