coral reef degradation in developing countries: complex causes

Here I use political ecology is a body of theoretical tool to analyze coral reef management.  Since its beginnings in the 1970’s, political ecology questioned the so-called “narratives of degradation.” In the two cases I outlined here in previous entries, “narratives of degradation,” were stories told by elites about a natural resource and how it would be managed.  They often involve how the poorest people who live closest to the resource and depend on it directly, are also abusing the resource.  This abuse legitimates removing resource control from locals and shifting it to government control or a private company’s control.  In the context of reefs, narratives of degradation keep the poorest members of the local community from accessing the reef for subsistence living.

In the two cases I reviewed, local fishermen were overextracting reef species to meet subsistence living needs and to meet a spike in demand created by an influx of tourists.  It begs the question—should the poorest and most vulnerable groups in a society be tasked with the responsibility of conservation, when we are asking them to not fish their main source of food? Or should we re-think macro level policy that leads to overextraction in the first place.  Government backed tourism to reefs and donors encouraging export-oriented projects are examples of this policy.

photo (6)

In many instances, local people became tourism-based entrepreneurs.  They did not create a marine protected area for ecological reasons, but cordoned off the area for tourists.  This meant that the most vulnerable members of the village had their rights to fish cut off.   When large environmental NGO’s get involved in these local resource struggles, they push for conservation aims while ignoring provisioning needs of the poorest local citizens, disenfranchised from the reef’s resources.  Often they are portrayed as ignorant, unconcerned locals flagrantly disregarding the importance of a precious resource.  The reality is poverty, in its most extreme manifestations, forces many a hands in reef degradation.  Thus, protecting reefs and reducing poverty are the same goal.  A sample plan could be involving locals in paid schemes for reef monitoring and management, thereby increasing buy-in, knowledge, and livelihoods.

Political ecology forces us to think about multiple scales, and how scale affects degradation.  The struggle for subsistence fishing rights takes place on a local scale, but multilateral development banks that finance tourism operates on an international scale.  Resource conflicts result when action at one scale negatively affects access to the resource at another.

That’s not to say that community based natural resource management has been a silver bullet. Case studies have shown that when local communities are tasked with managing their resources, entrenched power structures award opportunities to well-connected, wealthier community members.



Destroying mangroves to create livelihoods: policy narratives versus reality

It’s no secret at this point that fish stocks are declining thanks to massive ground trawlers and other impossible technologies that strip the seas bare, coupled with toothless fisheries management regimes that set allowable catch at quantities far too high.  To make up for dwindling fisheries, aquaculture is now the new darling of multilateral donors.  It is the fastest growing food production industry in the US, growth that is matched on a global scale.  It is a win-win for the World Bank since it encourages both production and natural resource management in private hands, as well as a focus on exporting the final product.

What exactly goes on in these aquaculture schemes?

First, mangrove forests are felled in order to make way for shrimp-farm ponds such as these:


Farmers  fill these ponds with large, densely populated populations of shrimp.  Farmers can increase the food source, plankton, by adding fertilizers and antibiotics to their ponds.  Salty water, without the buffer created by mangrove forests, encroaches onto the land, so that crops that border on aquacultural enterprises begin to fail.  Native fish stocks are adversely effected by cloudy water with hyper-concentrated amounts of rotting shrimp, waste, antibiotics, and chemicals.

The Environmental Justice Institute values mangroves at $1-36,000 USD per hectare, versus $200 USD on a hectare of shrimping aquaculture.

Mangrove ecosystems deliver  services to people that include: serving as a nursery for countless commercially important fish stocks, prawns, and crabs; they are natural filtration systems, soaking up toxic pollution (heavy metals) and excess nutrients (sewage); they stabilize the coastline by allowing soil to accumulate, they protect sea grass beds and coral reefs through this process; they absorb 70-90% of wind swell that hits coastal areas, and take storm surge down by one foot for every three feet of mangrove forest; they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide and store it in sediment; they also are sources of firewood and construction wood.

Social dynamics of Aquaculture in mangrove forested areas

Armitage’s work points out that when aquaculture-based development projects are financed, it is often the previously well-connected elites, or government officials who receive the major benefits, while the poorest members of the local population lose out.  The poorest people live closer to the mangroves and depend on them more directly for food, fire fuel, and construction materials.  When trees are felled for aquaculture, these questions are left unresolved, while a few elites profit.

