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.

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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.

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