Ocean conservation starts — but doesn't stop — with communities

By Catherine Cheney 15 September 2016

A boat goes into a mangrove forest in Balapitiya, Sri Lanka. Photo by: shankar s. / CC BY

Sri Lanka was the first country to comprehensively protect all of its mangrove trees.

The wetlands of the tropics, mangroves serve as nurseries to fish that will go on to populate coral reefs, protect villages from tsunamis and hurricanes, and contribute to communities’ livelihoods. With their branching roots that arch into coastal waters, these trees are also vital in the fight against climate change. Scientists have found that mangrove forests sequester three to five times more carbon than other forests. Mangrove conservation can offer a big return on investment, but only if those investments generate the right kind of buy-in.

“People think, if they don’t cut the mangroves, there go the shrimp,” said Anuradha Wickramasinghe, the chairman of the Sri Lanka-based nongovernmental organization Sudeesa, which is providing fisherwomen with microloans in exchange for their protection of the mangroves. “But the coastal belt lagoons can get more natural shrimp if the mangroves are there.”

Sri Lanka’s foreign minister will represent the South Asian nation at the third annual Our Ocean conference in Washington, D.C., appearing alongside ministers from Micronesia to Mauritius to Madagascar and elsewhere to speak about global ocean leadership. The conference, hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, will build on past meetings in the U.S. and Chile, which have resulted in partnerships and initiatives valued at $4 billion.

Organizers hope it can lead to the kinds of collaboration necessary to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal focused on the waters that cover three-quarters of the planet — and the people and ecosystems they support.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m a Westerner, and I like to come every five years to view the yellow-bellied sapsucker bird, and you’ve got to give up your livelihood just so I can do that,” said Duane Silverstein, executive director of Seacology, the U.S.-based NGO that partnered with the U.S. government to conserve mangroves in Sri Lanka.

The importance of working in partnership with coastal communities goes beyond equity, he continued, explaining that conservation projects will never work in the short term, nor be enforced in the long term, without the active involvement of the people who are closest to the problems and solutions.

“Don’t write projects up in an office. Come meet local partners and ask them what might work. Then write the project around that,” said Ian Drysdale, a field representative for Seacology who lives on Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras.

Drysdale urged organizations to engage communities as partners in conservation projects for nearby forests or coral reefs in exchange for something they need, such as a new school or health clinic. In a recently launched project in Costa Rica, Seacology is funding local partner Misión Tiburón to provide environmental education programs for children while also promoting the designation of a marine protected area to protect giant manta rays and their ecosystem.

The key to ocean conservation is to find the natural born leaders of each coastal community, the ones who see the benefits of conservation, then support them and promote organization among them so they can design and implement their own solution, said Dr. Jorge Torre, who is executive director of Mexico’s Community and Biodiversity Civil Association, and is speaking at the Our Ocean conference.

“Coastal communities have the answers,” he told Devex, adding that the most valuable role NGOs can play is to work with communities, then gather the lessons that can be used by decision-makers, with meetings such as Our Ocean presenting an opportunity for collaboration that can replicate solutions.

But collaborating with local communities, while necessary, is not a sufficient approach to dealing with the scale of ocean conservation challenges such as illegal fishing, sustainable fisheries and species conservation.

“The ocean is just one big pond, right?” said Tony Banbury, who leads the philanthropic initiatives of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as chief philanthropy officer of Vulcan Inc. in Seattle, Washington. His investments in ocean health include working with Sea Around Us to ensure their open platform for fisheries data visualization is used by governments and NGOs.

“We can’t solve the problem at the community level, and ignore the problem on the high seas, and we can’t just solve the problem on the high seas, and ignore the community level,” he said.

Machine learning algorithms can generate information on vessels involved in illegal fishing that can aid Vulcan Inc.’s effort to combat illegal fishing. But those sophisticated algorithms will not have any impact in and of themselves without regulatory enforcement, Banbury told Devex.

When Seacology scaled the scope of its work from one village to 1,500 villages with its mangrove conservation project in Sri Lanka, the organization acknowledged that it could benefit from cross learning with other sectors. Seacology board member Scott Halsted, a San Francisco-based investor, took the same approach to scoping out the Sri Lanka Project that he would in his day job as a venture capitalist.

“Over the course of eight weeks, we identified the risks, we quantified the risks, and once we knew the risks we talked about how to eliminate those risks,” he said of the subcommittee he formed.

He talked about the need for due diligence in this project focused on “a big island,” Sri Lanka, with a $3.4 million budget versus most Seacology projects, which average $30,000.

“The whole point of this conference is not just to talk but to do,” Catherine Novelli, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment said in a conference call Wednesday ahead of the Our Ocean conference. She mentioned the Safe Ocean Network, a global initiative to bring together efforts like detection, enforcement, and prosecution of illegal fishing, as an example of the kinds of outcomes that might be expected.

“We want the ocean to be a solution to climate change, but it can’t do that unless it’s healthy,” Novelli said.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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