When some people learn to dive, they want to travel and dive as many places as they can. But Cecilie Benjamin was so taken with her first dive site she decided this was a place where her passion for the marine environment could flourish. She was so enthused, she helped establish a thriving future environmental education centre. By Jeremy Torr
Papua New Guinea, 10 December 2018. Cecilie Benjamin and her husband Max originally learned to dive in 1976, at Kimbe Bay, on the north coast of West New Britain Province (WNB), Papua New Guinea. She went on to become a keen scuba diver through the late seventies and early eighties. Even though she travelled and dived as far away as the Red Sea in 1978, the place she first learned back in Papua New Guinea, held her attention for its beauty and natural diversity.
“I gained my Federation of Australian Underwater Instructors Certificate in 1982, the first woman in PNG to do so. At the time I was still working in agricultural extension for the PNG Department of Agriculture,” explains Cecilie. “We went to the Red Sea scuba diving in 1978 and were told this was the best diving in the world. But we found the dramatic landscape of Kimbe Bay held more appeal both above and below the water,” she says.
She says she began to realise Kimbe Bay “… had something very special to offer by way of biodiversity and ecosystems.” An idea was born, and the seeds sown for the distant future: one day a place of marine study such as the Mahonia Na Dari Research and Conservation Centre – or Guardian of the Sea in the local Papua New Guinea language – would be created.
Today, over forty years on, Mahonia Na Dari (MND) is a unique centre of education, research and community social engagement. One that brings a philosophy to PNG youth that shows they can be successful agents of change in a world of environmental challenges - beyond those seen or endured by past generations.
Cecilie and Max established Walindi Plantation Resort (WPR) in 1983, sited on the foreshore of their plantation which interfaced with Kimbe Bay and the wider Bismarck Sea. Max had purchased the failed cocoa operation, Walindi Plantation, in 1969 and converted it to the new industry for PNG at the time, oil palm.
WPR started life as a small dive resort with just two bungalows and a communal dining area. Since then, through hard work and dedication to the area and its vibrant biodiversity, it has become much more established and internationally known. It now offers some twenty accommodation units with dining and restaurant/bar facilities, a library, managerial office space and even a boutique.
The first step was to create the Walindi Nature Centre (WNC) where MND Research and Conservation Centre now stands and operates. WNC partnered with the European Union; Walindi Plantation supplied the land to establish the Centre and the EU used it for promoting sustainable logging practices in the PNG Islands Region. The Centre was officially opened by Mr David MacRae, head of the PNG EU Mission in 1995. The EU Islands Regional Environment Program (IREP) project concluded a few years later, but The Nature Conservancy (TNC) from the USA and James Cook University, Townsville, Australia set up bases there in 1996.
The support of these organisations allowed for resources, a suitable platform and a home to develop a marine conservation youth education program at WNC. Max approached Brenda Senior, a volunteer Biology teacher at a local high school and suggested she put together a suitable course for her students. The year was 1997.
Today, almost 22 years later, that same Marine Environment Education Program (MEEP) is still being taught to visiting local schools at the centre and in schools surrounding Kimbe Bay and elsewhere.
The course proved to be the first step in a long and fruitful partnership with the local community and WNB Division of Education. After the success of the first MEEP course and the enthusiasm with which students embraced it, she says, they extended their work and collaborated with TNC, as its local education arm. And in 1998 Mahonia Na Dari Inc. was legally incorporated and gained NGO status in its own right.
This was followed by what she calls “a natural progression” for the organisation to work in the broader environmental sector, particularly the integration of human dynamics with the marine environment.
“This applies if it is international research or a small coastal elementary school project planting mangroves,” she says. “The big picture of marine studies and environmental conservation activities to explore are fascinating for Kimbe Bay, PNG and the Coral Triangle as a whole.”
Today, the development and evolution of that original MEEP program enables MND educators to visit all the districts surrounding Kimbe Bay.
Through the help of local village youth trained as Marine Educators and the centre’s MND Education Officer, over 10,000 students and community a year are now able to receive a sound environmental message outlining the importance of their unique marine environment and value of resource management to their future.
“Particular emphasis is put on elementary and primary school visits, with a puppet show featuring the characters of Niko and Leni who help explain marine conservation and educational topics,” explains Cecilie.
Further, the team at MND are working on the development of a PNG primary school marine conservation teacher’s guide. This guide and its backup material including six specially designed supporting posters is being developed, field tested and marked for publication and distribution to other PNG island and coastal schools via a USAID grant. It’s a far cry from the early days back in 1996.
For Cecilie, one of the biggest rewards is seeing how local children react to the work MND is doing. She says that many of the MEEP students participate on weekends and non-school days, simply out of personal interest and dedication.
“They want to learn about an area of marine biology only marginally covered in conventional education curriculum,” she says. “They are [so] enthusiastic, responsive … and keen to learn, embrace and appreciate the natural world around them.”
Like any enterprise, Cecilie says there are downsides too; running the centre has been challenging and physically draining over many years. Cecilie says the original buildings require maintenance, and finding money for upkeep and expenses is an ongoing mission. As a small, local NGO in PNG, the survival of the Centre comes down to “the dedication and time input of a few,” she says.
“We constantly have to source grants or other income streams to continue operating. Luckily, although some [of our] grants may not be large they have been given on a regular basis,” she notes. That has kept programs going but it is nonetheless a constant, time consuming and demanding task, she adds. “Plus the original buildings [here] were constructed of natural materials; infrastructure is aging and over time, these are now more and more expensive to maintain and replace.” But despite the speed humps in the road, Cecilie and her team are still looking ahead.
As a result, what was the remnants of a failed cocoa plantation, devastated by a high water table and lethal disease, is now a thriving force for wider benefit to both visitors and the local community. As Cecilie – who has been inducted into the US Women Diver's Hall of Fame for her work enriching and advancing the field of diving – puts it, MND’s ongoing endeavours have been an “obvious objective.”
“Care for the environment and sustainable resource use practices at all levels - be they marine or terrestrial - is such an obvious goal and interest in life for me,” she says. “We only have one Earth-home and it must be nurtured and not trashed or abused.”