Lasting progress in conservation depends on cross-sector synergies

Conventional segregated approaches often hinder conservation and development work, but integrating them with livelihoods and public health activities can deliver lasting impact

For a community dependent on natural resources to flourish it must promote both the immediate goals of better health and economic conditions and the long-term goals of environmental conservation. Bringing about sustainable development can be a fine balancing act. Focusing too much on any single area often comes at the expense of another.

Photograph by Jill Mead

Early Morning Fish Market : Photograph by Jill Mead

It seems a truism to state that a community’s population, health and surrounding environment are delicately interwoven. Yet most development organisations still work in silo — individually well-meaning but collectively far from effective. After all, what is the true value in protecting people’s health and livelihood if their environment and resources cannot provide for their future?

Small-scale attempts at a more integrated approach are beginning to show that by working in harmony, the multiple facets that make up sustainable development can have far more impact. One such test bed can be found in the community of just over 3,000 that inhabit the tiny Philippine island of Cuaming on the outer rim of the Danajon Bank, one of the world’s only double barrier coral reefs.

The community lies at the heart of a global epicentre of marine biodiversity but life here is a far cry from paradise. The health and wealth of the island’s population depend heavily on the surrounding tropical waters that provide food and income.

The Danajon Bank’s fragile reefs and fish stocks are living on borrowed time, being pushed to breaking point by the pressures of the region’s burgeoning population.

The Philippines has one of southeast Asia’s fastest growing populations, and decades of neglect of women’s reproductive rights have taken their toll. Half of all pregnancies across the Philippines are unintended, and population growth in remote islands like Cuaming is generally much higher than elsewhere in the country.

“Every year the fish we catch are smaller and fewer,” says Rogelio Angco who as Barangay captain is the most senior elected official on the island. “It’s harder than ever for us to make a living from fishing.” Recent surveys show that just 1% of the 90-mile long Danajon Bank’s reefs remains in excellent ecological condition – the vast majority now decimated from years of overfishing.

Like many coastal villages in the Philippines, Cuaming is taking pragmatic steps to tackle the pressures of overfishing head on. More than 70 hectares of coral reef and seagrass meadow around the island have been set aside as a sanctuary where fish stocks can replenish.

“The sanctuary is a big help – it’s like a marine bank, a nesting place for our fisheries, helping us produce more fish,” says Angco.

Fishermen take turns to keep watch for poachers in the sanctuary day and night, with assistance from the Path Foundation, a Philippine NGO that supports local communities to deal with environmental and social challenges.

“Everybody here understands that without constant surveillance, everything that they have worked so hard to conserve could be destroyed in a matter of hours”, says Path Foundation marine biologist Jeremy Jansalin.

This community’s efforts go much further than managing the marine sanctuary. When they are not busy discussing the merits of using night vision binoculars to catch poachers, Jansalin and his colleagues work with women’s groups, schools and youth clubs to provide training and support through activities ranging from seaweed farming to family planning.

The family planning initiative has been widely welcomed on the island, with reproductive health specialists training networks of peer educators to ensure that all women have access to contraceptives, and help couples understand the connections between family size, food security and income.

“Often men are driven to poach in the reserves just to feed their families”, explains Ramon Minguito, president of Cuaming’s People’s Organisation, which represents the island’s fishermen. “It’s becoming harder and harder to catch enough fish to live on.”

Jansalin’s t-shirt illustrates this dilemma, emblazoned with a cartoon depicting a circle of hands grasping for a single fish — an appropriate message on an island where shortages mean that families regularly go hungry. “Our approach to conservation is working not only to help fish stocks recover, but also to tackle one of the underlying causes of declining catches,” explains Jansalin.

Since the foundation’s work began here, population growth has stabilised.

“Our sanctuary wouldn’t survive without family planning,” says Anita Manalo, president of the Women’s Association. “And if the sanctuary doesn’t survive, then life will become harder and harder for us, because we are running out of fish.”

This village is one of many thousands of coastal communities where the issues of conservation, food security and reproductive health are intimately interlinked. Its experience of addressing the convergence of these complex issues is compelling, yet this holistic approach remains alarmingly rare.

By moving beyond the conventional segregated programming that often hinders conservation and development projects, Cuaming’s progress illustrates the powerful synergies that can be achieved through integration across conservation, livelihoods and public health activities.

True integration has the potential to simultaneously address the human, economic and environmental needs of low-income communities on a much larger scale. The challenge individuals and organisations across the development sector is to better understand how our work interacts with those of others.

This article was originally published in the Guardian 2nd May 2013 

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Al Harris

Founder & Research Director at Blue Ventures
Dr. Al Harris has spent much of the past decade working on marine conservation issues in the Indian Ocean, and established Blue Ventures' first coral reef initiative in the region in 2003. He is a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas, was Highly Commended in the 2013 Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa, a recipient of the 2010 IUCN World Conservation Union's Young Conservationist Award, a winner of the 2009 Condé Nast Environment Award, an Ashoka Fellow and an ambassador for Australia's penguins. Al was recently based in Madagascar, his work developing sustainable business approaches for financing conservation has twice been commended by the UK government in the 'Enterprising Young Brits' awards.
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About Al Harris

Dr. Al Harris has spent much of the past decade working on marine conservation issues in the Indian Ocean, and established Blue Ventures' first coral reef initiative in the region in 2003. He is a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas, was Highly Commended in the 2013 Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa, a recipient of the 2010 IUCN World Conservation Union's Young Conservationist Award, a winner of the 2009 Condé Nast Environment Award, an Ashoka Fellow and an ambassador for Australia's penguins. Al was recently based in Madagascar, his work developing sustainable business approaches for financing conservation has twice been commended by the UK government in the 'Enterprising Young Brits' awards.