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.


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