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Nature can recover when stressors reduce

Emerging conservation and conservation finance approaches need to recognise and actively work differently to ensure that they avoid creating new forms of colonialism.

by Katherine Short, Linda Ntsiful, and Claudia Baron — members of the Moonjelly Academy Science Advisory Committee. Katherine has studied and practices Te Reo (language) and learning about Te Ao Māori (world view) in her marine conservation work. Linda is Ghanaian and is a trained environmentalist and digital innovator working with local communities. Claudia is a Ph.D. student in marine biology and a member of the Wayuu tribe in coastal Colombia.

Since the International Year of the Ocean in 1998 global marine conservation awareness and momentum have gone from strength to strength with now many hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into improving the health of the oceans across the spectrum of communications, research, operational change, technological innovation and by civil society, indigenous communities, marine sector industries, government, and inter-governmental agencies. As we embark on the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, the world has an opportunity to reflect on the success and failures of marine conservation to inform new better ways of working for a healthier ocean.

Marine environmental management has made a number of important gains in the last quarter century including the establishment of various forms of ecosystem-based management and truly effective marine protected areas around the world. There is no question that when stressors are removed, from people and nature, that biological systems can begin to return to better health. Still, we are faced with overwhelming evidence that the cumulative impacts of climate change, sedimentation, ecosystem change, overfishing and the insidious and relatively recent horror of micro and even nano plastics continue with outcomes that are unrelenting and unpredictable.

On the human side of the equation, we have seen similar patterns of repeated harm and loss — often at the expense of underserved local and indigenous communities. Conservation practised unaware has too often led to new forms of colonisation, environmental degradation, trauma, conflict, and at times also corruption. In many cases the result has been disempowered communities and failed conservation, a loss of hope, and even potential dystopian collapse. The only approach in these circumstances is to try to find ways to build the resilience of any peoples who must continue to live in these places, and of whatever nature is restorable.

Because so much of the world’s marine biodiversity remains in the waters of local and indigenous communities, for example in the Pacific, it is not surprising that global efforts to protect such biodiversity have brought monied interests from mostly Europe and North America to work in lower income countries and indigenous communities.

The momentum to create the big international NGOs (BINGOs) began in the 1950s with the major global environment and conservation organisations being WWF (1961), Greenpeace (1971) and BirdLife (1992). Since then, many more conservation organizations with global aspirations have arisen internationally and nationally and fortunately a number are now dedicated to improving marine ecosystem health. Similarly, since the International Year of the Ocean, billions of dollars have been committed to improving marine ecosystem health and the livelihoods of those dependent upon them, including in these very same communities. Many of these initiatives have tried, failed, and succeeded at times to improve how they work with indigenous communities. Some initiatives and NGOs have or work with programmes in-country, run by nationals who can work with their own cultures appropriately. However, although probably mostly unintended, there is often a pervasive undercurrent in the ways these organisations operate, with the cultural and economic paradigms of North America and Europe being dominant.

A generation of conservation and sustainability practitioners trained in this international arena are now moving into positions of greater influence (45–65yo). Naturally many of them have had their own personal development journeys — learning how to work, survive and at times thrive in this international system. Some have had their mid-life crises, or mid-life awakenings with the consequences being to deepen their awareness of the need to reconnect with their ancestry, to better understand their worldviews, to learn from, and sometimes practice well-being approaches from a range of world views such as yoga, Buddhism and Druidry, the ancient Celtic nature-based spirituality. Certainly they all share a love for nature. Awareness of western indigeneity has also grown. Often this can and does lead to deepened relationships with other indigenous cultures, practices and individuals in recognition of one humanity.

New approaches to conservation and conservation finance present new opportunities to build anti-colonial practices into new ways of working. For instance, the development de novo of new blockchain-enabled technologies for conservation finance (like blockchain, NFTs, distributed autonomous organizations, and tokens that are collectively referred to as web3) need to adopt anti-colonial practices if they are to avoid the pitfalls of old colonial conservation. Blockchain is such an important tool for traceability. Perhaps most promising is the potential for new decentralized autonomous organisations (DAOs) as a basis for directly including local and indigenous communities, especially from lower and middle income countries, directly in the decision-making and governance of these new web3 conservation initiatives. When these DAOs focus on environmental conservation, they can ensure that funds are equitably distributed to projects regardless of whether they are based in the Global South or Global North. These approaches can empower people locally with a strong knowledge of place, who can appropriately use their own traditional knowledge, ensure their data sovereignty, and invite collaboration if and when it serves their approach to restoring their well-being and that of their environment.

Anti-colonial practices are simply ways of thinking and acting differently. Centuries of colonial thinking have contributed to the current, unequal and unsustainable state of too many societies and the planet. If we are to use this coming Decade to restore and heal the ocean, we simply must adopt these approaches — to heal ourselves, to heal the relationships between ourselves, and to heal our relationships with nature.

About the authors,

Katherine is a life-long nature lover, conservationist and practising member of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. She has a Masters of Conservation Science from Imperial College London. She has lived and worked a multi-cultural life globally. Now based at home in Aotearoa New Zealand she has studied and practices Te Reo (language) and learning about Te Ao Māori (world view), primarily working with Māori to improve marine management. She is a Partner in marine management consultancy Terra Moana Ltd.

Linda is a passionate environmentalist and digital innovator. She has a Bsc. degree in Oceanography and Fisheries from the University of Ghana as well as a MSc degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Ghent University (Belgium) and the University of Pierre and Marie Curie (France). As part of her Oceanography and Fisheries studies and field work, she had the opportunity of travelling Ghana’s coastline. Through meeting with fishing communities there she came to appreciate the valuable indigenous knowledge they shared and understood some of the challenges they faced such as dwindling fish stocks, overfishing and destruction of fisheries habitats. She contributed to this blog as an avenue to raise awareness about the need to explore new ways of addressing these challenges by decolonising conservation in the marine sector.

Claudia belongs to the Wayuu indigenous tribe located in Colombia. Currently she is a PhD student at the University of South Florida (USF) with a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology from Colombia and a Master’s Degree in Marine Science from USF. She is the President and Co-founder of the non-profit Capi Baron, established in 2015 to provide direct support for some of her community’s most basic needs. She is the Early Career Ocean Professional (ECOP) representative for the Marine Life 2030 UN Decade program. She has always been interested in connecting the needs of her community with her knowledge in science .

Editor’s note — The need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past is a driving motivation for Moonjelly Academy. Moonjelly Academy’s Science Advisory Committee benefits tremendously from the experience and ideas that Katherine, Linda and Claudia bring. New forms of colonialism will not only derail the emerging world of web3 for conservation and science, it also is an equally serious problem that needs to be considered by traditional conservation organizations, blue finance, the global sharing of ocean data, and efforts by big finance and insurance companies as well as the NGOs that seek to use new types of insurance, finance, indices, risk scores, and other incentives to change the behavior of coastal communities, fishers, and other ocean users. Linwood Pendleton, lead Moonjelly Academy and the Ocean Knowledge Action Network’s International Project Office

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