My research at Conservation International deals with expanding Community-based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) across the Coral Triangle region encompassing Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Timor Leste. Of approximately 43,000 coastal communities in the region, 2,500 have CBNRM in place. Conservation International wants to double this number by 2026 or so, implying a ten-percent growth rate per year. Simultaneously, they wish to reach another 20,000 communities with knowledge-sharing materials (storybooks, videos, gamification, etc.) to teach them about CBNRM and inspire them to begin organizing themselves as well.
Examples of this expansion can be found in Papua New Guinea with the Ecocustodian Advocates who use inter-community teaching and simple tools to reach other population. Expanding the Reach is another effort in Solomon Islands and is based in the government. consisting of peer-to-peer teaching. This initiative is becoming part of mainstream operations in the country, reflecting several government trends in the regions. A network of Locally Managed Marine Areas in Indonesia is also working with Conservation International to expand, and consists already of over 100 communities. Combined with all of the other NGOs’ initiatives in the area, serious investments are flowing into this approach to manage the highly diverse marine resources in the region.
To help with the expansion, I am researching the relationship between CBNRM and food security outcomes. For this I have been reading reviews of the literature, including a system mapping of evidence linkages, identifying databases with case studies, and conversing with researchers and conservation practitioners from CI and several other agencies. This roundup of resources and expert opinion has been intriguing and opened my eyes to how the world of conservation works: It is a matter of communications, of meetings, calls, e-mails, outreach, and discussion. I would say that a third of my time has been spent contacting and conversing with CI partners (my next Skype session is at 6 AM on July 4th with a contact in Madagascar).
What I have learned about the evidence for a relationship between CBNRM and food security is that evidence exists, but it could be stronger. Why is it lacking? There is a vicious cycle at play; donors often decide what gets done, and don’t often want to pay for monitoring of projects over the long term, so evidence of success (or failure) is not collected. That evidence is needed to convince donors to support more CBNRM projects, including donors that usually fund “development” projects, what we are trying to prove to be related to CBNRM.
Nonetheless, the evidence is growing. The trends demonstrate that CBNRM interventions can lead to economic, material, social, and governance and empowerment outcomes that benefit communities. Material benefits include direct food security benefits, but economic benefits, improved social relations (social capital and cohesion), governance (tenure rights, for example), empowerment in terms of political voice, gender inclusion, and receipt of benefits and capacity building through co-management interactions with governments and NGOs all can improve living standards, and food security with them. In many cases, the issues of social relations, governance, and empowerment are both the vehicles for implementing CBNRM successfully and the benefits all at once. To clarify, many fishing communities have lived on the margins of society, ignored by governments, and CBNRM represents an opportunity to organize themselves and gain a say in regard to how they are treated. CBNRM, you could say, is a political phenomenon, just like any other question of natural resource management.
Even if I am able to articulately convey these linkages in a way that pleases development donors and unleashes enormous amounts of funding (unlikely), many obstacles still stand in the way. Marine conservation is complex, and even well designed co-management regimes with simplified explanatory material will have a hard time adjusting to the very different social, economic, political and ecological conditions of thousands of communities, possibly taking years to be considered successes, or not.
If we are able to double the number of CBNRM projects by 2026, that is a ten-percent compound growth rate. Double it again to 10,000 by 2033. Again, to 20,000 by 2040. Double it again by 2047, 40,000 communities. Assuming this is even possible (maybe with some pyramid scheme where converted communities convert communities which convert communities which…?), by 2047, our planet will most likely be far different from the one we are used to. We may be 10 billion by then, with much of the new population residing in developing countries like those of the Coral Triangle, magnifying local ecosystem-socioeconomic stressors. Many of the reefs are predicted to be dead by 2050 or earlier due to various pressures ranging from climate change effects to pollution and physical destruction. Naturally, expanding CBNRM as fast as possible is necessary to alleviate those threats, but we have to acknowledge that not all the communities and their resources will be reached in time. Key ecosystem-community pairs must be identified and targeted first, including those with coral species resilient to bleaching and acidification.
What happens if we do not reach enough of these communities? Where will millions of people migrate to as their source of livelihood and identity literally dissolve? Cities already stressed and challenged to provide basic services to the current influx of rural citizens? Abroad, with the extremist backlash against current flows of migrants? A political phenomenon at the scale of many small communities and resource management can quickly become a national or regional issue, which, in our interconnected world, represents a global political problem. Combined with similar scenarios across the planet, especially in Africa, the future begins to look rather grim. Human ingenuity and luck may solve some of the wicked problems facing us, but where they do not, the effects of failure can spill over into cases of apparent success and negate those outcomes.