The benefits that humans amass from biodiversity are enormous. Specifically the wide range of services derived from diverse ecosystems underpins human well-being. Provisioning services — natural resources and products obtained from ecosystems — including food, wood, medicines, fuel and fuelwood, fibre and non-timber forest products have formed the basis for many industries, as well as [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Small steps for conservation


The benefits that humans amass from biodiversity are enormous. Specifically the wide range of services derived from diverse ecosystems underpins human well-being. Provisioning services — natural resources and products obtained from ecosystems — including food, wood, medicines, fuel and fuelwood, fibre and non-timber forest products have formed the basis for many industries, as well as a multitude of livelihoods. Many low income families are dependent on these resources that nature provides us. 

Yet, as we all know, people are extracting more and more resources, unsustainably, and are putting an enormous pressure on these resources. Conservation of these resources is, therefore, needed.

Reviving traditional livelihoods: A woman weaving sedges (Kumudini Ekaratne © IUCN)

This overuse is particularly evident in the coastal zone of Sri Lanka, which represents about 24% of the island’s land area and is home to a quarter of its population. Along the coastline of Sri Lanka,there are estuaries and lagoons, mangroves, seagrass meadows, tidal flats, coral reefs and beaches and sand dunes — all of which are critical in providing various services and resources.

In many areas round the coast, there is overexploitation of fisheries resources from lagoons and estuaries, as well as over-extraction of fuelwood from mangroves.In addition, poverty, lack of awareness and skills, and poor motivation, make worse the threats to coastal natural resources.

Conservation biology aims to protect species from extinction and ecosystems from irreversible damage. Traditionally, conservation was a top-down approach that set aside areas solely for the protection of species or ecosystems. This approach invariably locked out local communities from areas set aside for conservation, even though it was they who were the users of natural resources. This approach was commonly called the ‘fortress approach’ or the ‘fences and fines approach’. This mode of conservation failed for decades, because it continued to assume that livelihoods and conservation were mutually exclusive. It also worsened poverty and social inequity. 

As conservation biology evolved, another approach developed that included local users of natural resources in the strategy for conservation. This approach focusses on developing alternative sources for livelihoods, and thus, decreases pressure on natural habitats. There was no direct link between the livelihood and conservation, but in the long term, the approach helped indirectly to conserve habitats and species. An enormous benefit of this strategy for conservation was that it not only engaged communities, but also empowered them.

Yet another approach promoted livelihoods (for example, ecotourism) that directly focussed on conservation, encouraging communities to sustainably use biodiversity. In this mode, there was a direct link forged between livelihoods and conservation. 

The final approach is integrated conservation and development (ICD), which encompasses all of the above: protected areas, people, participation empowerment and sustainability.

Mangroves for the Future in Sri Lanka took the approach of providing alternative livelihoods to local communities to ease pressure on ecosystems. Mangroves for the Future(MFF)is an regional initiative comprising a consortium of international intergovernmental organisations such as IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as well as CARE International and Wetlands International (WI). MFF seeks to achieve demonstrable changes and results, across four key areas of influence: regional cooperation, national programme support, private sector engagement, and community action. 

The MFF Small Grants Facility (SGF) is a window for financing sustainable, local level initiatives in coastal areas, through small grants. The main objective of the SGF is to finance small projects to support local community action for the restoration and management of coastal ecosystems and their use on a sustainable basis.

One theme of the MFF SGF was to provide alternative livelihoods to local communities at various locations on the coast, where there was a critical need to ease pressure on coastal resources: in Kokkilai and Nayaru lagoons in the northeast, Batticaloa lagoon and the coastal stretch from Pottuvil to Panama in the east, Puttalam lagoon and coastal areas of the Mannar district in the northwest. At these locations, a range of local NGOs — who had submitted proposals to the SGF — were selected and given small grants (not exceeding 750,000 rupees) to carry out a wide range of activities with low income coastal communities that either revived traditional livelihoods or introduced alternative occupations. However, what was important was that all these activities increased family income. 

