When I applied to the Kinship Fellows program, I was coordinating Blue Ventures’ country program in Madagascar. Blue Ventures had started working with isolated fishing communities in southwest Madagascar over a decade earlier. Their approach was grounded in community-based approaches out of necessity: the government of Madagascar has very little capacity to regulate fisheries in these isolated areas, so management rules would only work if fishers bought into them and enforced them directly.
Despite their geographic isolation, even the most remote of these communities is connected to the outside world through seafood supply chains. Fishermen and women sell their catches to local buyers at the start of a supply chain that eventually connects these communities with consumers in Europe and Asia. And given their impact on local economies and ecosystems, these markets also present important opportunities to engage communities in conservation.
The conservation challenge
Soaring international demand in Europe and Asia for seafood had driven over-harvesting of local stocks, but also allowed Blue Ventures to work with buyers to design fisheries management and aquaculture models that helped communities increase their catches by fishing more sustainably. However, despite the production gains delivered through fisheries management, and diversified incomes from aquaculture, communities still faced highly inequitable terms of trade, and received very low prices for their catches. Even with the global increase in seafood prices, communities remained entrenched in poverty, and increasingly vulnerable to the effects of global climate change on the reefs they depend on.
I came to the Fellows program looking to explore ways to support Velondriake, Madagascar’s first locally-managed marine area (LMMA). I wanted to find ways of capturing more value from fisheries and aquaculture supply chains, and to incentivize and enable communities to make long-term investments such as no-take marine reserves.
The Fellows influence
I imagined I would spend a lot of my time at the program learning about complex economic concepts and new finance and market tools. And while this was true, and I gained a lot of knowledge, it was the real-life stories and insights presented by faculty members who had succeeded in implementing big conservation “wins” that I found most impactful. I was surprised to find I was spending most of my time reflecting on leadership, governance and decision-making processes, and how they can be harnessed to deliver effective management of natural resources.
In most of the stories we heard, the hard graft was winning the buy-in of many different stakeholders and resolving conflict, rather than designing the technical solution. As we dug into what made certain models or projects succeed and others fail, the magic often seemed to reside more in the “how” than the “what.”
The case studies featured some incredibly complex conservation conundrums, often starting from a point of crisis, conflict and standoff. But the eventual solutions that resolved these issues were not designed as such, but came about out of dialogue and exchange over long periods of time, with inspired leaders keeping the process moving and on the right track: from getting farmers on board with a scheme to secure a clean water supply for New York City, to designing a catch share system in British Columbia to safeguard inshore fisheries, the key to reaching a workable governance system was the recognition that the people who would be subject to the rules had to be part of defining those rules. I had spent most of my conservation career focusing on low-resource settings where a community-based approach was the only feasible option available. I was intrigued to learn that the same bottom-up approach had been the one to win conservation results even in settings where there is much greater capacity to apply legislation from the top down. These examples helped put the achievements of Madagascar’s LMMAs into perspective.
Paradoxically, while my commitment to supporting bottom- up processes was confirmed, the stories I heard also helped shape my thinking around the critical role of policy makers and other outside actors in removing the obstacles and barriers that can prevent locally-focused decision making from achieving results. This awareness helped me focus on the role of organizations like mine in facilitating dialogue, enabling communities to negotiate their futures with both government and commercial partners.
Since taking part in the Fellows program, I have moved into a new global role with Blue Ventures, based in our London headquarters. This has enabled me to be more involved in developing new strategic opportunities for the organization, including being part of the team developing the strategy to expand our reach and impact. The confidence, awareness and knowledge I gained during the Kinship Fellows program is proving increasingly valuable to me during a time of rapid growth within my team.
Our updated strategy for our work in southwest Madagascar builds on the themes I explored during the Fellows program, including: developing mutually beneficial conservation agreements to underpin our work, reinforcing collaboration and dialogue between stakeholders to implement an ambitious fisheries improvement project, and reinforcing the leadership capabilities of the LMMA managers.
As we continue to expand our work to new sites and countries, I’m working with colleagues to ensure that as an organization, Blue Ventures retains and reinforces our core approach of dialogue and collective problem solving, which was critical to the success we achieved when we worked with our first partner communities in Madagascar, as well as the success stories that I learned from during the Fellows program.
“1.3 billion people currently depend on our seas for survival. So if we are to see meaningful results, we need to avoid a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and instead look to foster and empower emerging conservation leaders who can bring people together; people to come up with local solutions that can work.” --Kitty Brayne