Header

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

2.2 Contribution of coral reefs to the resources of the poor

The reef contributes directly to the resources that are immediately available to the poor to use in their livelihoods. These are natural, human, social, physical and financial resources.

2.2.1 Natural resources

Coral reefs provide a wide array of benefit flows to the poor that enhance the natural resources that they have access to, these are outlined below.

2.2.1.1 High biodiversity and productivity

Coral reefs support high levels of biodiversity and biomass in tropical regions where the surrounding ocean is comparatively barren. The productivity associated with coral reefs is estimated to be higher than any other ecosystems, but varies according to the health of the reef and the reef area and region in question (Table 9).

Despite the small area coral reefs occupy on the world’s surface (only 0.1%), it is believed that there are more species per unit area of coral reef than any other ecosystem (Spalding et al., 2001). Globally there are an estimated 4,000 coral reef fish species, which constitute at least 25% of all marine fish species (Spalding et al., 2001). On many small coral islands, the biodiversity of the marine environment far outweighs that found on land and the reef represents the principal natural resource base for the local population. In the Maldives, for example, terrestrial biodiversity is insignificant compared to the rich biodiversity of the surrounding reefs, where many thousands of different species are encountered (Zuhair, 1998).

High biodiversity inherently means a high diversity of potential opportunities for exploitation. Any coral reef-based fishery around the world is characterized by the large numbers of different groups of species exploited, including fish, molluscs, crustaceans and seaweed (Box 4).

2.2.1.2 A haven for small-scale fisheries

The productivity of the reef resource combined with its rich diversity play a significant role in the fisheries of many developing countries. The biological diversity and complex three-dimensional structure of coral reefs also protect against the development of large-scale commercial fisheries reliant on trawls and industrial gear (Pomeroy, 1994). Consequently, coral reefs fisheries are a haven for small-scale fishery activities and their often shallow and near-shore location allows easy access, requiring minimal technology and financial investment.

However, the predominantly small-scale and subsistence nature of the fishery means that the real benefit of the coral reef resource is often overlooked in national fishery statistics. In the South Pacific, 80% of the total coastal fisheries production is from subsistence fishing and just under half of the total annual commercial catch originates on coral reefs (Dalzell et al., 1995). In Indonesia, 80% of the fisheries production arises from smallscale production in inshore waters (UNEP, 1996), and in India the predominantly subsistence reef fisheries may provide 5–10% of the total marine fish production (Pet-Soede et al., 2000; White and Rajasuriya, 1995, respectively).

2.2.1.3 Bait fish for tuna fisheries

Reef resources also provide crucial inputs for pelagic fisheries production, through the supply of bait fish. In the Maldives, a live bait fishery has been reported from at least the fourteenth century, regularly using 20 reef-associated fish species to supply live bait to the offshore pole and line fishery (Risk and Sluka, 2000). Similarly, in Lakshadweep the pole and line tuna fishery (Figure 8) is supported by a reef-based bait fishery, which is one of the most energy- and capital-intensive fisheries associated with the reef (Hoon, 2003).

2.2.1.4 Interactions with adjacent coastal ecosystems

Coral reefs form an integral part of the wider coastal and ocean ecosystem interlinked by flows of nutrients, sediments and energy. Coral reefs are in many cases the basis for island creation through the accumulation of reef-generated sand and sediment behind the reef and the continual supply of sand to coastal beaches. This in turn provides a habitat for people, nesting sites for birds and turtles and lenses of fresh water for drinking and agriculture. Nowhere is this function more apparent than the coral islands and atolls of the Pacific and Indian Ocean.

Behind the shelter of reefs, lagoons, seagrass and mangrove habitats can flourish, providing extensive resources for exploitation (Box 5). The reef also provides shelter and an attractive source of food to pelagic open water fish species in a comparatively barren tropical sea. In this way, the reef acts as a ‘Fish Aggregation Device’, which in turn attracts fishers. For example, around the island of Tobi, one of the south west islands of Palau, fishers exploit large numbers of tuna attracted to the reef by seasonal abundances in juvenile reef fish (Johannes, 1981). In the Andaman Islands many fishing grounds for pelagic species are located on the edge of reefs or in channels between reefs (Singh and Andrews, 2003).

