What determines the failure or success of community-conserved projects that try to combine biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction? Lien Vermeersch wrote her MA thesis on fish sanctuaries in the Philippines and won the Speckmann Prize 2015.
Success or failure in local ecosystem preservation
Community-conserved areas are popular in the Philippines; they mainly take the form of marine sanctuaries. Ideally, these conserved areas aim to preserve ecosystems and their species as well as to benefit local communities that depend on them. But what about fish sanctuaries in freshwater areas, which are equally important, yet hardly studied? Do they pursue the same dual goal of biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction? Do specific features of freshwater areas alter the functioning of fish sanctuaries and most importantly: what causes their success or failure?
1 municipality, 10 barangays, 10 fish sanctuaries
These questions inspired me to conduct research for three months in the municipality of San Mariano, in the northern Philippines, where I compared 10 freshwater fish sanctuaries in 10 different barangays (villages). Through dialogues with barangay members involved with the fish sanctuaries I assessed community perceptions about the project’s effectiveness. I also evaluated management strategies systematically across the different barangays. The comparison across barangays highlighted that, notwithstanding context-specific variations, it is mainly social and political factors that have the potential to influence success or failure in freshwater fish sanctuaries, and not project factors, as has often been assumed. But how exactly can we determine success?
In recent decades, overexploitation of water resources and the use of destructive fishing methods have increasingly degraded freshwater eco-systems. This has, to a great extent, obstructed biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihood approaches. Alarmed by this, the non-profit organization Mabuwaya Foundation pursued a widespread awareness campaign, encouraging the preservation of wetland resources in the most diverse and remote areas of the Isabela Province: the municipality of San Mariano. The lengthy processes of awareness-raising and education about this need have resulted in the establishment of 15 community-conserved fish sanctuaries in 15 different barangays since 2006. For my MA thesis I studied 10 of these. Each have their own rules and regulations, written down in specific barangay ordinances and collected by the municipal secretaries. But different regulations mean different outcomes...
Biodiversity conservation: Are fish stocks increasing?
Biodiversity conservation is defined in many different ways. In my research, I interpret the concept as the perceived change in fish stocks in the rivers since the establishment of the fish sanctuaries. The views of the members of the communities (after I had carefully interpreted the socially approved answers) were incontrovertible: 73% of the respondents, including barangay leaders and members, believed fish stocks were steadily increasing again as a result of the fish sanctuaries. What is interesting is that varying physical or geographic fish sanctuary conditions do not affect people’s perceptions. This is rather surprising, given that a remote geographical location for a fish sanctuary has natural advantages: very few visitors disturb the place, which guarantees favorable conditions for fish to breed and multiply.
As barangay members seldom monitor these remote fish sanctuaries, it might be expected that resource perceptions from community residents in such barangays would be based more on assumptions than observations. In barangays where the fish sanctuary flows through or near the barangay center, positive resource perceptions are more likely to be based on observations than assumptions. However, regardless of whether opinions were based on a real increase in fish catch or mere assumptions, the great majority did believe that fish sanctuaries contribute to biodiversity conservation.
Poverty reduction: the consequences of a casual catch
To assess the impact on poverty reduction a wide definition including economic, social, political and cultural benefits had been used. However, since in San Mariano fishing is generally considered secondary to farming, it can be understood as a 'casual catch' (“We only go fishing when we have time”), rather than a primary source of income. This explains why in San Mariano the fish sanctuaries do not have the potential to provide monetary benefits to the community. However, the perceived increase in fish stocks is greatly welcomed by the respondents for its social and cultural value: People believe the fish sanctuaries produce supplies of fish that can be shared with guests who visit the barangay.
As offering food to visitors and guests is a gesture deeply entrenched in Filipino culture, the social and cultural benefit resulting from the fish sanctuaries is considered very important. Moreover, increasing fish supplies also contribute to better nutritional intake in people’s otherwise poor diets. Guaranteeing enough fish supplies to be personally consumed by the next generation was therefore another motivation I encountered for maintaining the fish sanctuaries.
Successful, or not?
I assessed success both qualitatively and quantitatively. For the quantitative assessment, I used four measures (community perceptions, management features, community compliance, and community participation). In general, across barangays, success was found to be slightly below intermediate. However, barangay profiles varied significantly, with different distribution across the four success measures. Most barangays had very positive ‘community perceptions’ about success, but scored rather badly on ‘community participation’, which means the degree of involvement with the fish sanctuary. The great variability in measures across barangays clearly signified that it is difficult to generalize across locations, and that success is not only subjective but also highly context-specific.
In the future…
There can be no such thing as a blueprint for success in freshwater fish sanctuaries. However, I did come across some general findings that can be turned into recommendations to increase chances for success: Mainly social and political factors account for the variety in barangay profiles regarding success. A strong political will at the barangay level, and clear communication between barangay officials and residents is indispensable to enhance the prospect of success. Moreover, a better supra-local support network with external organizations and higher policy institutions is highly recommended to achieve overall improved effectiveness and increased community benefits in similar projects.
Anthropology in practice
I chose this research topic mainly because I believed from the start that my results could actually make a difference to the lives of the people I would be working with. My hope became reality: with the help of international funding, the NGO Mabuwaya Foundation is currently implementing the results of my thesis to improve the functioning of the fish sanctuaries in San Mariano.
It seems that Dr. Speckmann’s passionate belief in ‘giving something back to the people’ continues to reach new generations of anthropologists, including me. For that, and in honor of Dr. Speckmann, I am really grateful to have won this prize. However, this research would have been impossible without the help and contribution of a long list of people, especially everybody involved in the Philippines, including the Mabuwaya Foundation and my respondents in the field. A really special thank you goes to my supervisor Jan van der Ploeg, who taught me, in theory and practice, how to ‘be’ an anthropologist. Thank you.
On February 16th Lien Vermeersch was awarded the Speckmann Prize 2015 for her MA thesis "Community-Conserved Freshwater Areas: A comparative study on effectiveness of fish sanctuaries." The MA Speckmann prize is awarded annually by the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology for the best MA thesis.