Policy narratives contribute to the continuation of so-called development projects that actually only benefit a few.  Policy narratives are the stories that political elites tell about a resource in order to implement their political agenda.  In this example, common-property holdings of mangroves were said to be a source of environmental degradation.  They were “swamp wastelands” where aquaculture could improve lives and livelihoods.  Since nobody owns the mangroves nobody was motivated to keep it in a healthy state. The solution was to partition the mangrove land off, and allow the owners to start up aquacultural operations destined for export markets.  This was heralded as a success, as many farmers were now were cashing in on a productive economic venture.  But the reality on the ground was vastly different from the reality created in a policy narrative.

In reality, the pollution and oversalinization results from shrimp farming, coupled with the dramatic loss of ecosystem services provided by mangroves.  The short-sighted nature of these aquacultural ventures trade cash exports for the long term value of a mangrove forest.  The polluting effects are not paid for or cleaned up by farmers, and again, the poorest most immediate residents suffer the consequences.  Fish stocks that used to inhabit the area collapse, pollution is no longer filtered, the coast is no longer buffered from storms.

Part II: Community-based natural resource management and building consensus

In yesterday’s post I examined how a community-based management scheme for a marine reserve on the Bay Islands in Honduras attempted consensus-building.  In actuality it empowered elites in the community and not the poorest people living subsistence lives.  The problems here is that these natural resource management paradigms are praised as empowerment tools by many NGO’s and multilateral donors.  I agree with this potential, but these shortcomings in practice must be addressed. In these cases, you usually find a community that depends on a reef for subsistence, fishes it for decades, and then sees a rapid tourist influx followed by the creation of a no-take preserve.  All of a sudden, people who need to fish can’t fish.

But who it is ethical to preserve the reef from?  Often, the poorest members of the community will lose out, under the banner of environmental protection, with resource control shifted to the hands of newly wealthy hotel owners, who were well connected elites, allowing them to secure capital initially and build their ventures. Often, and unwittingly, Western NGO’s will bankroll and assist in creating these marine reserves, keeping local people out, while ignoring the fact that they have nowhere to fish for food.

Today I want to look at another case of community-based coral reef management (CBCRM) as compiled by Satria et al. (2006).  This case in Gili Indah, Indonesia is an example of a CBCRM scheme that more drastically skewed its benefits for those well-situated inhabitants allowing them to cash in on the tourism trade, leading to resistance on the part of local fishermen.  The resistance was framed as anti-environment, when in reality they were protesting access to and control of natural resources by social elites who were shutting them out.  A crisis of legitimacy resulted, since those lowest on the socio-economic rung of the ladder were not allowed any extractive possibilities from the reef.  Western NGOs and universities aided the process in the name of conservation.  There was no discussion of redistributing newly generated wealth by paying fishermen not to fish the reef.

The Gili Islands just west of Bali

Much like the Bay Islands case outlined yesterday, Gili Indah saw a rapid influx of tourists in the 1970’s related to diving, with little or no funding to implement any type of conservation measures to assist with reef degradation.  Development of a tourist industry resulted in the growth of hotels and restaurants.  The wealthiest of the local fishermen who already had money and connections to access loans cashed in on the emerging tourist trade became even wealthier.  The vulnerable fishers were painted as reef destroyers and barred from their livelihoods.  In reality though, hotels and increased reef traffic degraded the reef in the same way unhampered fishing had.

It is the tourism entrepreneurs (TE’s) who began the conservation effort, viewing the local reef as a type of “natural capital” for them to invest in.  It is interesting to note that foreign investors were the initial financiers here.  However, when talk begins of “natural capital” and “investments” it begs the question—who in the long run will receive the return on these investments?  Bioprospecting and biopiracy is definitely on the rise, resulting in the all-too-familiar scenario, where foreign environmental organizations come in and help fund a conservation project.  Oftentimes however, these projects see an influx of development money, and the shutting out of local populations who depend on immediate extraction for subsistence.

Three aspects of this particular marine protected area forced a crisis of legitimacy. First, consensus was not reached over the utilization of traditional fishing methods, argued by TE’s and conservation groups as being destructive, versus the fishermen’s perspectives of these nets being necessary for basic subsistence fishing.  Additionally, the model for building consensus was flawed from the get-go, with input from the local population determined by where they lived, not what they did for a living.  Thus, fishermen felt seriously underrepresented.  Lastly, conservation NGO’s tried to implement a local awig-awig decision-making council in order to enhance cultural resonance of the preserve.  However, the awig-awig ended up reducing legitimacy, since it was not attached to customary law.

