For generations, Kanak tribes in the South Pacific have passed down stories of the sacred sea.
Ancestral spirits live in the waters off the northeast coast of New Caledonia's
Province Nord, the stories say. The Kanak handle these waters with care.
Laws of Culture
Over time, those cultural beliefs have shaped laws that are not on the books, but that Kanak tribes nonetheless follow closely as they fish for food. Some tribal chiefs close their waters when a resource is in decline. At sacred taboo sites, limits or outright bans on fishing are not uncommon. If tribe members fish beyond their tribes boundaries, they ask permission from neighboring tribes. Fishermen who do not belong to the tribes and have no traditional right to fish these waters are asked to leave.
"If they come here to fish, it is because they have harvested all the fish where they live, or because they have polluted the sea," explains a member of the Kanak settlement of Colnett. "We have to protect what belongs to us or actually, what belongs to our ancestors, to nature, and to the Earth."
Today, Kanak traditions are guiding efforts to more formally protect New Caledonia's waters. With help from Conservation International (CI), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the government of Province Nord, and local partners, tribes are playing an integral role in making the case for designating the region as a UNESCO World Heritage site. A decision about whether to do so will likely be made in mid-2008, and would bring with it additional formal support and funding to conserve and manage the marine life that local people depend on for their survival.
Science According to the Kanak
Kanak tribes and CI have worked together for many years to conserve ancestral waters and natural resources. In 2004, a CI-led marine rapid assessment program (RAP) survey of 42 coral reefs near Province Nord's Mont Pani led the local government to seek World Heritage recognition.
Guided by a Kanak fisherman, CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science and Pacific Islands Program conducted the assessment with the government of Province Nord, local NGO Association Dayu Biik, and the association Mauria Trust of New Caledonia.
During the RAP, CI and partners interviewed members of 21 Kanak tribes to understand how tribes sustainably manage their marine resources. Unlike other RAPs, this one was conducted without collecting a single specimen, in deference to traditional laws.
"We usually collect the absolute minimum number of species, and then only those species that require laboratory work for identification," explains Sheila McKenna, a CABS senior research scientist. "But out of respect for the local tribes we did not collect or use any sampling methods the Kanak people did not approve."
Traditional Practices Are Working
The marine RAP confirmed that traditional practices to protect New Caledonia's waters are working as well as ever. It found that the reefs are largely healthy and home to an outstanding array of biodiversity, including sea cucumbers, mollusks, crustaceans, herrings, groupers, and snappers. There was no indication of bleached reefs, coral diseases, or mass aggregations of starfish that destroy the coral.
Science therefore concluded that tribal laws and customs should be integrated into an official marine management plan for the area. A fully developed plan would allow Kanak communities to better prevent threats like water pollution and commercial fishing, and would allow them to more effectively monitor the region for fishing gear and debris left on reefs.
In November 2006, CI and partners again visited with tribes as part of the Coral Reef Initiative for the South Pacific (CRISP), spearheaded by the French government in collaboration with WWF. They distributed survey results and further recommendations to the Kanak people, along with underwater guides to the species living in their waters.
At Province Nord's request, CI and partners are now raising funds to conduct another marine RAP this fall along the northwest coast of Province Nord to complete data collection across the three key coastlines to be considered for World Heritage designation. Unlike the previous survey, the upcoming marine RAP would assess marine resources used by both Kanak tribes and people of European descent.
Value In Conservation Across Ecosystems
Conservation efforts in New Caledonia's Province Nord also demonstrate the value of protecting biodiversity across ecosystems marine, terrestrial, and freshwater. In partnership with the Forest Service of Province Nord, CI has been implementing a land-based conservation project with the Kanak people on Mont Pani to improve the management of an important botanical reserve, protect watersheds critical for endemic freshwater biodiversity, coral reefs and lagoons, and reduce the impact of major threats such as bush fires and invasive species.
"To do realistic conservation, putting up a fence around something just doesn't work," says McKenna. "We are more effective with our conservation efforts when we work across these systems and get more return for our conservation dollar. If the watershed next to the reefs does not stay intact, the reefs would become smothered in sediment from the adjacent land."