Reviving Our Planet through Local Participation
Written by Plant With Purpose on October 5, 2009 in General
by Scott Sabin
A couple of months ago I read an editorial in our local paper that caught my attention. Stuart Sandin, a marine ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography writing in The San Diego Union-Tribune, was citing some recent success in marine conservation.
Most of us are at least peripherally aware of the dire state of the world’s oceans. Scientists believe that over 90% of large fish such as tuna, swordfish and sharks are gone. Twenty-five percent of major commercial fisheries are in serious decline. The absolute catch leveled off and began declining in the late 1980s, at same time that the average depth that fish were being caught at significantly increased. In other words, even as the search expanded, the catch shrank. Around the world, coral reefs are dying, with 25% already gone.
Major portions of the ocean are becoming completely lifeless, as agricultural runoff has led to algae blooms which have depleted the oxygen to the point where fish no longer can live. Elevated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is leading to the acidification of the water. And of course, to add insult to injury, headlines have recently been full of stories of an enormous soup of plastic garbage which is estimated to contain 100 million tons of plastic.
However, Sandin highlighted a number of recent triumphs: the recovery of turtle populations in Costa Rica , the replacement of gill nets with pots for crab fishing in the Philippines , and the recovery of reef fish around the Big Island of Hawaii. These stories restore hope that all is not lost – that as stewards there is still much that can be done to restore and protect God’s creation.
But what really struck me about the article – and it is a point that Sandin highlights – was the fact that all of these stories have two things in common: local community involvement, combined with economic benefit or incentive for the local stakeholders. Protecting the turtles brought an increase in ecotourism, fishing with pots enabled more reliable catches and hence access to export markets, and locals involved in the aquarium trade benefited from better protection and management of the reef fish.
The lessons he outlines precisely match those that Plant With Purpose has learned over our 25 years of working in areas impacted by deforestation. The local community must have a stake in the protection or restoration of the local resource. When they are excluded from the decision making process, efforts are almost always doomed to failure. Over the years we have witnessed and read of dozens of reforestation projects which consisted of outsiders “going in” and planting trees, only to be frustrated when the trees were cut for firewood, eaten by goats, or died of neglect. Furthermore, when these imposed plans fail, the public begins to believe that all such efforts will fail. Thus there is a great deal of current writing on the futility of foreign aid, and people regularly tell me that one place or another in the world is hopeless because the people will just cut any new trees.
But as we have seen in hundreds of communities, when there is local participation in all aspects of the program: developing goals, producing trees, planting and caring for them and reaping local economic benefit from them, there is a strong probability of success.
I am frequently asked how, in a place like Haiti , we keep people from cutting down the trees they plant. My simplistic answer is “we don’t.” We tell them they can cut them! Otherwise they have little personal incentive to plant them in the first place and no ownership of the outcome. However, if they do have the right to eventually benefit from the wood, they will care for the tree, watering it if necessary and keep others from cutting it down prematurely. It is similar to the reef fish that are protected by the locals so they can be sold to aquarium collectors which Sandin talks about in his editorial. There is an obvious benefit to the local people, and thus an incentive to take better care of the resource.
Of course this is not a new idea. Twenty years ago our promotional literature included a quote by Lester Brown from the 1988 edition of State of the World:
“successfully reforesting large areas of degraded lands will require much more than financial commitments … Only by garnering the knowledge, support and human energy of rural people themselves — and planting to meet their basic needs — is there any hope of success.”
Sandin concludes that there need not be a conflict between “conservationists and resource users.” Again, this is congruent with our conclusion that caring for the poor and caring for creation are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing. Once we begin to recognize the potential for this virtuous cycle, we can see hope for the forests and oceans and all of creation.
This article was posted on Sustainlane on 10/1/09.