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Poverty and Reefs

3.2 Causes of Change

Livelihood systems are constantly changing and nowhere is this more apparent than the dynamic coastal environment, at the interface between land and sea and at the convergence of a diversity of sectors. Changes to coastal livelihoods are driven by a complex web of interacting factors, acting indirectly or directly, over which the coastal poor have varying degrees of control. These factors influence access to resources and ultimately determine the livelihood strategies adopted and so contribute to the livelihood outcomes of the poor (Figure 24).

The changing access to coral reef benefits can be viewed as a product of four major interacting factors, namely: population growth, market and technology changes, reef degradation and reef conservation.

3.2.1 Population growth

Coastal population growth is the result both of natural growth as well as migration to coastal areas. Globally 2.2 billion people or 39% of the world’s population live within 100 km of the coast. Among coral reef countries, the proportion of people is even greater, with on average 78% of the population living within 100 km of the coast, and almost half a billion people living within 100 km of a coral reef (Bryant et al., 1998).

As coastal populations continue to increase, so does the number of dependents on coral reef resources. And as the benefits of coral reefs become distributed among increasing numbers of people, so the competition for access increases, ultimately leading to a decline in the quality, quantity and diversity of benefits for each stakeholder.

In addition, the growing number of coastal people means that land-based activities are also becoming threatened. In many areas, agricultural land area per person is declining, land is being degraded through over-use, and the demand for agriculture labour is falling. This reduces opportunities for many coastal people and forces them to depend even more heavily on the coral reefs. Furthermore, improved health and social services in many areas have increased survival rates of coastal people to the point where they are living longer. This has led to larger numbers of vulnerable older people depending on the resources.

3.2.2 Market and technology changes

The shallow and complex physical structure of coral reefs, together with their high biodiversity, has resisted the large-scale commercialisation and industrialisation of production, which has been common in other coastal ecosystems. As a result, coral reef fisheries have remained small-scale and accessible to the poor. However, at the same time with the movement from subsistence to cash economies, growth in transport and globalisation of markets, coral reef fisheries have experienced a shift away from predominantly subsistence-oriented production, towards commercial production increasingly orientated to export markets.

In many cases, lucrative external or export markets have created a high demand for certain reef products, leading to an intensification of production, controlled by players and forces outside the local environment. Frequently, this has attracted outsiders to the reef fishery and has also led to the introduction of new technologies to increase production efficiency, such as scuba or the use of cyanide, which have serious impacts on the reef and sustainability of the fishery. In many cases, it has led to reef degradation with over-exploitation of the target product and the local collapse of the fishery (Box 28).

3.2.3 Reef degradation

Coral reefs are fragile ecosystems, slow growing and sensitive to changes in the narrow range of temperature, light and acidity in which they exist. Sources of disturbance to coral reef ecosystems are multiple and synergistic and of natural as well as anthropogenic origin. Living in shallow coastal waters, where the externalities of human activities, both nearby on the coast and far away upstream, frequently concentrate, coral reefs are extremely vulnerable to human disturbance, such as: sedimentation (from coastal development or upstream forestry and agriculture); nutrient waste (from coastal populations and agriculture); and chemical and oil pollution (from agriculture, industry and shipping).

Coral reefs are also degraded through the direct removal of reefs, e.g. for land reclamation or coastal construction, or the over-exploitation of reef products. As mentioned above, local coral reef fisheries are a major source of reef degradation, resulting in increasing often unsustainable pressures on the resource, both through a growth in the numbers of users and scale of extraction, as well as the intensification of extraction and the emergence of destructive technologies.

As well as human disturbances, natural impacts also take their toll on reef resources. Outbreaks and plagues of reef predators, such as the Crown-of-Thorns starfish, cause widespread reef mortality, while cyclones and hurricanes leave large areas of reef damage in their wake. But of all the natural impacts, global warming is one of the most threatening disturbances on a large scale. Coral reefs and coastal fisheries are highly vulnerable to climate change, with coral reefs at risk of undergoing significant and often irreversible damage (IPCC, 2001). Large-scale episodes of elevated sea surface temperatures are principal factors linked to mass bleaching and coral mortality events throughout the world (Box 29). Research suggests that mass bleaching events are likely to increase in frequency and severity within 20 years (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999). Recent bleaching in central sites within the Indian Ocean will increase to a 10% chance of recurrence for all months or a 50% chance of recurrence for the warmest months after only 25–35 years (Sheppard, 2002). Low lying coralline islands have already begun to suffer the effects of that sea-level rise. Reports indicate that two islands in Kiribati have already been engulfed by rising seas and the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) warn that many other islands are at risk from increasing coastal erosion and severe flooding associated with storms and high tides.3 An IPCC report indicates that developing countries are likely to suffer most in terms of loss of life and the negative economic effects of climate change (IPCC, 2001).

An analysis of risks facing reefs around the world estimates that 60% of reefs are under threat (Bryant et al., 1998). Out of four categories of risk considered, coastal development; overexploitation and destructive fishing; inland pollution and erosion; and marine pollution, coastal development and overexploitation were considered to pose the greatest potential threat to reefs (Bryant et al., 1998). Coral reefs in Southeast Asia are the most threatened in the world, with 88% of reefs at risk from human activities and 50% of these facing ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of threat (Burke et al., 2002). With many reefs already degraded and a large proportion of others threatened, the reef benefits available to coastal communities and the poor are in decline and in many cases lost or changed irreversibly.

3.2.4 Reef conservation

International and national recognition of declining reef resources has resulted in increasing efforts to protect and conserve reef biodiversity for the future. These efforts have focused on protecting coral reef areas and species from negative impacts through the prevention or better management of sources of impact. Coral reef fisheries are recognised as having major negative impacts on coral reef biodiversity, health and function. Consequently, many efforts have targeted reef fishery activities, frequently using legislation banning the harvest of particular species, or restricting fisheries activities through systems of marine protected areas, as discussed in the following Chapter, Section 4.3.

In this way, coral reef fishers and communities dependent on the reef are commonly perceived as a source of problems and negative impacts, particularly associated with their role in reef fisheries. Thus, efforts of reef conservation, in their well-meaning attempt to reduce this impact can have the effect of keeping fishers away and reducing their access to reef resources.

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