Fish to Thrive: Marine Protection Helps Give Poor Communities a Leg Up

At the next village I visited, Ampodrahazo, the story was the same. The community had better water for drinking thanks to a new well, but without rain, no crops could be planted. No electricity. No doctor.
This village had a school, which CI had helped to renovate, and a new community building as well, but the two buildings were too small to house the 120 students who attended. The community president was short on funds to pay the teachers’ salaries, and many parents couldn’t afford the fees to send their students anyway.
In this village, members from a local fishermen’s association joined the conversation, so I asked about the fishing. It was bad this year, they said, because there was no rain. Why was that? Because the fish depend on the freshwater inputs to reproduce and to feed.
Why did they think there was no rain this year? Climate change, they responded. Had this ever happened before? No, it had never happened before in anyone’s memory. Also, fishermen from outside villages were coming in and increasing the pressure on the fishery. The new boats provided by CI helped with patrols, but there were insufficient funds for fuel to patrol as frequently as they felt was needed to monitor and enforce the protected area.
At the next village, Ambodivahibe, I heard more of the same. The fishing was bad. The purchaser paid a low price. Even when they had fish, sometimes much of it was wasted because they couldn’t keep it cold.
At the fourth village, Ivovona, the situation was even more dire. Despite 15 attempts to drill a new well, water could not be found. Women in the village often woke at 4 a.m. to go to the old well. After drawing a bucket of water, they had to wait hours for new water to seep in and refill it.
The drought had killed all 30 of their cattle — a devastating blow in a place where there are no banks and zebu serve as savings accounts. The only solution was to pipe water from a nearby forest reserve, and to reinforce protection of the area surrounding the water source.
In this village, a Swiss NGO had constructed a wind generator for electricity, but the project was designed only to provide light, so the power generated was insufficient for refrigeration. The fishing had been bad this year, so the community had been forced to turn to the much more physically difficult, less profitable and more environmentally damaging practice of charcoal production. The community is seeking help to start alternative income projects, such as materials to start a women’s association for artisanal sewing.
After we spoke with each village, I handed out some small items I had brought with me for the children: stickers, pencils and crayons. The children loved the stickers, but I was ashamed about the pencils and crayons — they had no paper. But more than the gifts, the children loved having their picture taken. I would snap a photo, and they would all crowd around to see the result on my camera, point at themselves and laugh and laugh, and then pose for another one.
It was the first time I had seen so visibly the tangible impacts of CI’s work. The wells, the boats, the livelihood projects, the buildings — all were having an immediate impact on these people’s lives, and helping equip them to better care for the natural resources of the Ambodivahibe Marine Reserve.
Having Ismaela and Joma based locally also fostered a long-term trust between CI and the community. Initially, community members had been skeptical of the protected area, but after a temporary closure resulted in significantly increased fish catch, they were convinced. The conservation and scientific communities widely recognize that the most successful approach to sustainable management — in truth, the only possible approach — is to put it in the hands of local communities.
In the villages around the reserve, the first steps have been taken, but the challenges are Herculean. It will take a steady flow of resources and many years to resolve the full suite of issues faced by the people who would conserve the protected area. But, as Ismaela assured me on the ride home, it is possible.
As most of the population of the four villages are fishers, the income of each household depends on marine products. Since active protection of the site began, communities have become more involved in the actions of conservation, ecological monitoring and control of their marine reserves.
Recently, after a three-month closure, fishermen from two villages (Ambavarano and Ivovona) were able to collect about two tons of octopus and more than 300 kilograms of fish — a spectacular increase over the 650 kilograms of total seafood collected in the previous year’s harvest.
CI is in negotiation with a national company that might be willing to buy the community’s fish at a fair price. Ismaela has contractors lined up to install a water system for Ivovona, and solar and wind electricity for all the communities, if funding can be found.
It is estimated that CI’s program in Ambodivahibe only needs $75,000 a year, a pittance by U.S. standards, to continue its programs. But funding is tight — the CI staff struggle even to pay for the fuel to travel to the villages. Nonetheless, they are optimistic that the foundations have been laid. In time, and with help, Ambodivahibe has the potential to become a healthy, sustainable society.
Rachel Neugarten is the manager for conservation priority setting in CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans.