A new GEF website is coming soon. Preview the design here

Feature Story

A call to prioritize social equity in ocean conservation

August 30, 2021

Spear fisher on a small boat in open sea
Photo: Conservation International/Janny “Heintje” Rotinsulu

Modern conservation practices were largely developed without considering justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Humans have been viewed as separate from nature. Indigenous and local knowledge has been mostly dismissed. And communities have been left out of decisions that directly impact their ocean, land, and heritage.

Even though many efforts have aimed at correcting these and other failings for decades, the worldwide pandemic and highly visible human rights atrocities have spotlighted the need and opportunity to address longstanding social, economic, political, and environmental inequities. While these issues and conversations extend far beyond the conservation community, they are relevant, timely, important, and deserving of urgent attention and action.

New research, “Advancing social equity in and through marine conservation,” recently published in Frontiers in Marine Science explores these issues and calls for steps for improving social equity in ocean conservation efforts. In this Q&A, three of the 21 co-authors, Nathan Bennett, Laure Katz, and Angelo Villagomez, discuss their work and its implications. The Blue Nature Alliance provided financial support for this research and used the research as the basis for their Code of Conduct.

Why is it important to address social equity through ocean conservation?

Angelo: There is strong scientific evidence that we need to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030. But in our urgency to protect the ocean, we can exacerbate social inequities if we do not address how decisions are made and who is part of the decision-making process. Generally, marine conservation has not been able to reach its full potential of ideas, knowledge, and action because it has historically been dominated by people, institutions, and organizations that exclude entire communities, knowledge systems, and cultures. Focusing on social equity is not only the right thing to do, but equitable approaches lead to better and longer-lasting outcomes.

Nathan: There are too many examples of conservation initiatives that resulted in disenfranchisement, abrupt displacement, and outright exclusion of local and indigenous communities. Understandably, this action – or inaction – resulted in hard feelings and opposition to marine conservation. We need more allies, not fewer, to achieve global marine conservation targets. While there has been progress, the marine conservation community needs to continue to learn and incorporate equitable and inclusive approaches.

What does a socially equitable approach to marine conservation look like?

Nathan: This paper discusses a re-imagined approach that places local knowledge, needs, and visions for the future as the focal point of marine conservation efforts. This requires the consideration of the local social context in all marine conservation decisions, including acknowledgment and understanding of local people’s rights, livelihoods, and values. Decision-making processes should be collaborative and a true partnership between different levels of government and indigenous peoples’ governments. Management authority and leadership should center on the communities with the most intimate relationship with the ocean – for example, in the form of Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) and Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs) which are designated and managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs).

Laure: One example of this in practice is Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The name of the monument itself was gifted by Hawaiian elders [editor’s notelearn about the naming process here]. Over time, as protections increased and the area was expanded, formalized mechanisms were established, such as the Reserve Advisory Council, to ensure full inclusion in the design and management of the area.

How does this approach improve conservation outcomes?

Laure: I am committed to this career because of the enormous potential to improve ocean health and people’s well-being. The key is to see local and indigenous peoples as part of the solution—resulting in a path that makes space for local and indigenous peoples’ rights, livelihoods, and access to food. Some argue that inclusive conservation slows and potentially weakens protections. But, in the end, we know that the time invested up front will increase local support and improve the likelihood of protections to remain in place.

I experienced this first-hand during the rapid proliferation and expansion of marine protected areas (MPAs) in parts of the Coral Triangle region in Southeast Asia. The MPAs were designed around the tenure boundaries of indigenous communities rather than administrative boundaries. Incorporating traditional knowledge and cultural practices led to the creation of the largest fully protected zones in the Coral Triangle. Inclusion of traditional fishing zones for the exclusive use of local communities led to the elimination of destructive fishing, measurably significant increases in catch-per-unit effort for local fishers, increased food security for men, women, and children, and even increased school enrollment for both boys and girls. That, in turn, led to increased government and community support for the MPAs - resulting in more government funding for MPA management.

Angelo: People who are not included in conservation decision-making are less likely to support conservation outcomes. So, creating a bigger tent, allowing for new and different ideas will lead towards more durable outcomes, with greater support from the people living closest to and depending on the ocean.

In the Mariana Islands, I worked with my home community to design, name, and advocate for a protected area near the Mariana Trench that prioritizes access for indigenous people. Over the course of a year, we held over 100 public meetings to discuss the urgent need for ocean protection with our community, helped our leaders reach out to decision-makers in the federal government, and kept everyone updated with radio and television interviews and newspaper articles. The community supported a big, protected area, but only around the islands that were already uninhabited nature reserves. Popular local fishing spots closer to the inhabited islands were never proposed for protection.

How does the Blue Nature Alliance incorporate social equity in its approach?

Angelo: The Blue Nature Alliance seeks to learn and implement the best management practices for designating and managing large scale marine protected areas (LSMPAs). For example, in Fiji our partnership is driven by village leaders in the Lau Seascape and Tristan da Cunha, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean, we worked with local leaders to support long-term financing, as well as on the ground conservation projects.

Laure: Social equity is core to the Blue Nature Alliance’s approach to conservation. Through a collaborative peer-reviewed process, we generated a set of social principles and a Code of Conduct to guide our activities. From our process to scope potential engagements to how we cultivate partnerships, we endeavor to operate in a manner that is consistent with our social principles and that advances social equity.

The Blue Nature Alliance is also investing in research, tool development, and learning opportunities that aim to provide tangible ways for others, such as NGOs, funders, and governments, to advance social equity in their work. This article is the first published output of that work.

What should be the next steps for the global marine conservation community?

Nathan: Everyone has a role to play. Governments must create supportive policies and advance equitable practices. NGOs can develop better inclusive approaches and advocate for change. The philanthropic community has a huge amount of power, and coinciding responsibility, to incentivize equity within their funding portfolio.

An important next step for all organizations is learning, listening, and reflecting. Learning about the mistakes of the past. Listening to different perspectives and the voices of Indigenous peoples and local communities. And reflecting on how social equity can be incorporated into their government policies, management practices, NGO programs, or funding portfolios.

This piece was originally published by the Blue Nature Alliance.

The GEF is a founding core partner of the Alliance, which aims to expand and enhance ocean protection with a focus on working alongside indigenous peoples and local communities, scientists and academia, and other partners.