In most areas of the world, indigenous peoples can be important stakeholders in the planning and management of marine protected areas, often offering a detailed ecological knowledge of the sea, honed over centuries. In addition, some nations grant special territorial and resource rights to indigenous peoples, empowering them with a direct say in how protected areas are planned and managed.

This month, as part one of a two-part study, MPA News offers insights from two experts — Gonzalo Oviedo and Bob Johannes — on issues involved in the participation of indigenous peoples in MPA practice. An MPA News interview with Oviedo and a perspective piece by Johannes appear below. In next month’s newsletter, we will examine case examples of MPAs in which indigenous peoples have played a significant role.

Indigenous Peoples and MPAs: Interview with Gonzalo Oviedo of WWF

In the past decade, WWF (an international NGO) has taken a prominent role in global discussions on conservation and indigenous societies, publishing more than 40 reports, books, and other works on the subject. Gonzalo Oviedo is head of the People and Conservation Program at WWF International, which focuses on protecting cultural and biological diversity around the world. This month, MPA News spoke with Oviedo about the opportunities and challenges facing indigenous societies with regard to the practice of MPAs.

MPA NEWS: Why is it important for MPA practitioners to involve indigenous people in the planning and management of protected areas?

OVIEDO: It is important to involve them because it helps these communities to maintain or achieve sustainability in their practices, which in turn leads to compliance with the management objectives of the protected areas.

When MPAs are established, it is generally because of the perception of environmental threats, which are also threats to traditional cultures and practices. So involving traditional communities is a way to protect their traditional practices and ensure that they continue to be attuned to, or get back on track with, the natural functioning of their areas. At the same time, by involving traditional communities, management may be enriched by traditional knowledge. [See Johannes, below.]

MPA NEWS: In your view, do the cultural practices of an indigenous people — developed over perhaps hundreds or thousands of years — inherently possess more value than the practices of a non-indigenous people, whose practices in some cases may be just decades old (or less)?

OVIEDO: The cultural practices of indigenous peoples generally possess more “conservation value” than those of non-indigenous peoples. But from there it doesn’t follow that all traditional practices of all traditional peoples are better than any non-traditional practices of non-traditional communities. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but many advocates of the “ecological indian” model seem to think that way.

Now, it also has to be put into context. In the past, Fijian traditional communities used to use duva — a poison root that makes for an easy harvest but kills all small fish and corals together with larger target fish. Indigenous communities in Ecuador would use barbasco — basically the same thing. These practices were not ecologically good in themselves, but in the context of limited pressure over resources, low population density and little competition with other users, they would not have dramatic effects. Now that the context has changed, these practices have become unsustainable and have to be stopped — in Fiji, communities decided by themselves to stop it.

So context is a key issue, because sustainability in the end relates basically to carrying capacity, and this has fundamentally changed in the modern world for many traditional societies.

MPA NEWS: What are the biggest challenges facing indigenous communities with regard to achieving effective participation in government-led processes to protect natural resources?

OVIEDO: There is a great diversity of challenges in this regard, but I’d say they consist mainly of three types: political challenges, capacity-related challenges, and those that pertain to cultural change.

Political challenges refer to the fact that governments still have many problems in understanding fundamental issues surrounding traditional use rights, traditional management, and traditional institutions, vis-a-vis the existing protected-area laws, policies, and practices. There is still a lot to do in this respect, including, of course, the fundamental issue of territorial and resource rights. But “political” also refers to the fact that indigenous and traditional peoples have many problems in understanding how their rights can be implemented in the current political conditions (e.g., where nation states will not give up sovereignty) and thus everything generally has to go through complex political negotiations.

The second challenge regards the capacity for negotiation, management, monitoring, and sound innovation. Sustainable, useful involvement in the management of MPAs by traditional communities is possible only through cultures and practices of synthesis, and this requires a completely new (for traditional societies) practice of learning, combining systems, and trying innovation.

The third challenge regards management of cultural change, especially transmission of traditional knowledge and practices to younger generations in conditions of inter-cultural contact, schooling, access to new economic activities, and so on. While cultural change is inevitable, it can overrun traditions and breaks links between generations. When that happens, there is a lot of stress for these communities, with implications for the survival of good traditional practices and, thus, for meaningful involvement in long-term protected area management.