The association of coral reefs with other near-by ecosystems is often well recognized by local people (Box 5). In the south Pacific, local people perceive the reef resource as encompassing mangrove and estuarine habitats, as well as the reef itself (Hviding, 1994).

2.2.2 Physical resources

2.2.2.1 Coastal protection

Coral reefs play a critical role in providing a physical barrier against wave energy, thus reducing coastal erosion and the impact of storms. For all coastal communities living in the shelter of coral reefs, the reef barrier protects their homes, agricultural land and public infrastructure from the erosive forces of waves, currents and storms. Along the erosion-prone coasts of western and southern Sri Lanka, it has been estimated that 1 km2 of coral reef prevents 2,000 m2 of erosion per year (Berg et al., 1998). The shelter provided by reefs is widely recognised by coastal communities, in the village of Thavukadu in the Gulf of Mannar, India, where it has even been incorporated into local myth (Box 6). In locations where local communities equate their surrounding natural landscapes with their own ancestors and identities, the significance of the protection provided by coral reefs, may be even greater.

2.2.2.2 Navigation

The wave buffering effect of reefs also creates safe waters for navigation and fishing in the sheltered waters behind the reef and lagoon. Breaking waves and swells over reefs are also commonly used as guides for navigation, often in locations where no alternative navigation aids exist (Box 7). The high visibility typical of tropical waters, together with the exposure of reef flats at low tides have enabled an often intimate familiarity and mental mapping of coral heads, reefs and associated fishing grounds. In the Pacific this is known to be so evolved so as to include names for large coral heads (Ruddle et al., 1992). Elder fishermen of Montego Bay, Jamaica, are also known to have become so familiar with the sea floor that they can navigate without a compass (Bunce and Gustavson, 1998). In Sri Lanka, the topography of the sea floor is also well known by fishermen and most local reefs and submerged rocks carry names (Stirrat, 1988).

2.2.2.3 Physical boundaries

The distinctly visible characteristics of a coral reef, such as waves breaking over the reef edge, prominent coral heads or boulders and exposed reef flats have been used throughout Oceania as a means of demarcating the marine border of the traditional land and sea territories of neighbouring villages or clans (Box 8). In some cases the location of a particular feature, a reef passage or patch, influenced the positioning of a marine boundary (Schug, 1995). In the Trobriand Islands marine territories are delineated by the distinct physical boundaries of a coral patch or boulder (Young, 1979).

2.2.2.4 Source of materials

Not only are the reef inhabitants extracted, so is the foundation of the reef itself. Coral, coral sand and large gastropods are all extracted for use in local construction as building blocks and for the production of lime for cement, flooring, plastering and white wash. For many people, the use of coral in construction may be the only economically viable option and so it remains an important resource, in particular for those from isolated island communities and for the poor.

In the Maldives, coral blocks, rubble and sand are the main construction materials and as much as 20,000 m3 is mined every year (Cesar, 1996). In Mola Village, Indonesia, coral mining began relatively recently (1960s) and the coral has been used to build fences, roads, foundations of houses and to ‘modernize’ houses, as it is believed that coral stones make the houses stronger (Figures 9 and 10) (Elliot et al., 2001). In Kiribati, coral and sand have been used for building, roadways, causeways, seawalls and for reclamation (Teiwaki, 1988). In Sri Lanka, coral has been an important source of lime for construction, agriculture and the chemical industry and it was estimated that over 18 000 tonnes of coral were mined in 1984 (Katupotha, 1995). In the past, coral stone was even used for the construction of royal tombs and monuments in Tonga (Gibbings, 1949).

CITES records account for 142 coral groups in international trade (Green and Shirley 1999). The corals’ ultimate end may be in aquaria, as curios, ornaments or jewellery. Corals are also used for the production of tools and fish traps (Figure 11), although this is becoming less common with the use of synthetic alternatives. A variety of other reef species are also manufactured into tools and jewellery. In particular, reef molluscs are an important resource for ornaments and curios, their collection in many cases driven by export or tourist markets (Box 9).

