Dr. Alasdair Harris, founder of Blue Ventures, has worked with coastal communities to introduce a method for sustainable harvest that is managed by local residents. This model of community conservation is revolutionizing the way communities engage in marine protection.
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Why those who depend on the sea lack the means to protect it
When I was 18, I worked night shifts to earn my first trip to the Philippines. Learning to scuba dive, I was dazzled by the extraordinary beauty and diversity of the coral reefs. This experience was to leave an indelible imprint.
Returning to Scotland, I began studying marine biology, which took me to Madagascar for research. As I studied the effect of climate change on coral reefs, I was struck by a paradox that sits at the heart of so many marine conservation efforts in the developing world: Local residents - the ostensible stewards of conservation - were completely disempowered by conventional approaches to marine protection. Local people had to be mobilized to manage conservation measures by themselves - and to see that conservation can work in their interest.
Once the solution was evident, I needed funding. As a result, I set up a marine conservation organization, Blue Ventures together with my university friend. By leading expeditions for “conservation tourists” who scuba-dive to support conservation, and study excursions for researchers, this social enterprise was able to develop a steady source of income.
Marine conservation is about human life
Conservation is usually equated with protecting biodiversity, but in reality it’s about human issues. The economic impact of the fishery collapse was evident in countries like Somalia, where illegal harvesting of fish by foreign industrial trawlers deprived local fishermen of their livelihoods. The only way to build effective marine conservation areas is by demonstrating real, meaningful economic benefits to local people.
Blue Ventures has worked with coastal communities throughout Madagascar to support Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs), areas of ocean supervised by coastal communities to help protect fisheries and marine biodiversity. Within an LMMA, a village fishery may be closed for several months for restoration. A committee of local people is in control.
We need the world to understand that fishing is not about producing an uninterrupted supply of luxury goods to western and ‘northern’ plates. It’s about the ensuring the survival and food security of some of the most vulnerable people on earth.
Blue Ventures’ pragmatic approach extends to ‘non-conventional’ areas of conservation, including reproductive health care. We realized that family planning measures reduce population pressures on the environment, while easing childcare and domestic burdens on women, who are then able to play more active roles in their communities. That is a plus for reproductive rights, maternal and child health, and the local economy. Building a sustainable model that benefits both communities and the environment is absolutely essential to nature conservation.
Bringing the Madagascar revolution to Asia and the world
The issues Blue Ventures identified 10 years ago are now mainstream. Indeed, just a few months ago the President of Madagascar pledged to triple the coverage of marine protected areas nationally, with a focus on locally managed marine areas. Our local staff has risen in the ranks to promote conservation, a success that makes us particularly proud.
And yet, only 1% of the oceans are fully protected at present. Overfishing, ocean pollution, and global warming remain epidemic. Unless a third of the world's oceans are protected soon, it may be too late to restore them. We aim to scale our training programs fifteen-fold, reaching three million people by 2020, starting in Asia and reaching other communities around the globe.
It is only through these small-scale grassroots efforts that conservation can truly succeed - and ensure that future generations can enjoy the wonder of coral reefs as I did, so many years ago.
Marine ecologist. After undertaking marine research in Madagascar, Harris created Blue Ventures, in 2003, which conserves marine areas by working with coastal communities to ensure they have sustainable livelihoods. Blue Ventures has a staff of over 110 based mainly in Madagascar, Belize, Timor-Leste and the UK, with other projects being developed. Harris flies frequently. To stay fit, he swims and runs most days, and has been known to tackle the occasional ultra-marathon.