Hayley Versace - Community Partner Interview

  • May 13, 2022

Hayley Versace, the General Manager of the on the ground operations of Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative (CICI) has always had a passion for marine life since she was small. Hayley was lucky enough to study Marine Biology and Zoology at university, which then progressed into the marine tourism industry where, shortly after graduating, Hayley trained as professional dive instructor. All of her work has had elements of marine conservation in it, and even if it didn’t, she would always find her own small ways to contribute. 

Hayley has organised rallies opposing the lethal shark nets in Australia, has helped with manta and whale shark research both in Mozambique and Western Australia and has contributed to school marine education programs. She founded CICI after she and her husband came to Papua New Guinea in 2012.
Our Director of Partnerships Rob caught up with her here:
Q. How did CICI Start?
My husband and I arrived to Conflict Island for the first time in 2012 for a short visit. After leaving we longed to go back and could see the great potential the islands had to become a conservation example for Papua New Guinea. When we finally did come back, we moved permanently. 
With the full support of the owner of the islands Mr Ian Gowrie-Smith and a voluntary board of directors we began the process of founding the Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative in 2016. We began with a voluntourism program, and a small team of only 5 rangers. We also had a single marine biologist,to monitor and assess the turtles that nest here between the months of October and February. 
Since then, CICI has taken on a life of its own and has evolved prior to have multiple voluntourism programs including manta rays, shark, coral reef and fish and training local communities in scuba snorkelling and the importance of Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMA’s).
However, since the Covid pandemic, we, like many NGOs, have suffered. We lost 100% of our income used to fund our important conservation programs overnight and have since had to navigate through the highly competitive world of grants and donor programs. We have been lucky enough to maintain our Turtle program but unfortunately all our other programs have ceased due to a lack of funds. 
The Conflict Islands have been designated by oceanographer, explorer and conservationist, Sylvia Earle as a Mission Blue, Hope Spot in 2017 for its rich natural habitats and biodiversity. It's a truly magical place which deserves all the protection it can get.
Q. What has your partnership with the Beach Collective enabled you to do?
It is with the help of Beach Collective that we have been able to continue with the support for our community conservation rangers to protect turtles and keep our turtle protection and monitoring program running.
Q. How aware of climate change is the average person in your country?
Here in the islands of Milne Bay, people face issues that are arising from climate change every day. One local community has had to relocate their primary school three times in as many years to avoid sea level rise. The communities here are on the forefront of the effects of climate change and are being pushed to the brink for their own survival. Climate change is affecting their access to clean drinking water as their fresh water sources are flooded by the rising sea, an unhealthy reef ecosystem from years of coral bleaching events and infertile soil from the wild elements and storms damaging their gardens. So people are very aware of climate change but are also very limited with resources to be able to stop the ever increasing threats they face in their daily lives. 
Q. How do people react when they see you doing your conservation work?
In the beginning people did not agree, and some still oppose our conservation work. However we have the support of our rangers and the community elders. They are the ones who can remember “what it was like in the old days” - when turtles and reef fish were plentiful and they didn’t have to paddle far in their hollowed out wooden canoes to catch a weeks’ worth of fish. We are slowly seeing a change in attitude of the communities as the benefits reach them and they realise the urgency of the crisis we are all facing, particularly to our wild marine life.
Q. If you had $10,000 of funding what would you do?
I would hire more community conservation rangers to increase our reach and capacity to communicate our overall conservation goals! We have so many communities wanting to do more for their environment and the best way for us to help is to give meaningful employment and education opportunities.
Q. What inspires you to continue your work?
The people, the rangers, my team and the support from our local communities. It’s not always smooth sailing but when we win, we all win. Our program has gone from strength to strength and has changed the lives of our rangers in the process. We are seeing a shift in attitude towards a more sustainable and understanding future. That’s what keeps me going.
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