New paper: Ecosystem services and community based coral reef management institutions in post blast-fishing Indonesia

Link here to the journal. Here is my copy of the PDF: Dunning, Kelly Heber (2014) “Ecosystem Services and Community Based Coral Reef Management regimes in Post Blast-fishing Indonesia.

Thanks to my supervisors, Dr. Larry Susskind, and Dr. Porter Hoagland for help revising.


Coral reef communities: the Malaysian experience

I just recently wrapped up several weeks of fieldwork in Malaysia’s Tioman Island. Tioman is a major dive tourism destination located in a government designated Marine Park some 20 years old. With dozens of reefs to dive, I had two major components to my field work: take representative ecological surveys of some of the most popular dive sites and then administer surveys and socio-economic based interviews to stakeholders in the hand full of villages that fringe the island.

Given the wave of new and cheap photography options for underwater imagining, I adapted my ecological survey methods from English et. al 1997’s timed swim technique involving a fish census and hard cover examination at predetermined time intervals. I did this with a GoPro, and instead of a fish survey, as my research team was limited to one, I looked at an indicator far easier for a single diver with camera in hand to assess: percent living cover of hard corals in 1x1m quadrats.

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An image from my survey of Labas Dive site reef

A major criticism of interdisciplinary research that looks at human-environment interactions is that either the human (socio-economic) or environment (ecological) indicators are ignored in the process of inquiry. My first round of studies conducted in Bali last summer relied on coarse grained UNEP assessments of reef health in two Balinese communities. This time around, I am using my own assessments based on percentage hard cover. Living hard coral cover is a valuable indicator as it 1) provides a visual motive for divers to come and contribute to the local economy and 2) a critical function in the ecosystem.

My surveys of stakeholders ranged from local dive masters, boat operators, tank boys, dive shop owners, marine parks officers, ferry boatsmen, and so on. I asked people questions about how their community looks after their reefs all the while knowing the reefs are a critical piece of the local economy. Ultimately, I will have looked at 8 cases across SE Asia by the conclusion of my fieldwork, and will be able to make claims about specific community attributes that tend to also accompany healthy reefs.

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.