Monday, 3 March 2014

Community-based natural resource management in action: Velondriake

I’ve been wanting to write about the content of Blue Ventures for a long time, and finally here it comes:

The Vezo people, one of the 18 tribes of Madagascar are traditionally migrating fishers whose livelihood depends almost entirely (80%) on the sea. They have no traditional resource management structure, whenever the resources became scarce, they just moved along the coast. It is relatively recent that they have settled in villages such as Andavadoaka. In general, they live on less than $1.6/day and have large families (6.7 children/woman in 2011, according to Blue Ventures' health needs assessment!). Consequently, the population in this region is very young: for example, over half of Andavadoaka’s population is less than 15 years old.

The rapid population growth and the lack of a traditional resource management structure have contributed to a decline in fish stocks. Blue Ventures arrived in 2003 with two other NGOs and had the idea to start a permanent closure in the sea with the hope that this would allow fish stocks to recover. Such approach builds on the assumption that it will lead to a so called “spillover effect”, meaning that the fish outside the protected area also become bigger in biomass. The NGOs estimated that it would take about 5 years to reach this objective. The villagers response: thanks, but no, thanks! Understandably, people living on a day-to-day basis and dependent on the small income and the protein brought by fish cannot stop fishing for 5 full years in the hope that this might create the desired spillover-effect.

There was, however, one area where conservation advice was welcome and which, eventually kicked off the collaboration between Blue Ventures and Andava: octopus gleaning (collecting octopus with spears during low-tide). Octopus grows fast, brings a big amount of revenue (proportionally) and the gleaning is usually done by women, so focusing on it was expected to contribute to gender equality. An entire area was closed off for 6 months, a decision reinforced by dina (traditional law signed by community representatives). The closure resulted in a big success with a significant increase in the number and size of octopus. The encouraging outcome inspired additional closures and by 2006 coordination became necessary.

The VelondriakeAssociation was set up as the very first Locally Managed Marine Area of the Western Indian Ocean, covering 50km of the coastline, 682 km2, 25 villages and about 7300 people. Its name means: ‘Living with the Sea’. By now, there are 20-25 reserves per year (with the closures slightly shorter, about 3 months long). The area also contains two marine protected areas (permanent reserves where fishing is prohibited).

I find this story really inspiring- it sounds like a compromise both environmentalists and the local population are happy about.

The story of Velondriake makes me think of my thesis research in South Africa. I was in a remote corner of the country, analysing how a community managed natural reserve (Makuya Park) was impacting the lives of the villagers around it. Makuya was set up in an untransparent manner towards the end of the Apartheid regime, as a result of an unclear deal between three village chiefs and the South African state.

In theory, it is jointly managed by the provincial government (so, by the state), and by a handful of communities living adjacent to the reserve. On paper, it is supposed to benefit the villagers (the income from the entrance fees is hypothetically divided among them), however, unfortunately, for the average person the reserve brought about more difficulty than benefit. Their access to the area has been fully restricted and this has a significant negative impact on their livelihoods: they can no longer hunt, collect medicinal plants or find wood there.

The region is very arid to start with, so finding alternative livelihoods is very difficult and climate change is making the situation worse by longer and longer droughts. The little benefit that there is from the reserve disappears in the pockets of a few traditional chiefs, who cannot be held accountable. The state is well aware of the situation, but unable to do anything about it, because of the delicate balance between the national administration and the traditional tribal system.

So, having seen the “other side of the coin” and having read extensively about the challenges of community-based natural resource management, it feels great to have discovered the Velondriake Association, which seems to work so well. Obviously, it isn’t perfect either (they would like to improve on monitoring and enforcement), but it is a constantly developing structure that has been in place for a almost a decade and is fully embraced by the communities involved in it. To me, it is the perfect demonstration that nature conservation can be done with the people, for the people. It’s fantastic to have a chance a see this from close!

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