Conservation in the developing world relies upon folk knowledge

What happens when ecology and conservation science run into traditional folk knowledge when it comes to resource management? Some ecologists and conservationists think that incorporating “traditional ecological knowledge” into conservation management plans is an important strategy, particularly in the developing world. Columbia University biologist Abigail S. Golden describes a recent attempt at doing just that in Fiji; she and her colleagues described their findings this week in the journal PLoS ONE.

Throughout the South Pacific, indigenous populations depend on “marine products” – that is, fish and shellfish – as their main source of dietary protein. Thus their own health is linked with the health of coastal ecosystems. As a result, those communities have, over time, developed their own traditional management techniques.

In Fiji, areas of coastal waters are called qoliqoli, and each has historically been controlled by patrilineal clans known as mataqali. More recently, as development has spurred the breakdown of individual clans, control over the qoliqoli has shifted to individual villages, which make communal decisions on management. In that way, Fijian communities have been able to avoid the “tragedy of the commons.” Each clan or village has been able to regulate overfishing ensuring that healthy ecosystems can persist throughout multiple generations.

But in the years following World War II, these traditional systems began to decline. “International and Fijian national interests began to push for the increased commercialization of Fiji’s fisheries and the shift to an export market, with the Fiji Development Bank encouraging the commercial development of even the country’s remotest villages,” writes Golden. As a result, both coastal and offshore fisheries were overexploited, and cultural values began to shift such that younger Fijians now see the ocean “primarily through a commercial, rather than a traditional, lens.” Of the 410 qoliqoli in Fiji, 70 are overexploited and another 250 are on the verge of surpassing sustainability limits.

To mitigate those problems, marine conservationists have tried to implement marine protected areas (MPAs). But such management plans are only effective if locals pay attention and care. In the West, regulation would be enforced by legislation in a top-down manner, but such an approach would probably be insufficient for the Pacific Island marine ecosystems such as in Fiji. A better approach may be to tap into the traditional systems already, at least partially, in place. Golden assessed that sort of community-driven approach in a fishing village on the southern coast of Vanua Levu, the second largest island in Fiji, called Nagigi Village. Village leaders have recently expressed support for conservation efforts. “For the sake of future generations, if we want to have an abundance of resources again, we should encourage an MPA on the fishing grounds,” one leader explained. “Our main concern is that if we’re not aware of what’s done, future generations won’t know what those species are or recognize the need to gain back what they’ve lost.”

The first important finding that came as a result of the researchers’ interviews was that fishing isn’t just thought of in commercial terms or as a food source. It’s also an integral part of social life, for both men and women. They also discovered a rich history of temporary fishing bans, such as for 100 days following the death of a tribal leader. Historically, such bans have probably been instrumental in maintaining the health of fish stocks. But such bans have always been thought of as temporary, and never lasting the three to five years under which an MPA would be most effective. “Any MPA project in Nagigi designed explicitly for biodiversity conservation will have to take into account the prevailing Fijian notion that closure areas are a kind of short-term ‘food bank’ that can be opened and closed at will,” Golden writes.

Such closures, imperfect though they may be, could be strengthened by pairing them with species-specific bans. There is precedent for that. The large group of Nagigian Seventh Day Adventists, for example, doesn’t fish any species that don’t have fins or scales, which relieves pressure from sea turtles, cephalopods, and shellfish. Nagigi villagers also have a traditional belief that eating lizardfishes causes impotence in men, while women shun other species during pregnancy and lactation. Those sorts of bans, while only occasionally consistent with empirical science, could still lead to effective conservation.

Combining conservation concerns with local needs will never be straightforward. But perhaps the greatest contribution of traditional ecological knowledge from indigenous communities is the knowledge itself. Indeed, modern data collection protocols – such as specimen collection and preservation for museum holdings – only resulted in information for 11% of all the species that researchers learned about by talking with expert Nagigi fishers. If they’d relied only on typical data collecting techniques, they’d have missed out on a wide swath of important information. “By combining these two methods,” Golden argues, ” researchers can construct a clearer and more complete picture of the reef ecosystem and fishers’ needs.” – Jason G. Goldman | 23 May 2014

Source: Golden A.S., Naisilsisili W., Ligairi I. & Drew J.A. (2014). Combining Natural History Collections with Fisher Knowledge for Community-Based Conservation in Fiji, PLoS ONE, 9 (5) e98036. DOI:

Header image: Jon-Eric Melsæter/Wikimedia Commons.