2.2.3 Financial resources

2.2.3.1 Income generation

The majority of natural products extracted from a coral reef have the potential to generate income either in local markets or in export markets. Income generation is not restricted solely to the fisher, but extends through a chain of interactions to the many others involved in processing, marketing and sale (Box 10). In those locations where marine resources are the primary natural resource, a significant proportion of the workforce may be employed in reef-dependent activities. In the Maldives, for example, 25% of the workforce is employed in fishing, predominantly tuna fishing which depend in reefs to attract the pelagic fish and for live bait supplies (Zuhair, 1998). If reef-based tourism and travel related employment, which contribute to 56% of the national economy in the Maldives (Westmacott et al., 2000), were included this figure would be greatly inflated.

In many coastal communities, fishing may be the primary or only source of cash income, particularly for poorer households. In Atulayan Bay, Philippines, a fifth of households derive all or most of their income from fishing (Pollnac, 1998). In Discovery Bay, Jamaica, some members of the fishing community have no other source of income and in Montego Bay, Jamaica, an estimated 70–95% of fishers depend on fishing as their sole source of income (Bunce and Gustavson, 1998; Woodley, 1994). In the Torres Straits of Papua New Guinea, many communities remain almost completely dependent on marine products for generating cash income and ensuring long-term economic security (Schug, 1995). In the three poor villages studied in this project in Northern Mozambique, reef products generated income for up to 90% of households (Figure 12, Wilson et al., 2003).

Income generation is not just limited to fishing activities, coral mining may also play an important role. Coral miners in Sri Lanka could earn three times the alternative income of rural labour and it was estimated that in addition to the miners many thousands of people were economically dependent, directly or indirectly, on lime production (Berg et al., 1998). On Mafia Island, Tanzania, coral mining ranked third as an income-generating activity, in terms of numbers of people involved (Dulvy et al., 1995). In the Gulf of Mannar, fish vending offers an important opportunity for poor female-headed households, providing up to 50% of the household income (Rengasamy et al., 2003).

2.2.3.2 Low entry cost reef fisheries

The location of reefs, near shore and at relatively shallow depths, allow easy access, often by foot and without the need of boats or specialized equipment. Consequently, little investment is needed to enter a reef fishery, and thus they provide multiple opportunities for poorer households, with limited financial resources (Box 11, Figure 13).

2.2.3.3 Diversity of products and markets

The diversity of coral reef resources and exploited reef products gives access to a range of different associated markets. Certain reef products are of high value for international markets, such as: live fish for aquaria and restaurants, seaweed for agar production, or crabs for processed crab sticks, and these provide income generating opportunities to local collectors and fishers. Export demands for reef products often offer higher value options throughout the year, and may provide a more attractive market outlet compared to local markets. In the Andaman Islands, certain reef fish have become known locally as Dollar Fish, due to the high value they generate with export traders. Sea cucumbers are a sought after commodity from reef areas around the world (Figure 14), supplying Chinese and other Asian markets and more recently western markets, as a dietary supplement. In Eastern Africa, the arrival of Chinese settlers in the mid 1900s coincided with the emergence of the sea cucumber industry, which has been entirely export orientated and provided a lucrative market primarily to small-scale fishers (TRAFFIC, 2001). In the Northern Mozambican village of Messano, the reef provides shelter in the near-shore shallow waters for seaweed cultivation, supplying an export market and providing an important source of income principally to women (Wilson et al., 2003).

Reef products may also be used to obtain foreign currency. Such is the case in Northern Mozambique, where sea cucumbers and the opercula of large gastropods, known locally as Mbande, are collected and used as exchange for Tanzania shillings, helping finance trips across the border to Tanzania (Wilson et al., 2003). The diversity of reef species and markets provide stability to the fishery (Figure 15), absorbing the impact of fluctuating demand and prices, with the impact of falling demand and prices of one product, offset by continuing demand, or even rising prices of another product. Single species may also be able to access a number of different markets, both locally and for export. For example, sharks may be sold locally for their meat, teeth or jaws, and to foreign markets for their liver oil (used in cosmetics and sun cream) and skin (to process into leather) (Nichols, 1993). In the Pacific Islands, rural fishermen have accessed the Japanese market for shark fins, which provides an important income earning opportunity (Nichols, 1993). In India and Sri Lanka, sharks are sold locally for consumption and for the curio trade, while their fins and livers are exported (Kristensen, 1990).

2.2.3.4 Reef products for exchange and barter

Reef products may not always be used to earn cash, but may be used instead as a trading commodity for barter. Shells were most likely the earliest form of currency (Box 12), and evidence for the use of shell money has been found across Africa, South Asia and China, where it dates back at least to the Shang Dynasty 1700 to 1100 BC (Risk and Sluka, 2000). Traditionally in many reef-fishing communities, reef products were not sold but shared with family, neighbors and those in need in a system of reciprocity that underpinned social and economic life. In the South Pacific, sharing reef products was a key element of social security and social status was afforded according to the extent to which a person redistributed, rather than accumulated, their resources (Johannes, 1989). Sooner or later the giver of a fish could expect to receive other goods or services in return and in some cases this was an important means of receiving otherwise unobtainable products.

With the emergence of cash economies, bartering has become less common, however, the exchange of reef products for other goods or services remains an important part of the life of coastal communities, and is particularly important for poorer members of the community, such as the elderly or female-headed households, with little or no cash savings or access to cash earning opportunities. In some cases it also continues to underpin the movement of essential goods between the coast and inland communities. In other cases, it remains an important way to maintain social customs and traditions (Box 13).

2.2.4 Human resources

2.2.4.1 Providing food security

Coral reefs and their associated fisheries are a major source of food and animal protein throughout the world, contributing to 10% of the fish consumed by humans, and providing a supply of protein for tens of millions of people (Moberg and Folke, 1999). Seafood not only provides a source of protein, it is also high in fats, vitamins and minerals. This highly nutritional food source is often the primary source of protein for coastal communities, and is of particular importance for vulnerable groups, such as the sick, young, pregnant or old. In the Philippines it has been estimated that 50% of the population is reliant on fish for their primary source of protein and a large proportion of fish products originate from reef fisheries (McAllister, 1988; White and Cruz-Trinidad, 1998). Furthermore, increasing levels of child malnutrition amongst coastal communities in the Philippines has been associated with declining fisheries production as a result of degraded reef resources (McAllister, 1988). In Sri Lanka, fish constitutes two thirds of the animal protein consumed and at least 50% of the fish species caught are directly dependent on the reef (Ohman et al., 1993).

In the South Pacific, people are primarily rural dwellers relying on a subsistence economy, which in turn relies predominantly on fisheries due to the scarcity of agricultural land (Adams et al., 1995). Coastal fisheries are vital to the nutrition of the rural people of the Pacific Islands (Table 10), with 90% of animal protein originating from fish products (Johannes, 1978), and 80% of coastal fisheries production consumed directly by the producer and their communities (Adams et al., 1995).

Small, damaged fish or certain parts of fish are typically a cheap food source for poor people (Figure 16), for example; the internal organs and head of sharks in Sri Lanka are mainly consumed by low income groups (Rajendran et al., 1992). Those reef resources, which may be accessed easily by foot and collected by hand, such as molluscs, are also often relied on as the only source of protein for the very poor. Among, coastal communities of Northern Mozambique, these resources were used heavily by women and female-headed households, often providing the only source of protein for some of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of the community (Wilson et al., 2003).

2.2.4.2 Medicinal contribution

Apart from their nutritional contributions to health, reef products may also provide medicinal benefits. Where communities have had long associations with the reef resources, an understanding of the medicinal properties of many of the reef species has been widely exploited (Box 14). With the emergence of modern medicines and health care, the traditional use of reef products in this way has become less common, however, for poorer households, with little access to alternatives, the medicinal properties of reef products offer ongoing benefits. In addition to local medicinal benefits, Chinese medicine has also traditionally valued the properties of reef and reef-associated products, such as sea cucumbers and sea horses, creating a sizeable (if sometimes illegal) market and income earning opportunities for local reef fishers.

2.2.4.3 A source of local knowledge

A high dependence on natural resources leads to an intimate knowledge of those resources and ways with which to extract them. People around the world who are dependent on coral reefs demonstrate a considerable understanding of the reef resource, a knowledge which reflects the diversity of the reef and encompasses species-specific information, as well as a broader understanding of ecosystem processes and linkages (Box 15). This knowledge, which is typically passed on informally and built up through experience enables poor communities, without access to sophisticated equipment or years of formal education, to successfully access and exploit the reef resource. This knowledge is also a resource which is essential for the safety and survival of fishers as they navigate and fish in a potentially dangerous environment.

2.2.4.4 A diversity of skills

The diversity of coral reef resources, together with the wealth of local knowledge of many reef users has promoted the development of a wide range of diverse fishing techniques, targeting different species and different reef habitats (Figures 17 and 18). Where coastal communities have interacted with the reef resource for many generations, their pattern of reef exploitation is typically well developed and reef users will possess a diversity of practical skills associated with the variety of fishing techniques employed. In Atulayan Bay, Philippines, 19 different fishing methods were encountered including gleaning, spear guns, hand-lines (single or multiple hooks, with or without bait), numerous types of nets, fish corral, aggregating devices, scare lines and illegal techniques such as cyanide and dynamite (Pollnac, 1998). On the Lakshadweep Islands, 16 different fishing methods were encountered on one island alone, each employing a diversity of different gears and targeting specific reef areas and species (Hoon, 2003). In Palau, a combination of knowledge and skill is demonstrated in many fishing techniques, such as the use of a nerve toxin released from the skin of sea cucumber to paralyse large edible sea anemones or octopi, or mimicking the sounds of fish underwater to attract and locate fish prey (Johannes, 1981).

Such a diversity of skills and wealth of knowledge have evolved simultaneously in order to successfully exploit the diverse reef resource. They are essential for the subsistence and survival of many isolated island communities and poor coastal communities, who have little alternative resources to exploit.

2.2.5 Social resources

2.2.5.1 Communal exploitation

The complex physical structure and often close proximity of the reef to the shore, allows and frequently requires exploitation to be undertaken as a communal or collaborative activity, sometimes with many members of the community taking part (Box 16). These activities are important in providing an opportunity for exchange and in creating and reaffirming relationships, bonds and networks within a community. Communal harvest on the reef flats by foot, also known as reef gleaning, is an activity encountered throughout the world among communities adjacent to shallow reefs. It is an activity which is often carried out by groups of women, together with children and the elderly, and as well as providing food and income benefits (discussed in Sections 2.2.3 and 2.2.4), it is also important in providing a social time between women and a chance to be together away from the house and village.

Communal activities may also be important in enhancing an individuals’ sense of community through cooperation and sharing and in this way reduce conflict and assist newcomers in integrating in the community. In the Andaman Islands, opportunities for labouring on fishing boats provide the most immediate and accessible livelihood option in fishing communities and are an important way for new migrants to build up trust and relationships in the community (Singh and Andrews, 2003).

Collaborative activities also function to reduce the risks involved in ‘going it alone’. It may act as a means of sharing physical or human resources amongst the community, so helping households to overcome a lack or surplus of manpower or fishing gear. Such is the case in Sri Lanka, where two households might engage in ‘partnership work’, or ‘havula rassava’ in situations where one household has a surplus of labour, whilst another has a shortage in relation to fishing gear (Stirrat, 1988). So typically, households with a surplus of teenage boys, may ‘lend’ a son to another household, where, in exchange for assisting with fishing activities, he will receive training in fishing skills, food, clothes and pocket money (Stirrat, 1988). Assistance and labour in fishing may also be exchanged at the landing site, for example, in Sri Lanka fishermen from a common landing site are expected to assist one another in dragging each other’s boats ashore, an activity which could not be done otherwise, particularly during the south west monsoon when the beaches are too steep even for the smallest boat (Stirrat, 1988). In Montego Bay, Jamaica, certain fish landing sites were identified as important places for the community to exchange and network and were associated with a strong sense of community and social activity (Bunce and Gustavson, 1998).

