Skip Navigation LinksReefBase > Key Topics > Poverty and Reefs
          RSS Feed
Poverty and Reefs

2.4 The ability to cope with indirect influencing factors

The way in which people use their resources will be dependent on the risk and vulnerability associated with indirect influencing factors, which make up the background context in which they live. These are external variables over which people have little or no control, and include gradual and predictable trends, sudden and unpredictable shocks and seasonality. Coral reefs provide a number of benefits to people in coping with or adapting to indirect influencing factors.

2.4.1 Seasonality

Poor people with little access to land, labour and financial resources are particularly reliant on exploiting natural resources and consequently they are vulnerable to seasonal changes in availability and markets for those resources. In this way, fisheries, and the fishers dependent on them, are subject to seasonal changes in access to, and availability of, marine resources due to seasonal weather patterns, or patterns of species abundance.

The diversity of coral reef fisheries, combined with their physical and economic accessibility and the protection they provide against inclement weather, create a relative stability as compared with other fisheries or indeed land-based agricultural production. Within the coral reef fishery there is a capacity to buffer the effects of local depletions, seasonal unavailability or seasonal lows in market demand of a single species, due to the multitude of alternative options (species or reef habitats) available. Furthermore, with access to sheltered areas of reefs open throughout the year, the reef can also buffer the affect of seasonal lows or inaccessibility in offshore fisheries, exposed to weather variations.

In many places the reef may even act as a resource bank, used as a means of saving food for future times of need. In Manus, Papua New Guinea, giant clams are collected and held in walled enclosures on the reef until they are needed in periods of rough weather (Johannes, 1982). Similarly, the hohobulu, a species of giant clam, in New Georgia, Solomon Islands, is gathered on nearby reefs and kept as a ‘clam farm’ until needed (Gina-Whewell, 1992). In Palau, giant clams and sea cucumbers are seldom eaten during good weather in an effort to conserve their populations for months during which rough weather prohibits good fishing (Johannes, 1981).

Coral reef resources also offer an alternative to seasonal lows in other sectors, particularly agriculture, providing stability to households when agricultural production is low. In coastal communities in Northern Mozambique, near-shore and intertidal harvests provide key sources of food and cash when agriculture production is low, with the peak in fisheries production coinciding with the period of lowest agricultural stocks (Wilson et al., 2003). In Indonesia, hundreds of thousands of subsistence fishers rely on coral reefs as a source of food security in times of agricultural hardship (Cesar, 1996). In Papua New Guinea, while agriculture is the primary means of food production, a large proportion of the coastal population engage in sporadic subsistence fishing (Opnai and Aitsi 1995). At these times, even low market value reef products may hold particular importance to poor people with limited alternative choices.

In this way, the coral reef provides significant benefits to poor households in coping with hard times. In many cases the reef is a keystone resource, offering a vital alternative source of subsistence and cushioning the impact of seasonal vulnerabilities. Often it is the shallow reef flat and lagoon, sheltered from bad weather, that are most utilised as keystone resources (Box 23).

2.4.2 Shocks

The coastal zone is vulnerable to the impact of sudden sea-borne storms and cyclones, as well as disturbances such as earthquakes and flooding originating on land. Coral reefs play a crucial role in sheltering the coast from the full impact of storms and protecting coastal infrastructure and agricultural lands, as well as other near-by ecosystems (seagrass beds and mangroves). In the Gulf of Mannar, India, elderly villagers remember the 1964 cyclone, which washed away Dhaniskodi, the eastern-most village in the Gulf of Mannar, and recall how those villages close to the reef and islands were protected from extreme weather (Rengasamy et al., 2003).

Coral reefs may also provide a means of coping with the devastating effects of a climatic event in other sectors. During the 1990s in Vanuatu, cyclones damaged much of the copra and cocoa crops important for income earning in local communities. In response, coastal communities turned to the inshore reef resources in order to earn the quick cash needed to re-build their homes (Jimmy, 1995). There are also many examples of reef resources cushioning the impact of drought and famine. In the drought-prone lands bordering the Gulf of Mannar, India, coastal communities and landless agricultural labourers had to ‘eat fish or starve’ during the severe droughts of 1966 and 1973–1974 (Rengasamy et al., 2003). Similarly, in Northern Mozambique, reef resources provide a safety net during the periodic impact of drought on agricultural production, providing critical food resources, as well as sources of income to buy other basic food stuffs (Wilson et al., 2003). In addition, the reef resources provide critical alternatives when agricultural crops are destroyed by animals (Box 24).

Coral reefs resources are also vital safety nets for the sudden loss of physical or human resources. In the Andaman Islands, India, for example, loss of fishing nets is a common occurrence amongst fisherfolk, an event which can completely alter the livelihood status of a family, with lost opportunities for income and food production. In these situations, however, hand-line fishing on the reef offers a critical safety net and coping mechanism, providing a source of income and food until a new net can be purchased (Singh and Andrews, 2003). For widows or female-headed households, who have lost their husbands and principal support, near-shore reef resources are vital for sustaining the household’s livelihood, and in many cases prevent abject poverty. In the Gulf of Mannar, India, the accessible shallow reef resources provide a vital coping strategy for female-headed households (Box 25).

2.4.3 Trends Market trends

Throughout the world subsistence economies have been shifting towards monetary-based systems and increasing commercialisation. For coastal communities dependent on coral reef resources, the diversity of products available has supported multiple opportunities for commercial extraction for local and foreign markets. Some reef products attract high demand and high prices (see Section, offering good income earning opportunities for small-scale fishers.

As mentioned earlier, the physical nature of a coral reef, its complex three-dimensional structure and coral outcrops, prevents the use of modern industrial gear and thus the development of large-scale fisheries (Pomeroy, 1994). In this way, the coral reef offers a haven for the small-scale, low tech and often poor fishers, reducing conflict and displacement by wealthier high tech industrial fisheries, which is a common occurrence in other near-shore fisheries. However, when demand and prices are sufficiently high (e.g. for live fish for foreign aquaria or restaurants), then this can lead to changing patterns of exploitation, with the emergence of intensive and often destructive techniques, maximizing the short-term profits available, to the detriment of the future health and sustainability of production (see following Chapter 3).

Coral reef resources may also buffer the impacts of market trends in other sectors. In Indonesia, for example, booming prices of cloves in the 1970s encouraged communities to develop clove gardens, often to the extent that they abandoned their traditional harvest of marine commodities. However, when the price of cloves fell, alternative sources of income were sought from the reef and sea (Thorburn, 2000). Population trends

Coastal populations around the world are on the increase, both due to local population growth and as a result of migrants, displaced by conflict or pressures of livelihoods, who are attracted to the coast in search of new opportunities. The diversity and productivity of coral reef resources, afford a sink for such migrants, providing a range of livelihood opportunities that are both physically and economically accessible. In Mozambique, for example, many rural farmers fled to the coast for protection during the war (Campbell and Beardmore, 2001). Similarly, in Sri Lanka the south and west coasts have been the sink for large numbers of displaced people as a result of the ongoing conflict in the north and east. Barriers for outsiders to enter a coral reef fishery are minimal, offering opportunities for those with limited if any physical or financial resources. In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the rich coral reef resource has attracted thousands of migrants from mainland India, often escaping drought, famine or conflicts (Box 26).

Coral reefs also offer important opportunities for seasonal migrants, enabling them to cope with seasonal lows in availability. In Sri Lanka, fishers seasonally migrate from west to east coasts and vice versa in association with the changing monsoon seasons and in order to access sheltered resources, and continue to fish and generate income (Stirrat, 1988). Similarly, Tanzanian fishers migrate temporarily south to access reef resources in Northern Mozambique, although in this case their stimulus is the degradation of their local resources (Wilson et al., 2003). Such temporary migrations are often the focus of conflicts between local and outside fishers. However, in some cases they may also be important sources of employment for local non-fishing communities, engaging in on-shore boat maintenance and repairs (Hajra, 1970). Tourism development

Tourism is frequently promoted as a highly profitable industry. Coastal areas and coral reefs are magnets for tourism development and in many cases the industry is promoted as a means to provide alternatives to fishery-based livelihoods and ensure the sustainability of local coral reef resources. Coral reef areas around the world have experienced a huge increase in tourism development, with many millions of tourists visiting reef areas annually. In the Caribbean alone, 20 million people visit coastal areas, where coral reefs attract 60% of the world’s scuba-diving tours (ICRI, 2002a).

The development of coral reef tourism has the potential to bring valuable benefits to local communities. In many coral reef areas, tourism is one of the main industries bringing employment and income-generating opportunities to coastal areas. The development of infrastructure (roads, communications, etc.) associated with the expansion of tourism may also bring benefits to local communities. However, the ability of the poorer members of the community to access the benefits of tourism is far from guaranteed and requires a sensitivity of development guided by social, cultural and environmental principles. Such an approach is encompassed in small-scale eco-tourism activities, which have attracted growing recognition for their role in sustainable development (Box 27).

While there are clearly potential benefits of tourism development to local communities, in many cases the absence of proper planning and recognition of local needs and priorities, has marginalized local communities and led to conflict between tourism and local small-scale fishers (see Chapter 3, Section 3.3.3).
Side Bar