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Poverty and Reefs

5. Discussion and future directions

5.1 Overview of the current situation

5.1.1 The global distribution of reefs and reef stakeholders

Coral reefs are found in shallow waters throughout the tropical world and dominate the coastlines of many countries in the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, including some of the poorest countries in the world. It has been estimated that over half a billion people live within 100 km of a coral reef, with over 200 million living near reefs in Southeast Asia and nearly 100 million living near reefs in the Indian Ocean (Bryant et al., 1998). While these figures are often quoted in the literature, the actual number of people who depend upon reefs, and their level of dependence, are not well known. We do know, however, that there is a wide diversity of stakeholders who depend upon reef resources. Some reef stakeholders depend upon reef resources as a regular part of their livelihood, some are part-time users who only occasionally depend on the reef, but that dependence is absolute, others use the reef as a safety net. There is also a growing dependence in wider society on reefs as part of national heritage, as a dumping ground for waste, as a source of pleasure for tourists, or as a focus of study and research.

Among those people dependent on coral reefs the numbers living in poverty is significant. Two-thirds of all reef areas are found in developing countries, one quarter of which occur in least developed countries (UNDP, 2002). Thus many reef stakeholders are very poor people, but that poverty is often hidden from sight. The poor often fall in the gaps between coastal development activities, they are often the marginalized ones that do not have legal title to coastal resources, and who are often seen as an obstacle to conservation or development. Because of this hidden nature the profile of the coastal poor is only just beginning to be understood. However, it is clear that dispersed around the world there are considerable numbers of poor people dependent on reefs. Some are very poor (especially in Africa and South Asia), while others are extremely vulnerable (such as in the Pacific). For all of these people, coral reefs offer a physically and economically accessible, diverse and highly productive resource, which provides a complex range of benefits affecting different groups of people in many different ways.

5.1.2 The benefits of reefs to the livelihoods of the poor

Reef resources provide a multitude of different benefits to the poor, including seasonally stable sources of food, building materials, a medium of exchange, medicines and a source of income and status. It is the reef that often gives rise to islands that provide habitats for people and lenses of fresh water for drinking and agriculture. The reef also protects coastal villages from storms and wave action and provides shelter to lagoons and other productive areas, such as seagrasses and mangroves, which in turn provide a reserve of food in all weather conditions. The physical structure of the reef dictates that many activities are done communally and the traditional linkages between reefs and fish and the spirit world mean that reefs can be socially and spiritually unifying.

The diversity of reef products support multiple opportunities for direct exploitation for people with many different skills and access a wide range of different markets, including high value export outlets. The structural and species diversity of the reef prohibits large-scale industrial production and favours small-scale production, preserving opportunities for those with few financial or physical resources. The common pool nature of many reef resources allows easy entry for those who are displaced from other sectors, especially in times of emergency, but the high degree of skill required to understand the reef fully means that barriers to entry still limit the uptake of more complex harvesting strategies. Unlike many fisheries, where women are excluded from production, coral reefs offer opportunities for women to collect from the reef by foot, this has significant benefits in empowering women in the household, and different reef-based strategies between men and women spread household risk. For poor coastal households, particularly female-headed households and vulnerable groups such as the elderly, shallow coral reef resources are often the principal source of food and income security.

Not only do reefs provide a range of benefits in terms of the resources that reef-dependent people use directly in their livelihoods, the reef can also affect the interaction between reef-dependent people, their resources and the factors that control how they access and use those resources. In this way, the presence of reefs may benefit people in their interaction with the politics, culture or social relations which affect their lives. For example, throughout the world the diversity of reef species has provided opportunities for implementation of fisheries development policies focused on high value export markets, which in turn provide opportunities for small-scale reef fishers. Reef resources also help people cope with, and adapt to, wider changes that affect their lives whether they are regular seasonal changes, longer-term trends, or periodic shocks and stresses. These benefit flows help reef-dependent people develop a range of livelihood strategies, and the diversity of those strategies reflects the diversity of type and form of the benefits that flow from the reef ecosystem. Some people are able to develop strategies that make full-time regular use of the reef or its resources, others can use the reef as a crucial safety net in difficult times. Others use the reef as a keystone resource that they tap into at certain times of the year when other resources are not available to them. The use of the benefit flows are not just for subsistence, income or food security; the reef provides a much stronger platform for social and cultural development, which is not always considered in economic analyses of the reef.

