Hameet Singh is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree.
The ecological and economic wellbeing brought forth by marine protected areas (MPAs) have been extensively studied and supported by a multitude of case studies around the globe. MPAs have been known to boost fisheries’ populations, enhance tourism and job opportunities, and provide refuge for an array of marine life.
However, the social and cultural implications of MPAs are less well-known or not given the same amount of consideration during establishment compared to their biophysical counterparts. There have been cases where the implementation of an MPA that does not include local participation or consultation in management impedes in livelihoods and cultural activities. This lack of community engagement has been frequently cited as the reason behind MPA incompliance, undermining the very reasons for its establishment and also negating ecological benefits. Social components are therefore one of the key determinants of MPA success and crucial to its longevity.
Strengthening Community-Government Ties
Engagement and consultation of local stakeholders in protected area planning, implementation and monitoring is an important precursor to its long-term success. Social acceptability, defined as “a measure of support towards a set of regulations, management tools or towards an organisation by an individual or a group of individuals based on geographic, social, economic or cultural criteria”, can greatly reinforce compliance and the effectiveness of a protected area as a mechanism for conservation.
During my work in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, many of the interviewees pointed to a gradual yet steady acceptance of the reserve’s regulations. When the reserve was first established, it came under scrutiny from local peoples for its lack of consultation in the design process.
Many of the people I spoke stated that at first, there was minimal communication with community members about the reserve’s regulations, with some having no idea that a protected area had been established within the vicinity of their community. As community-government relations bolstered, communication improved and opportunities for involvement became more abundant. Local peoples became more receptive to stewardship efforts in their communities, with many participating through non-profit organizations like PRONATURA or Ninos y Crias (Kids and Chicks). One respondent spoke to this changing and evolving relationship. saying “it was difficult at the beginning for people and the community to accept the reserve, but once people started to see the benefits of conservation, it was more accepted.” Survey results indicated that members are now generally aware of the reserve’s regulations and agree that it is being managed in a largely effective manner.
However, it was also stated that some improvements are still warranted, as community members had grievances concerning the privatization of certain areas of the reserve while impeding community growth. They believed that “more participation from the community” would improve the reserve, and that a more thorough and rigorous consultation process would help to alleviate some of these concerns, further strengthening the bonds between the community and government.
Co-Managed Governance – The Path Forward
Co-management is an approach to natural resource management that facilitates, “the sharing of power and responsibility among local resource user communities and resource management agencies.” It strives to merge state-based and local decision-making, ideally combining the advantages and disadvantages of each to create a more fortified governance framework. This governance structure empowers communities to manage local resources by incorporating customary practices, institutions, and a variety of knowledge systems. It can also help to rebuild trust and rapport between communities and government authorities and enhance conservation. Applied in a marine context, co-management is characterized by local peoples who take the lead on conservation and the stewardship of resources. When done correctly, “alternative schemes different to the traditional top-down approach, such as co-management of natural resources in MPAs, have been demonstrated to be a more effective way of dealing with the challenge of conserving marine biodiversity.” MPAs established with strong local involvement have been found to be one of the most effective in meeting their ecological objectives.
When asked how to facilitate a more co-managed approach, community members of Ria Lagartos had suggestions such as implementing “more seminars or talks on how to get involved and protect and preserve our resources.” Increased local participation in the decision-making process of MPAs can contribute to a shift in otherwise negative points of view. Incorporating local knowledge can help to bridge the gaps that are present under an exclusively state-led approach, as local peoples often have a more intimate relationship with their surrounding natural environment. This was evident in Ria Lagartos, with one interviewee stating that “I think the reserve would be better protected if the community members looked after it, as we live next to the reserve. We know how to take care of the reserve because we grew up with it.” Survey results also pointed to a largely positive belief regarding the integration of local inputs to improve reserve management. These opinions were supported with the park rangers that I spoke to, with one park rager saying, “No matter how small or big our park rangers team is, we will always be dependent on the participation of the community. People of the community currently help me because they have understood that the protection of natural resources is for their own benefit. Now when they see something odd, they notify me. Community members now pass on to others the information we (park rangers) gave them, and thankfully, when they see any kind of rule-breaking or irregularity towards flamingos, sea turtles, or mangroves, they immediately report it to us.”
Application to a Canadian Context
There are examples of co-managed MPAs in Canada as well. In conjunction with the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation, the Sgaan Kinglas/Bowie Seamount MPA and Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve in the Pacific Ocean have been established under a co-managed framework. In the case of the former, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and management plan between the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada, represented by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has been implemented. They delineate the adaptive co-managed approach of the MPA and the shared responsibilities of the parties involved to conserve and protect the ecological integrity of the region. Similarly, the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve is the first of its kind, implementing the first land-sea-people management plan in Canada, providing “strategic direction on managing the natural and cultural resources of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site from mountain top to sea floor, for the next ten years.” The plan is grounded in Haida Law and provides zoning for both the land and sea.
Furthermore, the Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area, located on the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island, supports the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific coast and is collaboratively managed with the Government of Canada, Province of British Columbia, the Tlatlasikwala First Nation and the Quatsino First Nation.
Finally, Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam MPA of Canada’s Arctic Ocean is another collaborative effort between DFO, and the Inuvialuit First Nation, along with the Government of the Northwest Territories, industry and environmental non-government organizations. The MPA’s management plan outlines guidance on co-management, monitoring and research related facets.
Co-managed governance through the involvement of local communities can greatly enhance the management effectiveness of marine natural resources. MPAs established through a co-managed approach provide a robust and sustainable defense against the deterioration of the marine environment.