In Fiji, a new approach to the restoration of coral reefs draws notice

Marine scientist Austin Bowden-Kerby, inspired by Bahá'í principles on the relationship between humanity and nature, heads the innovative and successful Coral Gardens Initiative, which promotes a high level of community participation in the management of natural resources.

CUVU, Fiji - Walking out onto the reef with a dozen or so village women at low tide, Austin Bowden-Kerby spotted a trail of crushed shells - signs of a new predator in the area.

"It's probably an octopus," said Dr. Bowden-Kerby, a US-born marine biologist who has made the restoration of coral reefs his specialty. "Octopuses are primary predators on clams and shellfish."

Sure enough, a few dozen meters farther out one of the women found one, munching on a baby moray eel. After a short struggle she succeeded in prying the tentacled mollusk from its lair. But rather than bagging it for dinner or sale she soon let it go, obedient to the no-fishing zone that has been declared for this section of reef.

"It's actually a good sign, a sign of recovery, that the predators are moving in," said Dr. Bowden-Kerby, watching the creature swim off in a cloud of black ink. "But because they are killing too many other recovering animals, I think I will recommend that they open octopus season for one week."

In that comment, and in fact the entire scene, are reflected key elements of Dr. Bowden-Kerby's approach to restoring coral reefs - an approach that is winning significant recognition for its innovation, effectiveness, and potential for widespread application.

Developed over many years of research, Dr. Bowden-Kerby's method is based on the increasingly accepted idea that the best way to save endangered reefs is not necessarily by eliminating human impact but rather by carefully managing it, with a special emphasis on working closely with the local people who know the reef best - and who still depend on it for their livelihood.

More specifically, Dr. Bowden-Kerby's methods go beyond simple management and seek actively to "cultivate" the reef by weeding out overabundant predators such as the octopus and the coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish while at the same time "planting" missing or low-count species that are friendly to the reef, such as the giant clam, and then encouraging their regeneration in special protected areas.

To some environmentalists, such interventionist tactics are an extension of the human meddling that has sent major portions of coral reefs worldwide into decline. But Dr. Bowden-Kerby firmly believes that in many cases the reefs are so far gone that only activist approaches can save them.

"If you dynamite a coral reef, it cannot repair itself," explained Dr. Bowden-Kerby, taking the most extreme case of reef damage. "The coral larvae can't settle on the rubble. But my research has found that if you mimic a hurricane by scattering broken branches of live corals onto the rubble, the corals often attach to the rubble and begin reestablishing themselves. So what we have to do is learn to work with nature to help it recover."

Dr. Bowden-Kerby's ideas are winning acceptance, as evidenced by a number of recent grants and awards for his Coral Gardens Initiative, as the project here is formally known. In 2002, for example, the project was chosen as a reef conservation "demonstration site" by the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN). In 1999, it won the prestigious Henry Award for Partnerships in Coral Reef Conservation, which carried a cash prize of $25,000. The project has also received significant grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Government of New Zealand, and, most recently, the European Union.

Equally significant, perhaps, is the on-the-ground acceptance of the project by people in the eight villages in the Cuvu and Tuva Districts, who say enthusiastically that they have seen a dramatic increase in the number and size of fish and shellfish along their shoreline since the project came to their area three years ago.

"Plenty of fish are coming back," said Anare Mudunavere, chief of Navuevu Village, one of the villages that is actively involved in the project. "You could not find them here a few years ago. But they are coming back now, every kind of fish."

A love for the sea

Born in 1954, Dr. Bowden-Kerby grew up in coastal North Carolina and Virginia - and he has loved the sea and sea creatures since childhood. "I grew up in the ocean," he said, describing how he became interested in marine biology. "We lived barefoot all summer long and would go swimming several times a day. We would go fishing and crabbing at high tide and clam digging at low tide, eating what we caught and feeling very much a part of the natural environment."

His father, an economist, was posted to the Mariana Islands when Dr. Bowden-Kerby was an adolescent, and his experience there gave him a lifelong love for Pacific Islanders and their culture - and for coral reefs.

Another important factor in his development was his faith in a higher power and belief in a purpose to the universe. "I always had my own relationship with God," said Dr. Bowden-Kerby, who was raised as a Protestant Christian. "I would pray each night, asking God to help the sick and poor and make world peace. I began figuring out early that much of what people believed about God was based on tradition or limited human imagination, and simply not true. Rather than a man in the sky, God was all-seeing, all-knowing, everywhere, and He loves us all."

In 1972, at the age of 17, Dr. Bowden-Kerby found his beliefs confirmed in the Bahá'í teachings, which stress the importance of service to humanity and the agreement of scientific and religious truths. Over time, his practice of the Bahá'í Faith also spurred his interest in transforming human/nature interactions, and provided the inspiration for his innovative approach to coral reef management.

While working and studying in Micronesia and Fiji in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Dr. Bowden-Kerby began to consider the problems facing communities dependent on coral reefs.

"I saw a lot of suffering and nutritional deficiencies related to reef decline caused by overfishing and dynamite fishing, particularly in Chuuk, where reefs destroyed in World War II were not recovering," said Dr. Bowden-Kerby. "I began to study what could be done and it was the Bahá'í writings that inspired me with the idea of direct interventions such as replanting corals."

More specifically, said Dr. Bowden-Kerby, the Bahá'í writings led him to see that humanity and nature are tightly interdependent, that health in nature is today dependent on order and health in the world of humanity.

"A lot of conservationists seem to have deified nature, holding it to be perfect, apart from humanity, and viewing humanity as a plague on the planet," he said. "But the Bahá'í teachings speak of man as being 'organic' with the world."

The Bahá'í Faith's emphasis on the importance of consultation, cooperation, and community participation further led Dr. Bowden-Kerby to see the importance of involving the local community in any effort to restore the reefs.

The Coral Gardens Initiative builds on all of these ideas and more. Sponsored by an independent non-governmental organization (NGO), the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific/Fiji, in partnership with Counterpart International (USA), Coral Gardens is nevertheless quite clearly centered around the ideas and research of Dr. Bowden-Kerby, who is the project's scientist.

"What is particularly exciting about what Austin is doing is the way he is getting the people themselves to manage the reef, rather than scientists doing it or government or international NGOs," said Arthur Lyon Dahl, who was director of the Coral Reef Unit of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) until August 2002 and continues as a consultant.

"Environmentally, the reefs have become one of the world's top priorities, because they represent the first major ecosystem to show signs of global stress," said Dr. Dahl. "Reef systems are collapsing all around the world because of human activity.

"So we see the future of coral reef management in the tropics as dependent on the heavy involvement of the people living next to the reefs. Because many of the problems of the reefs - pollution, dynamite fishing, and so on - are tied to the activities of local people," said Dr. Dahl.

Local knowledge emphasized

Dr. Bowden-Kerby's approach is not merely dependent on getting local people to do the work of reef management, or of simply following rules, like "don't fish here" or "leave the large clams to reproduce." Rather, the Coral Gardens Initiative strives for the active participation of coastal residents by drawing on their own knowledge of the reef and its diverse interactions.

By way of example, Dr. Bowden-Kerby tells of how he was once told by local fishermen that branching corals can actually move, something not realized by academically trained marine biologists. "I didn't believe it at first," he said. "But I tagged some corals and found that they did move during a storm, some over 400 feet." Further study proved that coral branches can break off and roll across the lagoon floor like tumbleweeds, reestablishing themselves in new places.

"The fisherman knows things that the scientist doesn't know," said Dr. Bowden-Kerby. "Being unschooled and being uneducated are two entirely different things. Island people, in fact, have a knowledge-base dating back thousands of years."

The Coral Gardens Initiative is designed quite specifically to draw on traditional knowledge, by using consultative methods that promote the participation of the entire community.

"At the start of the project, we bring the entire village together - the fishers, both men and women, old and young people - and we go through a series of exercises to detail the history and problems of the reef," said Dr. Bowden-Kerby, adding that the participatory process is based in part on the principles of Bahá'í consultation, a distinctive non-adversarial decision-making system used by Bahá'í communities worldwide.

In the case of the Cuvu-Tuva sites, this type of community-based process has led to the creation of resource maps, some dating back to 1942, showing where the major fish species and coral types used to exist.

