Mobilising communities trumps penalties in protecting seascapes: study

Giving Indigenous peoples and local communities a say in the design and management of marine protected areas boosts conservation outcomes, a new study indicates.

A diver explores Bunaken National Marine Park in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Image: Christian Gloor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Conservationists have long recognised the significance of engaging locals in safeguarding the ecosystems they live off, but assessing those relationships can be hard because of time and resource constraints. Now, an international research team has parsed how such involvement — more so, they say, than penalties for violations — shapes the success of a swath of multi-use protected areas in eastern Indonesia, which allow restricted resource extraction.

Published in May in Science Advances, the study set out “to gain a quantitative understanding of how governance — that is, how formal and informal institutions manage resources — impacts conservation outcomes,” said first author Robert Fidler, a postdoctoral associate in biological sciences at Florida International University. “Conservation initiatives are more effective when they actively incorporate, and treat fairly, the people that they impact.”

Applying more than a decade of data from the Bird’s Head Seascape, a region in the biodiversity hotspot known as the Coral Triangle, the researchers looked at hundreds of places in four marine protected areas (MPAs) where fishing occurs legally. These MPAs were the Kofiau-Boo Islands, Misool Selatan Timur, Selat Dampier and Teluk Mayalibit.

Conservation initiatives are more effective when they actively incorporate, and treat fairly, the people that they impact.

Robert Fidler, postdoctoral associate, Florida International University

The team analyzed fish biomass and community-run surveys to determine how variables like livelihood and association with local groups affected biomass changes, after accounting for environmental factors using non-MPA control sites.

Fish biomass was greater when Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) were “more involved in decision-making and had more local management rights that were supported by governmental authorities,” Fidler said, adding that perhaps it was because participation bolstered the “perceived legitimacy of, and compliance with” resource-related rules. Likewise, biomass was larger when penalties reflected the seriousness of transgressions and rose for repeat offenders.

However, “where decision-making participation and management rights were low, the frequency of penalties for noncompliance was often high, and we tended to see worse outcomes,” Fidler said. This suggests that protected areas reinforced mainly through penalties can be less effective than those that IPLCs help manage closely.

According to study co-author Estradivari, an Indonesian researcher at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research in Germany, “multiuse MPAs that incorporate diverse governance principles and active community participation can increase fish biomass while also delivering social outcomes,” such as decreased conflict, greater income, and stronger conservation awareness. The paper challenges long-standing concerns about whether multiuse MPAs inherently can’t safeguard declining ecosystems, she said.

The project was led by the Alliance for Conservation Evidence and Sustainability, a coalition of NGOs and universities seeking to foster evidence-based decision-making in community-based conservation.

Lessons for Indonesia

Indonesian conservation experts say the study offers actionable insights for accomplishing MPAs’ social and environmental objectives, including meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Currently, Indonesian MPAs are predominantly managed top-down, so “these findings highlight the importance of the government strongly promoting co-management approaches by involving local communities,” said Estradivari, formerly a marine conservation coordinator with WWF-Indonesia.

The government hit its 2020 marine protection target by establishing more than 200 MPAs — without centring IPLCs, Estradivari said. For 2030, it has pledged to protect 3 per cent more of the nation’s oceans while enhancing existing MPA management.

“Actively involving IPLC[s] in all stages of MPA implementation, including decision-making processes, will be critical to improving the[ir] sense of ownership, increasing compliance and improving management effectiveness, while also protecting their rights to marine resource management,” Estradivari said. Since her fellow authors include policymakers and others who aid in implementing MPAs, she said their findings can inform what happens nationwide.

Unlike MPAs designated purely for ecological preservation, multi-use MPAs retain a limited amount of fishing. Because more than one-fifth of Indonesians depend on seafood, “multiuse MPAs are seen as the ideal conservation tool for the country,” where they go back roughly five decades, Estradivari said. Since reconciling biodiversity conservation with resource consumption can be tough, she said, evaluating and replicating their successes is vital.

“In the near future, I expect to see more and more successful multiuse MPA implementation,” building on community engagement work that has expanded over the past decade, she added.

Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Amos Sumbung, who was not involved in the study, said the government should consult neighbouring IPLCs as soon as it starts planning an MPA.

Eghbert Elvan Ampou, a researcher with the Institute for Marine Research and Observation at the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, said there was a need for “upstream-to-downstream collaboration” across government, academic institutions, NGOs and community monitoring entities. Focus groups could ensure these different stakeholders share a vision for implementing MPAs, he said.


Scientists who weren’t part of the study noted that it had certain strengths, but they also identified a few issues with it.

Ampou, for instance, questioned any downplaying of law enforcement and called for “severe sanctions” to deter MPA violators and secure resources, particularly along coasts.

Brock Bergseth, a research fellow at James Cook University in Australia, described the paper as “a really interesting take” on the management of common pool resources — those that are openly accessible but finite — considering many potential variables associated with MPA outcomes at a large scale. However, he similarly noted that “participation alone is not a silver bullet,” with people sometimes committing offences by exploiting the knowledge they gained as participants.

Moreover, the methodology’s “Achilles’ heel” is its failure to connect equitable governance to augmented fish biomass by zeroing in on fishing activity, Bergseth said. “When you’re trying to demonstrate causality between a governance and an outcome, you actually want to measure human behaviour.”

Otherwise, a bevvy of confounding influences, such as environmental conditions, casts uncertainty around whether MPAs positively shift behaviour and boost fish populations, he said. Generally, compliance is “the exception rather than the rule,” he said, and the lower biomass in some of the study locations points to “quite high levels of noncompliance.”

Using biomass as a proxy for fishing contributed to the researchers’ inability to explain heavy variation across their sites, Bergseth added. Although difficult, ways to gauge fishers’ compliance across extensive areas included questionnaires, camera surveillance and discarded fishing equipment counts.

Global implications

Despite its limitations, the paper’s takeaways supplement the global conservation discussion.

According to Estradivari, it indicates empowering locals is necessary to fulfil conservation aims in Indonesia, the Coral Triangle and throughout the world, especially the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s target of setting aside 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030.

As multiuse protected areas spread worldwide, Fidler added, “to effectively manage them, we must understand how to protect ecosystems while still allowing for use by people.”

He noted that the study’s conclusions are broadly applicable to any protected area where IPLCs harvest resources. “Making sure to include the people that rely on those resources in the design and implementation of management strategies, and making sure the rules around management are fair to them” is crucial everywhere, he said.

The paper aligns with prior literature showing that IPLC-overseen natural landscapes are disappearing slower than others, Fidler said. “It adds to this growing body of evidence that engaging IPLCs in management is not only the most equitable, but most effective way forward in conservation.”

Follow-up research into what facets of equitable governance produce positive results in various contexts would be valuable, he said.

According to Bergseth, efforts to decolonise conservation in favour of community user rights embody “a really good trend in science,” given that, historically, international agreements on protected areas often resulted in the creation of vast futile “paper parks” lacking local input.

Communities that are given a seat at the table are more amenable to the rules — even if they disagree, he said. Usually, “the carrot works better than the stick.”

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