For more information

Gonzalo Oviedo, WWF International, Avenue du Mont-Blanc, 1196 Gland, Switzerland. Tel: +41 22 364 95 42; E-mail: Web:

Editor’s note: Bob Johannes, author of the following perspective piece, is an Australia-based consultant on marine resource management issues, including the use of traditional ecological knowledge. The piece is an excerpt of material that Johannes originally posted to an online discussion forum run by UNESCO, called “Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development”.

On the Need for the Study of Indigenous Fishers’ Knowledge

By Bob Johannes

Indigenous fishers often possess unique and important knowledge about their local marine environments and its inhabitants. In areas where the same cultures have been fishing for generations, this knowledge can be encyclopedic. Fishers often know, for example, the timing and location of important and especially vulnerable life history events such as migratory and spawning aggregations, recruitment and nursery areas, or the locations of rare or endangered species.

How can we design effective boundaries for marine protected areas in developing countries in the absence of such knowledge?

For fisheries managers, for whom knowing the history of a fishery is essential for its management, the elders in these communities are often the only repositories of such information, including knowledge of once abundant species. Without such information, the biologist arriving on the scene to help is liable to assume that such species are unimportant locally and ignore them, rather than determine what depleted them and how the process might be reversed. Yet how many biologists have seriously solicited this knowledge?

For social scientists, fishers can provide knowledge of how this information is implemented in organizing their fisheries by means of formal or informal systems of resource allocation. Fishers can also teach us about human impediments to purely biological solutions to resource management problems. For example, simply passing laws against destructive practices is futile if endemic police, military or political corruption renders them ineffective — a point that has been overlooked on countless occasions by those working to improve coastal resource management in developing countries.

We can also learn from fishers whether their communities possess a basic conservation ethic. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. This makes a big difference in how education for conservation should be approached. Where a conservation ethic exists, the relevant concepts need to be studied and used as the foundation for local conservation education. Where they do not exist, conservation education is much harder, for it has to start from scratch.

So why has there been so little research emphasis on indigenous fishers’ knowledge? Answers include:

  1. Most biologists working on such coastal management projects are too busy gathering statistics, their usual stock and trade. They find asking unlettered people about their marine biological knowledge too humbling, too unstructured and too unsuitable for statistical analysis.
  2. Social scientists working in co-management projects often don’t have the biological training necessary for the effective collection and application of indigenous knowledge about natural resources.

As fisheries biologist Frederick Ommaney said almost 40 years ago, the indigenous fisher “has forgotten more about how to catch fish in his waters than we shall ever know.” How can we generate enthusiasm in local fishers for collaborating with us, and how can we function as plausible and useful advisors if we don’t first assimilate this local knowledge, test it where practical, and integrate it with our own?

Fishers and outsiders who pursue co-management are both experts. Each group has specialized relevant knowledge that the other does not. Both must be harnessed to improve local fisheries management.

The time is thus overdue for the establishment of centers for the study of the indigenous knowledge of fishers and other coastal resource users. Their invaluable knowledge is vanishing at an accelerating rate as its possessors die and their children no longer show interest in learning it. Of 37 formal institutions established worldwide to study indigenous knowledge, none focuses on marine knowledge.

Institutions are urgently needed to train people to help stem this loss. The demand is there; graduate and post-doctoral students regularly ask me where they should go to get the training to do research in this area. (The young seem much more eager to tackle unconventional interdisciplinary projects like this than previous generations). But, sadly, I don’t know what to tell them.

Such a center must be truly interdisciplinary. Social and biological science must both play important roles. Traditional ecological knowledge is best understood, and local resource management best pursued, in a cultural context. Biologists need to comprehend the implications of this for their work. Social scientists need some training in marine biology and marine resource management in order to fully appreciate the practical significance of the information they obtain. Ethical issues regarding the use of fishers’ ecological knowledge need to be better defined.

For charitable institutions, universities, aid organizations and agencies concerned with environmental issues and looking for an empty niche to fill, here is one to consider.

For more information

Bob Johannes, R. E. Johannes Pty Ltd., 8 Tyndall Court, Bonnet Hill, Tasmania 7053, Australia. Tel: +61 3 62298 064; E-mail: