Cassie Freund – Fishing is integral to millions of Indonesians' livelihoods and identities, with an estimated 2.5 million households involved in small-scale (non-industrial) fishing and aquaculture. Small-scale fishing includes a wide variety of activities, from subsistence harvesting to fish processing, and is performed by individuals, informal fishers' groups, and even formal private sector businesses. But despite Indonesia's rich marine, coastal and mangrove ecosystems, approximately 11% of Indonesian fishers live in poverty.
Compounding that, they must navigate a myriad of environmental threats, including overfishing, water pollution, urban development and climate change. And although small-scale fishing has smaller environmental impacts than industrial fishing, fishing of any sort is an extractive industry and so even small-scale activities can conflict with conservation objectives.
Over the past few decades, many conservation and sustainable development organizations working across the archipelago have developed alternative-livelihoods programs to help fishing communities enhance or diversify their incomes and protect their environmental resources. The Restoring Coastal Livelihoods Program in South Sulawesi province, led by the Mangrove Action Project, is one such example. The program ran from 2010-2015, and its Coastal Field Schools initiative taught participants how to grow salt-tolerant rice and farm fish in brackish water, among other skills. Another example is Mangroves for the Future, a program run by the IUCN and the United Nations Development Programme, which funded economic development programs across Indonesia. One of the last projects completed under this funding scheme in 2016 trained women in East Java's Karanganyar fishing community to produce and market fish cakes, crab crackers and batik products.
The approaches, activities, timelines and goals of such alternative-livelihoods programs are as varied as the Indonesian islands – and that poses a problem for gauging the overall success of this approach. Yet, measuring project outcomes and identifying what makes them run well – and what makes them fail – is critically important for conservation and sustainable development, where the limited available funding is a drop in the bucket compared to the enormity of the social and environmental problems to be addressed. And while conservation program evaluation is becoming more robust, sometimes projects don't collect relevant baseline data or clearly outline their goals beforehand, making it difficult to evaluate the true impacts of their actions on the participants' livelihoods or the ecosystems they inhabit.
Now, a new study published in the journal Marine Policy has synthesized for conservation and development practitioners what makes successful sustainable livelihoods interventions tick. The study, led by Natasha Stacey of the Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University in Australia, was a collaborative effort between Australian researchers and Indonesian scientists from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). "There have been many attempts to improve coastal livelihoods, but there has been very little evidence of positive impacts for that on the sustainability of the natural resource space or actually improving or providing for long term benefits to different aspects of people's livelihoods," Stacey told Mongabay.
The researchers collected information about 20 sustainable livelihoods programs aimed at fishing communities, dating back to 1998. These programs ranged from small NGO-funded projects done at single locations, such as the 140-participant mud crab fishery improvement project in West Papua province, to government-funded projects targeting thousands of fishers, such as the USAID-led Indonesia Marine and Climate Support Project in Southeast Sulawesi province. Stacey's multidisciplinary and multicountry team of collaborators was uniquely positioned to do this study, as many of them had been involved in implementing or designing some of these projects and had access to the associated reports. Having this team of experts "brought considerable value and insight [to the project] and I don't think we would have gotten the same results without that collaboration," Stacey said.
They found that projects were more likely to be successful if they engaged with local NGOs, government agencies and project facilitators; worked in partnership with local people to develop their skills and leverage traditional resource-management knowledge; and linked project participants with markets where they could sell the products they produced, among other factors. Raymond Jakub, senior manager for data and fisheries at conservation group Rare, who was not involved in this research, agreed that markets are key: "If we are going to talk about diversity of livelihoods, then it will be a product, either a service or a good ... and you have to get the demand for people to want to buy that product," he told Mongabay.
Developing markets for alternative-livelihoods projects can take a long time, especially if those markets are regional (for example, selling fish products caught elsewhere on Indonesia's Java Island to people in Jakarta, the nation's capital). Jakub suggested that in such cases it would be helpful to have separate programs focused solely on increasing consumer demand for these products, which have unique backstories that could make them attractive to buyers. But making that link requires concerted effort.
Through his work with Rare, Jakub has also seen that improving fishers' financial literacy is particularly important for linking livelihoods to biodiversity conservation. If fishers have a budget in mind for their upcoming costs, such as school fees for their children or medical bills, he said, they can fish more intentionally and only take what they need to pay their bills. "We have been focusing on that part, and I think we see good short[-term] results," he said, noting that the impact of teaching fishers financial planning should also be studied in the long term. Stacey's research, meanwhile, found that six of the 20 projects they evaluated aimed to improve fishers' financial assets, either by increasing their financial literacy or through microlending initiatives.
Stacey and her collaborators concluded that alternative-livelihoods projects that failed to understand the social context in which they were situated, including gender dynamics, resource and land-tenure systems, and the desires of local fishers, generally were unsuccessful. Projects with unclear links between activities and goals; that did not engage with existing government priorities and policies; and that had timelines that were too short to create lasting change, also tended not to achieve their goals. These lessons are critically important because, as the researchers point out, communities with negative past experiences with conservation and development projects are less likely to engage with them again in the future.
Designing, funding and carrying out any conservation or sustainable development project that improves participants' lives and protects the environment is no simple feat, particularly in such a diverse country as Indonesia, where a one-size-fits-all approach fits no one. In synthesizing this information, the goal of Stacey and her collaborators was to highlight best practices for alternative-livelihoods projects, and not to criticize any institution doing this work. Balancing projects' goals of developing alternative-livelihoods options and protecting the environment with the social and cultural realities on the ground is not easy, and, Stacey acknowledges, "We recognize the challenges and complexity of that."
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