To make matters worse, the TE’s, in order to monitor the reserve, created a group named Eco-Trust.  Instead of employing the fishermen put out of work by the preserve, a type of clientelism emerged, where people who had jobs already were hired as a type of kickback.  The TE’s now had an environmental darling on their hands in the eyes of western donors, the Eco-Trust, which could attract international allies in the environmental preservation circuit, while the poorest locals were marginalized again and again.  With Eco-Trust monitoring the preserve, fishermen felt that this was not a legal entity to whom they were accountable, since it symbolized the already entrenched elite status of the TE’s.

What can be done in regards to cases like this that do indeed improve biodiversity in these endangered systems, but often biasing benefits for the already well-connected members of a society, at the expense of the poorest? It is hard to see this type of system working well without dramatic, innovative, and creative ways of redistributing large amounts of wealth generated by Western tourist incursion to the people on the lowest rung of the ladder. More important though are effective innovations in consensus-building that create legitimate natural resource management schemes.

Community-Based Coral Reef Management

In recent years, the idea of local communities managing their natural resources has gained traction in the donors circuit, mainly in the World Bank.  Touted benefits include improved livelihoods, improved state of the resources, development of village-level infrastructure, and an increase in their political voices.

I look at two case studies over the next two entries to see if these results do indeed surface in practice, and what potential drawbacks community based coral reef management (CBCRM) may have.

The first case is the Bay Islands of Honduras, as compiled by Luttinger et al. (1997).  Here we see the typical influx of tourists into a reef system with a complete lack of infrastructure and protective measures to accommodate it.  The islands, over time, developed a sizable yet unstable economy dependent on the reef, that grew more vulnerable as degradation only increased.

More tourists often means communities are compelled to protect their reef, while at the same time, more tourists spells increased degradation.


So once the tourists start to flow in, where do the necessary funds for conservation come from?  And how do stakeholders, from the hotel owners, to the waiters in restaurants, to the diveboat operators, all work together to ensure their local economy survives alongside the delicate ecosystem?

To complicate matters further, Western researchers and environmental groups often frame this as a Malthusian depletion of resources.  In many ways this is true, the resource is being  depleted, but who is actually doing the depleting? Is it the people who build the hotels for the tourists to come and stay in? Or is it the oft-victimized fishermen who extract from the reef to supply the restaurants and to fill subsistence needs? Or is it the tourists that fill the diveboats?

In the Bay Islands case, local islanders relied on reef fish for subsistence for decades–lobster, crab, conch and fish. Once reef-based tourism took hold, prices on these species spiked because of enhanced demand, as well as a dwindling supply in the waters.  This dwindling supply worsened with coral trampling, anchor wounds, trash, fishing lines, and other reef-damaging pollution created by increased reef activities.  It took a member of the local community to return from receiving a degree in marine biology to begin a consensus-building project involving the establishment of a marine reserve, plus the livelihood re-training program of the community’s fisher fleet.

The reserve’s success is evident in the re-proliferation of key reef species.  However, the reef is not simply a biophysical entity.  Political ecology posits the resources have the crucial socio-politico-economic angle that must be considered as well.   I would add cultural livelihood preferences as an obstacle, as the lives of fishermen were impacted on a personal level when re-trained as a waiter or hotel service employee.  Funding was an issue from the beginning, with most major cash flow coming from one large luxury hotel owner, funding which was later pulled once reef species began to recover.  In addition, the disproportionate power of local elites in all management decisions of the community based management scheme seems a pathological pattern in community resource management projects.

Possible solutions? It is quite difficult to see how the the poorest members of a population gifted with a precious natural resource could have their rights to subsistence taken away, their traditional livelihoods taken away, and still maintain a sound quality of life.  This raises complicated questions about how poverty increases motivations to degrade a reef, and what scale poverty needs to be addressed from.  Other options must be financed since these people are poor, but who should do the financing?

For me, it is hard to see a solution to a tricky management problem such as this without a payment for environmental services scheme to replace the income earned by traditional fishermen.  Again however, as is the case in many CBCRM schemes, who will pay the bill?  Perhaps a “green fund” like the one originally advocated for by the Group of 77 leading up to the Rio conference, but slated for coral reef preservation is the answer, with money coming from dues or fees from dive tourists and industry operators all over the world.