Tradition matters

OUR PLANET 9.5 - Oceans

Tradition matters


explains how a blend of old customs, new science
and government regulation is reviving sustainable
management practices in the South Pacific


The indigenous people of the Pacific Islands - home to the world's greatest marine and coastal biodiversity - have managed their wide span of ocean and its resources sustainably for generations. Their traditional customs and cultures developed mechanisms to control environmental destruction and maintain a harmonious relationship with nature. But the coming of commercialization and Western-style governance has both eroded cultural values and rapidly destroyed biodiversity.

The 22 island nations and territories, scattered over the largest body of ocean on the planet, are estimated to host over 4,000 fish species, 70 coral genera, 30 mangrove species, and an array of reptiles, marine mammals and sea birds. But fisheries are overharvested, and dynamiting and other illegal fishing practices are widely used. Pollution from land- based activities damages the marine environment, as do sea-level rise, nuclear testing and dumping, sand mining and dredging, tourism, and national development projects like road construction along the coasts. Cyclones and damage to corals through bleaching are also increasing.

All of this has been well documented in reports and surveys, but the Pacific Island countries have not been successful in controlling it. As in most of the developing world, national budget constraints hinder governments from allocating necessary resources. Technical expertise and manpower are in short supply, particularly in smaller countries, such as Niue and Kiribati, where conservation agencies are staffed by only one or two people. And there is a lack of adequate legislative frameworks to promote conservation and the sustainable use of marine biodiversity.

However, the islands incorporate indigenous cultures and customs into national laws and decision-making regimes to a remarkable extent. About 80 per cent of the region's land and inshore areas is owned by local villages, communities or clans, under customary resource tenure, and this is particularly important for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

Customary rights

Customary resource tenure gives villages, clans or communities the right of ownership to the land or coastal areas where they live or over which they have ancestral claims. These rights were bestowed before colonization and are still recognized in national legislation. They have almost universally ensured the sustainable harvesting of resources through strict traditional management regimes developed, and enforced, by the communities themselves. These include bans and restrictions (tapus) over areas or stocks that are in decline or threatened, imposed by community leaders and enforced by traditional fines. But, though customary resource tenure covers most of the islands' land area, it is not widely used to protect marine biodiversity.

This year, however, the Cook Islands revived a traditional system of regulating the sustainable use and replenishment of marine resources. The Ra'ui - in common practice until 50 years ago - is a form of tapu or ban imposed by community elders on fishing grounds and species they deem to be threatened. The new Ra'ui - revived out of growing concern among communities and elders, and developed using both traditional knowledge and new scientific information - include two- or three-year bans on fishing in some areas and moratoriums on catching specific species.

Other customary resource tenure activities around the region indirectly contribute to marine conservation. Fijian villages ban fishing for 100 nights in mourning for the death of a high chief. Village councils in Tuvalu ban fishing in designated areas, and some Samoan villages place a tapu on commoners eating turtle meat.

Current laws in most Pacific Islands, including Fiji and Samoa, give national governments ownership of all resources below the high water mark. This conflicts with the traditional understanding that customary land ownership includes the adjacent waters: to the customary owners, the coastal areas are part of their heritage, and thus open to use in the same way as the land.

In Fiji, the Government is responsible for regulating and managing all commercial activities at sea - including issuing licences for fisheries, taking coral and bioprospecting - for monitoring marine resources, and for developing protected areas. The system incorporates some elements of customary resource tenure. The paramount chiefs of communities with customary fishing rights to an area must approve any fishing licence. Customary land owners can use such waters freely for domestic fishing, except when regulations have been imposed or conservation areas have been established. In Samoa, commercial fishing licences are only issued outside the reefs: inside them, all fishing is managed by local villages.

Both national regulations and customary resource tenure have shortcomings, and there are efforts to find a way forward through bridging the gap between them. The region is moving away from restricting local access to resources by establishing strict protected areas and encouraging community-based approaches instead.

In Samoa, for example, the Government and AusAID are helping villages to establish their own fisheries management plans and marine resource policies, including controlling catches and setting aside sites for protection and recovery. The project also helps communities to identify alternative sources of income, such as by establishing mariculture (clam, fish and seaweed farming), and fishing boats for near-shore areas which are currently underutilized compared to inshore areas. The project and the villages share the costs - with AusAID cofinancing clam and mullet farming and the European Union helping with the cost of near-shore fishing boats; the villages alone reap the benefits.

The Government has also established national by-laws - devised by the customary owners with its assistance - to protect the communities' fisheries from outside exploitation. This also strengthens the enforcement of Government regulations, something that can only be fully achieved through the traditional authorities.

So far 32 traditional fish reserves, where no fishing is allowed, have been established in Samoa. They range from 1,500 to 16,000 square metres, their small size reflecting the fact that the decisions are taken solely by the villages themselves. The rest of the village waters are used for sustainable harvesting.

This concept is also being used for some marine conservation areas in Fiji. There the Government, in consultation with local communities, brings in regulations setting aside non-commercial fish zones. These are then managed by the communities, who license the areas to commercial diving operators as a source of alternative income: the Fisheries Ministry provides technical support for studies and in negotiation with the firms.

WWF-South Pacific, through its Community Resource Conservation and Development (CRCD) programme, operates similar community projects in the Solomon Islands and supports local training, workshops, surveys, planning, resource management and enterprise development. Communities develop their own marine resource policies, setting aside sites for protection and recovery, controlling catches and imposing tapus on such endangered species as dugongs and marine turtles.

The projects provide incentives for conservation by establishing such sustainable enterprises as clam farming and village-based ecotourism. The approach is being developed as a model for marine conservation areas for the rest of the country, and WWF is expanding its CRCD programme around the region.

Promoting community action

Community-based conservation and development approaches for marine and coastal biodiversity should be promoted. So should model projects that enhance the concepts of conservation and sustainable use, and the use of regional experts to share knowledge and provide technical advice to their neighbours. Partnerships and collaboration should be encouraged among national agencies and non-governmental organizations to further effective implementation and minimize duplication and confusion.

Legislative frameworks should be developed to recognize traditional laws and regulations in coastal areas, as on most of the land. And the international community should recognize, and provide technical and financial support for, the efforts made by governments and local communities to incorporate traditional and modern best practices, and to share the benefits equitably and fairly.

Cedric Schuster is a biodiversity officer with the World Wide Fund For Nature-South Pacific Programme.

Complementary articles in other issues:
At a glance: Small island developing states (Small Islands) 1999
Billie A. Miller: Looking good, feeling good (Small Islands) 1999
Tamari╣i Tutangata: Vanishing islands (Small Islands) 1999
Terry Donald Coe: Small is dutiful (Climate & Action) 1998
Andrew L. Hamilton: A vulnerable global heritage (Freshwater) 1998
Elizabeth Khaka: Small islands Big problems (Freshwater) 1998
Razali Ismail: Litmust test (The Way Ahead) 1997
Don de Silva: Saving money and seeds (Food) 1996
Oscar B. Zamora: The real roots of security (Food) 1996
Vaasiliifiti Moelagi Jackson: Water is everything (Water) 1996
Fazlun Khalid: Guardians of the natural order (Culture, values and the environment) 1996
Mary Lean: Changing the in-vironment (Culture, values and the environment) 1996
Federico Mayor: Crucible for a common ethic (Culture, values and the environment) 1996
Laxmi Mall Singhvi: The East is green (Culture, values and the environment) 1996

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