by Florence Pichon, Barren Isles Project Coordinator, Maintirano, Madagascar
I can hardly believe it’s been two months since I arrived in Maintirano; a sleepy, beautiful coastal town in western Madagascar. Settling in here as the new project coordinator for the Barren Isles locally managed marine area (LMMA) has hardly entailed getting ‘settled’; instead of falling into a routine, my life has been a whirlwind of trips to the nearby islands, meetings with government officials, presentations with school children, outreach sessions in the neighbouring fishing towns, and even collaborating on a song about marine conservation with Savoir, one of the regional stars here in the Melaky region. As someone who thrives on change, challenge and a little bit of adventure, I can safely say that working with Blue Ventures in Madagascar is surpassing all of my expectations! I already can’t wait to see what surprises the next two years have in store for me.
I’ve arrived at an exciting time for the Barren Isles LMMA – the application for temporary protected status has been submitted, marking a major milestone towards creating an official Marine Protected Area (MPA). When the Government of Madagascar grants the Barren Isles temporary protection, my team and I will have two years to facilitate stakeholder consultations and complete the legal, technical, and administrative steps necessary to turn this fantastic marine ecosystem into an official MPA.
But the Barren Isles won’t be like any old national park – what makes this project exceptional is that the management of the protected area and its marine resources will largely be in the hands of the traditional fishers themselves. With the help of local authorities, we aim to create a platform where the local fishers can interact and negotiate with regional officials, commercial and extractive industries, and non-governmental organisations. By equipping fishers with the capacity to govern their own marine resources, our objective is to combine the needs and priorities of the fishers with long-term conservation goals. As a marine conservationist whose favourite species is humans (in spite of their sometimes appalling behaviour), I’m proud to be working on a project that strives to strike a balance between environmental and socio-economic concerns.
While all of this sounds great on paper, I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect when JB (BV’s local community liaison and my right-hand man in the office) and I headed out on our first consultation trip to the islands last week. Would the fishers be happy to work with us? Would they have practical ideas to contribute? Would they care about long-term conservation? Could consensus be reached among such a diverse group as the migrant fishers on the Barren Isles? Most of these fishers live from hand-to-mouth, an incredibly precarious existence in an area where marine resources are declining. Could you blame them if they chose to focus on feeding their families rather than more esoteric goals, like protecting the Barren Isles’ incredible reefs and biodiversity? With these questions in mind and an exceptionally good weather forecast ahead, we set off for the isles.
The point of the consultation trip was to finalise the structure of the new marine dina, a type of local law created by communities which are officially recognised by Malagasy law. The dina is an important tool for the fishers – it’s written by them, agreed by them and enforced by them, and it covers everything from social aspects of life on the islands to conservation measures, such as forbidding destructive fishing practices. The marine dina is a cornerstone of the future protected area, and is critical for ensuring that fishers are fully involved in the management of their marine resources.
Beyond its legal importance, the marine dina serves an important social function. For about 10 years now, more and more migrant fishers having been coming to the Barren Isles from southern Madagascar, looking to exploit the reef’s natural bounty. The marine dina is a good way to keep everyone on the same page, and avoid friction between local fishers and the migrants. On our consultation trip we would have the opportunity to interact with both groups, and I was curious to see whether their different backgrounds would weigh on their perceptions of the dina.
As soon as we arrived on Nosy Maroantalye, our first destination, we were welcomed by a crew of about 15 fishermen, who (mercifully) helped us pull the pirogue up the shoreline. The island was gorgeous – a cerulean blue sky overhead, the shoreline fringed with clear turquoise waters, small trees swaying in the ocean breeze, and elegant little white tern seabirds perched on the beach. Aside from a few straw huts built along the shoreline where the fishers stay during the summer months, the island was a veritable untouched paradise. It only became more beautiful at night, with the entire Milky Way stretched out over the sky and the waves glowing softly (bioluminescent phytoplankton is truly a magical thing).
The fishers were planning to leave in the afternoon to fish, so we hit the ground running with the consultations. After the initial introductions, JB presented the contents of the marine dina and put a series of questions up for discussion. To my pleasant surprise, participation was pretty widespread. I don’t yet speak very much Malagasy, but it doesn’t take a masterful translation to understand when someone cares about what they’re talking about and has clear ideas to contribute. As a group, they tended to defer to the decisions of the elders, but even the younger fishers were listening attentively and offering ideas or agreement. Afterwards, when JB and I discussed some of the proposals that they had agreed upon, I was impressed – they were better than some of those that local officials had proposed when asked for advice before leaving. I guess it boils down to the age-old federalist’s proposal – those that are closest to a problem are often in a better position to understand and act upon it.
The rest of the island trips were much of the same – animated consultations, followed by afternoons of snorkelling amongst the reefs, terrifically competitive games of dominos, and in my case, lots of non-verbal communication (I spent much of the trip with my nose in a dictionary trying to follow Malagasy).
The consultations that we held with migrant fishers were not all that different to those with the locals, although they were less familiar with the concepts of the dina and thus required more explanation. This is partly because their presence on the isles is less constant than those of local fishers, and they often are not clued into the same local communication networks. This only makes a stronger case for increasing our outreach – if local management is going to be effective, everyone needs to understand how it works and what needs to be done. The migrant fishers are only on the isles during the summer months, so they get less exposure to our conversations about conservation that are otherwise disseminated along the coast. As the MPA creation process moves forward, more outreach and community engagement can only be a good thing. With all this on my plate, I guess I won’t be ‘settling’ into an office routine anytime soon – and I can’t say I’m unhappy about that!