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Protect the sea, neglect the people? New discovery of the large-scale impact of marine conservation schemes

A boat at sunset in Cambodia

  • As G7 governments renew commitments to protecting marine spaces and biodiversity, global conservation initiatives such as 30x30 are feared to pay too little attention to the livelihood impacts on communities
  • Close-up inspection of an upcoming marine conservation area in Cambodia shows mixed livelihood consequences ranging from improving relationships to the state to increased anxiety and social division
  • In the long term and on a regional scale in Southeast Asia, communities exposed to marine conservation are poorer and experience higher child mortality
  • Researchers warn that the rapid global expansion of nominal marine protected area (MPA) coverage can undermine community livelihoods if it proceeds with a sole focus on marine resource conservation, a disregard of local social contexts, and a lack of livelihood adaptation support for affected communities.
  • Researchers urge that marine conservation interventions should follow social impact assessments and go hand-in-hand with livelihood support schemes for affected communities

Governments and international organisations are expanding targets to conserve marine spaces to stem the worrying depletion of biodiversity and fish stocks around the globe. A new study now demonstrates the wide range of unintended impacts that such conservation efforts have on affected communities.

Published today in the leading international development journal World Development, In a network of lines that intersect: the socio-economic development impact of marine resource management and conservation in Southeast Asia presents a ground-breaking case study of the Cambodian Koh Sdach Archipelago combined with a cross-country statistical analysis of the impacts of marine conservation across Southeast Asian communities:

The detailed and up-close analysis demonstrates a mix of positive and negative impacts:

  • On the positive side, communities can find economic relief from the slowing deterioration of fish stock, and, in the case of Cambodia as a post-conflict country even experience improving relationships with the state.
  • Negative consequences included social division, heightened livelihood anxiety, and a false sense of economic security.
  • On balance and at the regional scale of Southeast Asia, long-term community exposure to marine protection schemes was linked to decreasing wealth and increasing child mortality.

Current research on surrounding marine protected areas (MPAs) has focused on pragmatic questions of effectiveness in protecting marine resources, good governance, and compliance. There has been little work to date on the “human dimension” of marine conservation and its unintended socio-economic consequences.

To evaluate the impact of marine conservation schemes on affected communities the researchers adapted techniques from international development research, developing a conceptual framework and using a qualitative case study of marine protection in Cambodia in combination with secondary household survey data from across Southeast Asia to tackle this research gap.

The case study revealed that although there had been some positive outcomes from the creation of the Koh Sdach community fishery organisation, such as slowing the deterioration of marine resources and encouraging diversification towards tourism, there were also negative social consequences – some groups remained involuntarily excluded, others evaded participation and adherence with its rules, and yet others struggled with the consequences of rule enforcement including threats of personal harm.

The quantitative analysis found that MPAs across Cambodia, Philippines, and Timor-Leste tended to emerge initially in socio-economically relatively well-off communities, but prolonged exposure was associated with a slower development pace in terms of household wealth, education, and child mortality.

The authors therefore argue that the target-driven expansion of marine protection areas – now up to 50% of global marine areas – neglects the social realities and livelihoods of affected communities.

The researchers recommend that the environmental objectives of marine protection be supplemented by social impact analyses and livelihood support schemes that help alleviate the disruptions of community lives.

Lead author Dr Haenssgen comments, “The importance of ecological impacts of marine conservation is beyond dispute, but we also need to ensure that such interventions are socially sustainable.

“What makes our study special in this respect is our use of cutting-edge social research approaches, both conceptual and methodological, which help unravel the social dimensions of marine protection on the micro and macro levels.”

The social research study comprised a team of University of Warwick and Southeast Asian researchers directed by Dr Marco J Haenssgen, Assistant Professor in Global Sustainable Development. It is part of a broader research project to understand and inform marine conservation, which is entitled “Protected Areas and People” and funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund.

Project leader and co-author Dr Jessica Savage (Global Sustainable Development, University of Warwick) observes that, “Realism is essential in our design of future conservation targets. In order to achieve sustainable development, we need to not only design achievable goals, but also goals that are inherently sustainable.”

3 June 2021

  • Photo caption: A boat at sunset in Cambodia. Credit: Marco J Haenssgen
  • The Department for Global Sustainable Development was founded in 2015 with a remit to deliver a suite of innovative degree courses which take on the challenge of engaging with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in a multi-disciplinary and intellectually enriching environment. The department has grown to encompass 12 undergraduate degree courses and the Institute for Global Sustainable Development which was established in 2017 to foster research that contributes to the sustainable development agenda across the Global North and Global South.
  • The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) supports cutting-edge research to address challenges faced by developing countries. It is part of the UK’s official development assistance (ODA) and is managed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The fund addresses the United Nations sustainable development goals. It aims to maximise the impact of research and innovation to improve lives and opportunity in the developing world.


Sheila Kiggins

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