One popular alternative livelihood introduced by various local NGOs was home gardening. In the villages of Thamaraikulam and Hidayapuram in Panama, 50 beneficiaries were chosen; in Pottuvil, 50 women from a Muslim agro-fishing community were selected, while in Kirankulam in Batticaloa, the focus was on 20 widows. All these beneficiaries were provided with basic gardening equipment, seeds for cultivation and given training in the processes needed for cultivation, including composting and preparation of beds. In some areas, beneficiaries were shown how to cultivate in large bags, reducing the needs for excessive watering. In six months, these beneficiaries were able to harvest vegetables for sale and to earn an additional income ranging from 2500-3500 rupees per month, sometimes drastically increasing household income.

Another approach taken by an NGO was microfinance, provided for 100 women in Ammathottam in Kalpitiya. Initially, skills training was provided for various kinds of self-employment, such as dried fish production, rearing of poultry and goats, vegetable cultivation, weaving thatch and setting up a small shop(kade). Then, small loans of 50,000-100,000 rupees were provided for these women to set up their small enterprises. In six months, these women were earning between 3,000-9,000 rupees per month, and have begun (and some, completed) to pay off their loans. 

The third type of project was the revival of traditional livelihoods. In many areas of the island, traditional weaving is dying out. In the Pottuvil lagoon area, 20 women of fisher families were targeted for training in growing sedges (grass-like plants that grow in, or near, static or flowing water) and using them to weave mats and other items. They were provided with a flattening roller and three weaving machines. These women are now earning 4,000-5,000 rupees per month from the sale of the items they weave.

In Kokkilai lagoon in the northeast, many families depend on fishing for mud crabs and selling them live — for which there is a ready and lucrative market. In the recent past, mud crab fishermen used illegal monofilament and gill nets to catch mud crabs, with the consequence that various appendages are damaged, mortality is high and other untargeted species of animals are also caught and thrown as by-catch. Nets are damaged when this happens, and the price also plummets.

Thirty mud crab fishermen were provided with traditional traps that do not damage the crab. Awareness about the biology of mud crabs — the need to refrain from catching sub-adults and gravid females, the need for protection of mangroves that provide nursery grounds for animals such as mud crabs — was provided to these beneficiaries. Each fisherman now earns about 5,000 per month from crabs caught from the traps provided, and one fisherman earned double this amount. Eight fishermen have stopped using illegal nets. 

The amount earned by the beneficiaries from all these small projects may not seem much to those of us living in cities, but to low income families, this is an enormous benefit. The money earned is variously used to settle bills, for daily expenses, for children’s educational needs, for paying back bank loans and is even saved towards investments such as building a house.
The other important characteristic of many of these and other SGF projects is the focus on women. Women are the collectors of fuelwood and other resources from natural ecosystems such as fruits and leaves for cooking. When their time is engaged in these projects, and the new activity either provides food for the family or an additional income, then there is less natural resource extraction. There is also the important impact that these women now feel empowered.

None of these projects breaks ground in terms of innovation or impact. Other organisations have, for decades, been providing alternative livelihood options for the rural poor. Sometimes the links to conservation seem tenuous. Sometimes baseline data have not been collected before a project was commenced. What is important here, is that this is a conservation organisation, thinking out of the box. 

I am reminded of a question in a paper on conservation biology in graduate school, many years ago. The question went thus: there is a critical patch of rainforest that provides various services to an impoverished local community. The community has no school and children have to walk several miles to get to a school. A logging company offers to build a school if the community (to whom the forest belongs) allows them to log the forest. You (the examinee) are a biologist with a very large amount of money. What is the conservation action you should take? The answer expected was: you build the school for the community with your money and prevent the entry of the logging company.

In Sri Lanka, in particular, historically, conservation has meant protection — locking away areas from access and thereby safeguarding species and ecosystems. We are still, largely, following this approach. With over a quarter of the island already under some protection and with about 323 persons per square kilometre, this tactic is no longer really tenable. A different approach is clearly needed: an understanding that local people cause damage to ecosystems but that they are also integral to conservation. 

To paraphrase C. S Lewis, what saves an ecosystem is to take a step. Then another step.

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