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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au

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Indigenous lessons in conservation

Jul 2006

A study into the many ways to protect coral reefs has found that some of humanity’s oldest and most traditional methods are proving to be the best.

The study looked at different strategies for protecting areas of coral reefs within Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Indonesia. The study shows that the customary laws of local communities manage the reefs better than more modern national parks and reserves that are too poorly resourced to operate effectively.

“The traditional communities we studied in PNG and Indonesia have managed to protect their fragile reefs better than conservation groups or governments, because they were better able to gain community support” says Dr Josh Cinner of the ARC Center of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS). “The traditions of these people can give us new perspectives and new ideas on conservation.”

Dr Cinner and his colleagues, Drs Timothy McClanahan, Michael Marnane and William Kiene of the Wildlife Conservation Society, studied 11 protected reef areas throughout PNG and Indonesia.

“We wanted to know what is actually working in coral reef conservation, but more importantly, why,” says Dr. Cinner

The team of leading ecologists and social scientists studied national marine parks, marine reserves funded by conservation groups and universities, and areas controlled and owned by indigenous communities.

All of the traditionally managed areas had larger fish than in surrounding unprotected areas. Only one of the 8 national parks and reserves studied showed any difference to unprotected areas because of high levels of poaching.

By occasionally fishing their local areas after periods of closure, the communities provided food for traditional ceremonial feasts which gives direct economic benefits back to the communities.  “The traditionally managed areas had no budget and no outside support, yet they showed that they could meet the needs of their society and still be effective,” says Dr. Cinner.

“[These villages] all had a focus on building strong bonds between community members which increases the amount of trust within the village, making it easier and cheaper to follow local rules towards fishing,” says Dr. Cinner.

The communities achieved a high level of compliance with conservation laws without the need for patrols and enforcement, something which other parks and reserves invest large amounts of resources into.

“The lessons we have learnt from this study is that conservation strategies are most effective when they can directly benefit the communities involved,” says Dr. Cinner.

Most coral reefs are located in poor, developing countries that lack the resources to effectively establish and enforce a national system of marine protected areas. Australia is in a unique position to establish large marine reserves and make them work.

The lesson from this study is that even in a wealthy country, public support for conservation is essential for long-term success.


More information:
Joshua Cinner, Postdoctoral Fellow, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 6751, +61  043036 393
Professor Terry Hughes, Director, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4000
Jenny Lappin, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4222
Jim O’Brien, James Cook University Media Office, +61 7 4781 4822

McClanahan, TR, Marnane, MJ, Cinner, JE and Kiene, WE (2006). “A Comparison of Marine Protected Areas and Alternative Approaches to Coral-Reef Management.” Current Biology 16(14): 1408-1413.
Link to Full Text or pdf



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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au