In some situations, the reef provides the very means to keep many people out of poverty and so it often appears that reef-dependent communities are not as badly off as some of their neighbours, whose strategies are mainly land-based. In the Pacific, for instance, many reef-dependent communities seem idyllic, but there is a growing level of vulnerability amongst these communities that threatens to undo much of the work that has been achieved through the wider development process.

5.1.3 Changing reef benefits and future vulnerability

The ability of coral reefs to continue to provide benefits to the poor is changing. Throughout the world the capacity of coral reefs to buffer risks and vulnerabilities and provide livelihood stability is eroding as a result of changing access to and availability of reef resources. These changes are being driven by a complex web of interacting factors, acting indirectly or directly, over which the coastal poor have varying degrees of control. One of the principal factors responsible for declining reef benefits is reef degradation, which has arisen as a result of increasing pressures from population, development, market forces and climate change.

Coral reef ecosystems are extremely sensitive to change and easily suffer from disturbance. As coastal areas become ever more populated, increasing numbers of reef stakeholders have begun to compete for access to reef benefits, a situation that has led to increasing pressure on the reef resource typically resulting in over-harvesting and reef decline. Lucrative markets for reef species often drive unsustainable and destructive extraction regimes, which further damage the reef. The reefs are also degraded by coastal and inland developments and the pollution they produce, as well as the natural impacts of storms and predator outbreaks. But in the longer term the threat of climate change is perhaps one of the most significant large-scale causes of reef decline, which threatens to damage large areas of reef worldwide.

For the poor reef stakeholders, these changes have resulted in an increasing reliance on reef benefits as large coastal populations, widespread development and increasing global market forces, overwhelm and degrade alternative resources. Increasingly dependent on a declining resource, the livelihoods of the poor reef stakeholders are vulnerable, and as the stability provided by the reef is eroded, so is their income and food security. In many instances, poor reef stakeholders have become marginalised from access to reef benefits, where coastal tourism developments, external markets and well-meaning efforts to halt reef decline have excluded the poor. In these cases, livelihoods have often become criminalized by regulations, adding increasing burdens of risk and transaction costs on the poor who typically have few other alternatives.

In the face of current population and development trends and predictions of global warming this situation will worsen, no more so than in the low lying coralline islands scattered throughout the Indo-Pacific. These changes threaten the benefit flows that the reefs provide to almost all reef-dependent communities and seriously undermine the livelihoods of some of the poorest people. In the near future many of those who have been helped above the poverty line will start to slip back below it, unless there are radical changes in the way reefs and reef-dependent communities are viewed and worked with.

5.1.4 Attempts to address poverty and reef-related issues

On international, regional and national levels, declining coral reef resources have become a significant focus for concern and the target for numerous interventions. These interventions have tended to be motivated by a prevailing international priority for biodiversity conservation and consequently their focus is on preventing reef decline and protecting reefs from sources of degradation. This predisposition has dictated the priorities, approaches and outcomes of interventions and has inadvertently resulted in a lack of attention to, and often exclusion of, poor reef stakeholders.

However, there is a growing consensus that in the absence of meaningful consideration of local needs many interventions have failed. In recognition of this failure and the priority for poverty alleviation of many donors and governments, issues of poverty, food security and livelihoods are increasingly emerging in coral reef fora. Furthermore, many interventions are evolving towards increasingly participatory and collaborative approaches, with increasing examples of success. However, despite this shift there remains a lack of acknowledgement that global priorities of reef conservation and biodiversity protection are not necessarily shared with poor stakeholders trying to survive from day to day. This is compounded by a lack of understanding of poor reef-dependent people: who they are, what their priorities are, what problems they face, and how to best support them in coping with declining reef benefits.

Future interventions require a shift in balance towards people-focused coastal development supporting the sustainable livelihoods of the coastal poor. This shift must be accompanied by a greater consideration of the full context of the livelihoods of the poor, including interventions which systematically deal with enhancing livelihood security of the poor, through diversification and enhancement of livelihoods, and interventions which focus on strengthening support services for the poor. Currently these aspects are often overlooked or tagged on to programmes aimed at preventing reef decline. These deserve considerably more attention if the impacts of current interventions are to succeed in sustaining reef benefits and the livelihoods of poor reef stakeholders in the longer term.
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