"The combination of applied academic knowledge and local knowledge makes for a very creative process," said Irene Novaczek, a marine biologist and seaweed specialist from the Institute of Island Studies in Prince Edward Island, Canada, who has worked with Dr. Bowden-Kerby on the Coral Gardens project. "Austin comes into a place and he asks: 'What used to be here and what is gone? What are the good reef areas for this or that animal?'"

The creation of resource maps has been a very important step in the creation of the special no-fishing areas on the reef, which are a key element of the Coral Gardens restoration strategy. The idea of establishing no-fishing "marine protected areas" is not new. Indeed, chiefs in Fiji traditionally created sacred "taboo" areas, putting certain sections of the reef off limits, a practice that eroded under British rule.

What makes the no-fishing zones in the Coral Gardens project distinctive is the way in which they are being once again defined and managed by local chiefs - and the way in which they are scaled to local needs through active community participation.

The five no-fishing areas in Cuvu and Tuva have been established after following the above described consultative process; they have been designed to be consistent with the natural topography and also to ensure that people who are dependent on reef fishing for their livelihood still have some access.

The taboo areas are relatively small, a feature based on the fact that even small no-fishing zones, if managed properly, can create a "spill-over" effect, whereby fish and shellfish in the protected areas grow, reproduce, and eventually migrate into the non-protected areas, thus helping to restore the once bountiful harvest.

"The people are excited - there is a big spill-over," said Nepote Senikau, secretary of the Cuvu-Tuva Environment Committee, a group of area chiefs appointed to manage the no-fishing zones. "Fish are coming out of the taboo areas. Migrating species, like the mullet, have come back especially."

Another distinctive element of the project is its emphasis on the involvement of women, who are encouraged to participate in community consultations on the future of the reef.

"This is critically important because the inshore reefs are predominantly women's fishing areas," said Dr. Novaczek. "They have the seasonal knowledge, about where things are and where they breed. And they are also the ones that you have to convince [to follow the no-fishing rules] if you are going to restore and manage a shallow area."

Dr. Novaczek added that it is also much more effective for a woman to talk to another woman than for a man to tell them what to do. "When they see things that are for the good of their children, that is what is convincing to them," she said.

Another distinctive aspect of the project is the partnership it has forged with the private sector. Specifically, Coral Gardens has sought and won much cooperation from the Shangri-La Resort, whose managers have given more than a hundred thousand US dollars in cash and in-kind contributions to the project.

"If the coral reefs die, we're not going to get anybody as tourists - and the villages aren't going to have any fish," said John Rice, manager of the Shangri-La.

Specifically, the resort has helped to fund community workshops and the training of local fish wardens, who will be employed by the resort to help monitor and enforce the no-fishing zones. The resort has also financed the construction of hundreds of small "fish houses," igloo-shaped structures made of cement and stones, which are planted with corals to help create better habitat for reef-dwelling fish - an idea that is yet another element of Dr. Bowden-Kerby's approach.

"At the end of the day, our goal is to make this process self-managing, so that it becomes part of every day life," said Mr. Rice.

Dr. Bowden-Kerby - and others - believe that the Coral Gardens approach can easily be replicated in other areas, not only on Fiji but also throughout the South Pacific.

The project has been featured in the local news media and Mr. Senikau of the Environment Committee said chiefs from other parts of Fiji have already begun asking about the project. "It's spreading like brushfire," he said.

Dr. Bowden-Kerby has also begun working to establish the project in the Solomon Islands. On Malaita Island, in partnership with the Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT) and ICRAN, he has begun working with communities to establish small-scale conservation areas similar to the taboo zones in Cuvu.

"The ultimate goal is to establish a model for community involvement in natural resource management that is self-supporting and adaptive," said Dr. Bowden-Kerby. "What makes the Coral Gardens Initiative unique is the way it encourages village people to conduct simple trial-and-error restoration experiments and so to learn first-hand how to work with and 'train' the coral reef ecosystem to return to its formerly abundant, beautiful and diverse state.

"For the community," he added, "the project has the potential to restore hope and help the people regain long lost resources, a new road to prosperity."