2.2.5.2 Customs and traditions

Among traditional coastal communities, coral reef systems and the near-shore fisheries they support are often the focus of elaborate belief systems, customs and traditions (Box 17). In the Pacific Islands, parts of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, complex belief systems are prevalent and often manifest themselves in systems of customary marine tenure (CMT) or traditional management. The beliefs underpinning CMT or traditional management, consist of a complexity of spiritual associations, rituals and myths encompassing communities and their surrounding natural world on land and sea. They include beliefs and rules, which govern access to and use of reef resources and form the basis of social relationships both within a community and between communities (Ruddle et al., 1992). They are also a source of individual and community identity and social status, and provide a sense of well-being, bonding groups through their common beliefs and rights (Johannes et al., 1991; Ruddle, 1996).

Certain beliefs and rituals focus on particular reef species. In the South Pacific, totemic and other taboos may be placed on certain reef food species, restricting particular clans, families, age groups or genders from catching or eating them (Johannes, 1978; Veitayaki, 1994). Certain species may also be of ceremonial importance, for example, dried dugong skin is used in agricultural ceremonies and healing rituals in Papua New Guinea (Schug, 1995). In Tonga, lobster is a special ceremonial food item for mass feast occasions, such as weddings or birthdays (Udagawa et al., 1995). Other species may even be believed to be magical and the focus of worship. For example, in parts of the South Pacific shark worship was common and sharks were believed to be the embodiment of the souls of deceased ancestors, with a variety of mythology surrounding them (Nichols, 1993). In Samoa, the turtle is considered a sacred species and particular rules govern a fisherman’s relationship with it (Gibbings, 1949). In India, where traditional Hindu society recognised individual species as objects of worship, the turtle occupies an important place in Hindu mythology and is considered sacred among the fishermen of Tamil Nadu (Bavinck, 2001).

The activity of fishing is also often the focus of myths and rituals, which may confer special status on an individual, and have helped perpetuate fishing knowledge and beliefs systems, which themselves are the very basis of a fishing communities’ cultural identity (Raychaudhuri, 1980). The origin of particular fishing techniques are often found in local myth or legends (Box 18). In Kiribati, fishing is a feature of numerous myths and rituals and the origin of some fishing techniques and locations of good fishing grounds are derived from myth (Teiwaki, 1988). In the Lakshadweep Islands, India, there is hardly any tale or song which does not mention the traditional sailing crafts, known as Odams, the journeys of enterprising ‘heroes’ and the adventures of fishing in the sea. There are even stories of a sea ghost baluvam, a benevolent ghost, whose coming to shore is considered as a harbinger of prosperity for that year, bringing more coconuts, more fish and general well-being (Hoon, 2003). Elsewhere in India, the origins of certain deities are associated with fishing and the sea and rituals may be performed at every stage of fishing in an attempt to reduce hazards or to ensure a good catch (Bavinck, 2001; Hajra, 1970; Mukherjee, 1968; Raychaudhuri, 1980). At dusk every Tuesday in the Gulf of Mannar, local fishermen will undertake a ritual called Neeratuthal, which involves cleaning their boats and applying kungumam (saffron) and sandalwood paste and lighting camphor, in order to bring good fortune to fishing (Rengasamy et al., 2003).

Fishing activities and associated beliefs may give special status to individuals or groups in a community. For example, an institution of magicians has developed in India specifically to counteract poisonous bites of sea creatures (Raychaudhuri, 1980). In Papua New Guinea, certain individuals were believed to possess a mixture of magical powers and special knowledge of fish behaviours, giving them the authority to perform a traditional form of management known as Kieching (Lokani, 1995). Considerable prestige may be attached to the man skilled in ritual knowledge and in possession of magical powers that enable him to have success in fishing (Hogbin, 1973). In Palau, there is no higher accolade than to be called a ‘real fisherman’ and great pride is associated with fishing skill and knowledge (Johannes, 1981).

Fishing is often considered a way of life and an integral part of social and economic existence. In Montego Bay, Jamaica, fishers perceive their activity as an intrinsic part of the community and themselves (Bunce and Gustavson, 1998). In India and Sri Lanka, fishing is associated with particular castes and is considered a traditional occupation and way of life, which has been passed down from generation to generation. In some coastal communities (e.g. the Gulf of Mannar, India and Northern Mozambique) to be a fisherman is considered of greater status than to be a farmer, such that in Northern Mozambique regardless of the relative time spent fishing it is preferable to be labeled a fisher than a farmer (Rengasamy et al., 2003; Wilson et al. 2003).
Side Bar