Oysters, Octopus, and Resilience
Growing awareness of the connected challenges of natural resource management, economic growth, and human health has encouraged more integrated models of international development. The experience of two organizations – TRY Oyster Women’s Association, based in The Gambia, and Blue Ventures, based in Madagascar – demonstrates the success of a community-based approach to building resilience, enabling communities to bounce back from adversity and establish a long-term basis for development.
“We have a variety of entry points so that we can engage communities on a variety of different subjects, at different levels, to get buy-in for the work that we do,” said Blue Ventures’ Medical Director Dr. Vik Mohan, speaking at the Wilson Center on July 26. Mohan was joined by Fatou Janha and Kame Westerman to discuss their evolution towards a multi-sectoral approach.
From Oysters to Health Care
Since its foundation in 2007, TRY’s exclusively female membership has grown to include women from 15 villages in the Greater Banjul area of The Gambia. TRY members oversee the Tanbi Wetlands National Park, a critical 6,300-hectare wetlands area at the mouth of the Gambia River, which is a vital habitat for oysters – many of the local women’s primary source of income.
TRY’s resource management efforts were formalized through an agreement with the government in January 2012. The plan affords TRY the legal authority to manage the park’s shellfish and represents the “the first time in Africa” that women have been given exclusive ownership of such an important national resource, said Executive Director Fatou Janha. Organization members restrict the harvest of oysters to four months a year, allowing oysters to grow larger over an extended closed season and bringing harvesters 30 percent higher market prices. Further, TRY members have begun a mangrove replanting campaign to increase the sustainability of the fishery.
“Before [women] would come and chop down the mangroves…for firewood or for building their homes,” said Janha. “Now they understand and actually police the mangroves themselves.”
Like many women throughout the developing world, TRY’s members also face significant health challenges. According to Janha, only 18 percent of women use contraceptives in The Gambia, and the latest United Nations estimate measures the total fertility rate at 5.79 children per women. Under these circumstances, marine resource management can only go so far towards improving the lives of TRY’s 500 female members.
“We talk about the sustainable stewardship of the environment…but we can’t afford to have this if we don’t have healthy people, so that was how we tried to integrate health into our program,” Janha said.
TRY began to offer family planning, maternal, and reproductive health programs very soon after starting its resource management initiatives. They organized meetings to increase women’s knowledge of menopause, HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and how best to access health clinics. Interest in these programs was immense, Janha said – more than 80 percent of TRY members have attended clinic appointments for health screenings.
Taking their integrated, livelihood-centered approach even further, TRY also established a microfinance program in 2010. The program provides loans to start and improve small business ventures, as well as business and savings management education. According to a report by the UNDP Equator Initiative, the microfinance program has been an “unmitigated success,” with only 2 of 256 women defaulting on their loans.
From Octopi to Disaster Relief
Blue Ventures, operating in Southwestern Madagascar, has evolved in a different way towards some of the same objectives. Originally a marine conservation and ecotourism outfit, in 2004 Blue Ventures observed that short-term closures of octopus stocks – the local cash crop – could allow diminished fisheries to replenish. Following a successful pilot closure in the coastal community of Andavadoaka, Blue Ventures began to work increasingly with communities to implement sustainable models of fishing.
“Blue Ventures…now manages the largest network of locally managed marine areas in the Indian Ocean, all designed to enable communities to live and manage their marine resources in a sustainable way,” said Mohan.
But, he said, they also “unearthed a huge unmet need for health care, health education, and family planning in particular.” With virtually no access to family planning or sexual education, most girls were having a child before their 16th birthday, and 1 in 20 women died during pregnancy or childbirth, said Mohan. High fertility rates and other health issues threatened to undermine Blue Venture’s efforts to increase fishery sustainability.
“Fishermen were working harder and harder to catch fish to provide for their growing families…catching smaller and smaller fish,” he explained. “Despite our best efforts, this was not a sustainable model.”
In response to this community demand and “shocking maternal health and child health mortality figures,” Blue Ventures increased their services far beyond marine resource management.
In 2009, they began offering free family planning services and post-natal care, including contraceptives and infant immunizations. “We flung open the doors to the very first clinic, and on the very first day, 20 percent of all women of reproductive age came asking for contraception,” said Mohan. “We worked until it was too dark to barely see our women anymore.” In the six years following the start of health interventions, Blue Ventures observed a five-fold increase in contraceptive usage and a 40 percent decrease in birth rates, he said.
“So how well can a conservation organization do at providing health care? Can we have an impact?” Mohan asked. “Well, we think so.”
The program’s integrated natural resource management, health, and livelihood efforts have also left them well positioned to provide other services to the remote area. Following the devastation of Cyclone Haruna in 2013 – the worst to hit Southwest Madagascar in more than 35 years – Blue Ventures found itself offering disaster relief services. “We were the only functioning organization in the region,” recalled Mohan. “So we used our community-based distributors…to gather information as fast as we could. Because of our infrastructure on the ground, because of our relationships with the community, we were able to procure and disseminate supplies that the communities needed.”
“We weren’t expecting to ever have to do this,” Mohan said, “but…because we worked holistically in an integrated way, actually we were quite well placed to do this. By the time the first aid organization arrived just to collect information, we distributed aid to 17 villages already.”
Two Cases for Integrated Development and Resilience
Though TRY and Blue Ventures both began as marine conservation organizations, their community-based approaches positioned them to react effectively to the broader needs of the people they worked with and increase their resilience to shocks.
“We have incorporated health in our mission because we believe that without good health, you cannot do a good job,” said Janha.
“What I think is great about Blue Ventures is this ecological and social integration, and how that builds pragmatic and very tangible positive impacts for the communities and really builds up their resilience,” said Kame Westerman, formerly a project coordinator with Blue Ventures and now an advisor at Conservation International.
“Now the community sees better than ever the link between family size, population growth, food security, and biodiversity conservation,” said Mohan. “It means that when women come to hear about family planning, they also get to hear about fisheries. It means that when men come to learn about fisheries, they hear about contraception, probably for the first time in their lives.”
Sources: UN Development Program, UN Population Division.