IIt is one of South Africa’s largest nature reserves, where endangered hippos, elephants and black rhinos live among wetlands, savannah and lakes. But the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site favored by wealthy ecotourists for its biodiversity, is also the scene of an increasingly deadly battle between the people who live there and the environmentalists ostensibly responsible for protecting it.
The rural community of Nibela in KwaZulu-Natal province, one of the poorest regions in the country, has been fishing Lake St. Lucia for generations. It’s their traditional land, but it’s also a Marine Protected Area (MPA), with regulations that restrict gillnet fishing and access to the lake. Park authorities generate revenue through tourists, who can pay R2,000 (about £100) for a deep-sea fishing trip. But local fishermen – who derive little or no benefit from the park and are not allowed to fish – say they are branded as poachers by armed park rangers patrolling the lake.
Last year, the dispute left a fisherman missing, presumed dead – the second in two years from the same family. The police consider the death and disappearance of two brothers in iSimangaliso as murder and attempted murder. On November 12, 2021, Thulani Mdluli, 24, disappeared and is presumed dead after an altercation with rangers. Park authorities say rangers were shot by poachers; the fishermen protest that they were unarmed. Just over a year prior, on September 16, 2020, Thulani’s brother, Celempilo Mdluli, 30, was shot and killed, allegedly by rangers, while fishing.
“We depend on fishing to put food on the table,” says Thomas Nkuna, 68, a fisherman and father of 10 from KwaZulu-Natal. He says the struggling community has always fished to feed their families – long before permits were needed – and have no choice but to continue, even without permission.
“We have to fish at night, to hide from the rangers. But the rangers patrol the waters and confiscate our tools,” he says. “Sometimes we run away. Fishermen were killed by the rangers.
Deaths are an extreme example of what has become a common problem. As scientists warn that biodiversity loss threatens to tip the world into its sixth mass extinction, many are pushing for a global goal to conserve a third of the world’s land and seas by 2030. From Antigua to Zambia, more than half of the world’s governments support this 30×30 target, which could be adopted during the December biodiversity negotiations at COP15 in Montreal.
On Tuesday, Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, warned that in its current form, the 30×30 proposal posed “a serious risk” to the rights of indigenous peoples and to conservation. She urged world leaders in Montreal to put Indigenous communities at the heart of the deal.
Far from the international spotlight, artisanal fishing and indigenous communities say they have to pay for a biodiversity crisis for which they are not responsible. From Colombia to the UK, they are fighting against marine protected areas and fishing bans, arguing that they are disproportionately affected compared to commercial fishing.
In Colombia, where shark fishing was banned in 2020 to help end the shark fin trade, artisanal fishers from Afro-Colombian communities who have been catching sharks for centuries for local consumption say the ban threatens their cultural heritage and their food security. In Greenland, traditional hunters in remote areas who have fished for narwhal for generations disagree with scientists who say the animal is on the brink of extinction. Hunters criticize scientists for not listening to their traditional knowledge and question their counting methods.
In the UK, a vicar has led opposition to a marine protected area on the holy island of Lindisfarne because, she says, it would have a ‘massive socio-economic’ impact on locals who survive on fishing .
Hugh Govan of the University of the South Pacific, who specializes in ocean governance, describes the 30×30 goal as a “neo-colonialist” approach.
“It imposes decisions on land and sea use on developing countries without evidence that these are the best tools to achieve their legitimate sustainability and development ambitions,” Govan says. “A little rich coming from countries that fuel global crises.”
He wonders about the real value of protection zones, which are often badly governed.
“Too often the most destructive fisheries are allowed or even subsidized, while subsistence and community fishing is criminalized,” he says.
Govan points to a controversial decision last year by Kiribati, which relies heavily on revenue from fishing licenses, to open the world’s largest marine reserve – the ‘do not take’ Phoenix Islands Protected Area – to fishing commercial. But the decision, Govan says, was based on research suggesting the MPA was doing nothing to conserve the tuna. Instead, Kiribati has argued that it will rely on an alternative method known as marine spatial planning to conserve ocean resources in a way that benefits its people. The approach has been used in Ecuador to balance conservation against moderate fishing, with inevitable trade-offs.
Imposed targets, such as 30×30, could even make matters worse in developing countries, Govan argues, because they risk alienating coastal communities who, if involved in management, are adept at managing their own resources.
In the Coral Triangle of Indonesia, for example, a study in June comparing different management styles of MPAs found that allowing indigenous peoples to participate in their management yielded more biomass than applying harsh penalties. In the UK, the Sustainable Food Trust has found that small-scale fishers employ 10 times more people than industrial fishers while having less environmental impact, using far less fuel and producing a fraction of the carbon emissions.
“Artisanal fishers around the world tell us they struggle with marine protected areas – in some cases they are moved in the name of conservation,” says Amélie Tappella of Crocevia Centro Internazionale, an Italian NGO that acts as secretariat of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, a platform of grassroots farmers and small-scale fishermen.
Not including these communities risks losing invaluable knowledge and expertise, she says. “If governments focus solely on creating marine protected areas, without consulting artisanal fishing communities or even entrusting them with direct management, we will lose their unique knowledge that allows us to find the key to a world where the man and nature coexist”.
An alternative approach to MPAs is being piloted in Port St Johns, Eastern Cape, South Africa: a ‘bottom-up’ collaborative project that will treat community and government as equal partners in resource conservation. This pilot project, led by WWF South Africa, will provide the impoverished fishing community with much-needed access to better markets for East Coast lobster, a species that fetches low prices locally, in exchange for fishing practices. more durable.
Craig Smith, senior director of marine programs at WWF South Africa, who is leading the pilot project, believes MPAs are needed to reverse biodiversity loss. Problems arise, he says, when the needs of coastal communities are not also taken into account.
“MPAs in South Africa have been a top-down approach,” Smith says. “The consultation process is a box-ticking exercise. The government has set up MPAs, but has not put in place mechanisms to accommodate local communities. We don’t want to go that route.
Jones Thomas Spartagus, youth representative for the World Fishermen’s Forum in India, said new restrictions in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve in Tamil Nadu are restricting the community’s fishing rights while commercial vessels continue to roam the ocean.
“People here see the ocean for two purposes: one for the ‘blue economy’ and the other, by conservationists, for species,” says Spartagus.
“But my life in a traditional fishing community is in danger.”
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