Do Marine Protected Area’s Protect? A South African Perspective
Conservation Research as a Psychologist
I came to my wildlife conservation studies primarily as a psychologist by profession. Having spent many years exploring the complex world of people, I began to develop an interest in the connectivity and interactions between people and nature. I found myself asking “surely all the problems we are tackling exist because of people, so surely that’s where we begin,” “So how can we better understand people and their behaviours and how will such knowledge translate into actual beneficial change.”
As a therapist my job role involves observing and listening to the client, then reflecting and exploring with them any themes and patterns of thought and behaviours that may crop up. All with the hope that the reward of personal insights may pull the client towards a happier and healthier version of themself. As I began to delve into the world of wildlife conservation, I began to wonder whether this therapeutic journey of transformation could be replicated and scaled up for the purposes of wildlife conservation. Where the perspectives of people plural are listened to and observed, reflected upon and explored, where insights gained pull not just the individual but also the community and social infrastructures towards a happier and healthier version of themselves. Thus, creating a healthier alliance between people and place, increasing people and planetary well-being.
With this in mind I stepped onto the shores of the wonderful Aliwal Shoal coast to talk, laugh, play and cry with its community, its people. To listen and observe, reflect upon and explore their insights in the hope that a happier and healthier alliance between people and marine environment may emerge from beneath the surface.
The Research Question?
I came with no specific question to ask and no notion of what would emerge, I had only my curiosity and a desire to hear the many perceptions and voices emanating from this coastal community. I wanted to explore and reflect with them what their experiences and perspectives of the marine environment were, and to ask how Aliwal Shoal’s status as a Marine Protected Area factored into their lives. On gathering together the themes and patterns of perceptions and behaviours, I wanted any of the insights gained from these conversations to help facilitate a healthier and happier alliance between people and place. This was my starting point.
In truth my study was a messy combination of social science, psychology, environmental psychology and… “what am I doing again?” Not all elements of this messy combination were reflected in their entirety within the content of this research journey, but all provided a knowledge springboard from which my explosive curiosity could leap. I found research solidarity with the Marine Social Science Network an organisation devoted to the study of people and the ocean, Dr Emma McKinley at the Cardiff University, and Conservation Psychology founded by Dr Susan Clayton, a subject I now hold close to my heart. I received immeasurable support and guidance from Dr Judy Mann-Lang and Dr Bruce Mann who at the time were based with the Oceanographic Research Institute at the South African Association for Marine Biological Research, and from my supervisor Dr Mark Abraham who was based at Bristol Zoo and the University of the West of England. Not forgetting the lovely Kim Ngcobo my side kick and translator.
Number crunching was not for me, so rather than a questionnaire I opted instead to analyse what people said whilst having a chat. There were some explorations of frequency and commonality of opinions, yet every opinion mattered so if there was an opinion that was not shared by other’s it was still included in the study.
Forty-eight interviews and many free association games later I had listened to, laughed and got angry with individuals who fished, dived, surfed, survived upon, ignored, loved, disliked their coastline. I heard many swear words, experienced excitement, listened to passionate stories, was amazed by individuals’ ingenuity, I felt people’s anger, hurt, dismay, distrust, awe, reverence and love. We reflected upon experiences, explored perceived barriers and came up with solutions together. I was enriched.
What I Learnt
The Aliwal Shoal community shared a deep collective reverence for the ocean that was almost religious. The ocean was their giver of life, their source of life, their provider of food, income, joy, oodles of fun, their sense of well-being and good mental health. In return the ocean required respect, collaboration and protection.
In opposition to this reverence was a shared distrust and disdain in the actions or inactions of people, especially those perceived to be responsible for the management and caretaking of their coast. Many I spoke to were weighed down by the challenges their marine environment faced, which from their perspective were caused by cultural issues both past and present referred to here as 1. the South African way, 2. fear of racism and 3. fear of corruption.
The South African Way
The South African way was described as an oppositional attitude and overall social disregard to rules and regulations ingrained in South Africa’s culture, which manifested in behaviours such as littering, poor management of waste management infrastructure causing pollution, overfishing and poaching.
“It’s a South African thing, we have rules, we don’t obey them.”
Littering and pollution was believed to be caused by a disregard of rules around waste management that ultimately resulted in feeble infrastructure that has caused shocking pollution along their coastline. For example, the community shared how during the rainy season it has become common place for the Aliwal Shoal coastline to become littered with large volumes of plastic and used nappies that have washed down the rivers, out to sea, then washed up onto the beaches.
Although behaviours such as poaching and overfishing can be the outcome of poverty, many did not consider these actions in their area were purely motivated by the need for subsistence living. In this case poaching and overfishing was believed to be caused by a cultural disregard of fishing laws and regulations, which was then further exacerbated by the absence of local law enforcement officers whose job it was to deter such behaviours.
Fear of Racism
To enable marine life to recover from extractive activities in the ocean when an area is allocated to be a Marine Protected Area many marine activities such as fishing may become restricted or banned. When the Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area was expanded it banned onshore fishing actitivies along a small stretch of coastline, called the Green Point. For the onshore fishing community who grew up during apartheid and were of Indian heritage this new fishing restriction was perceived to be racist and caused a lot of anger within the community. During the era of apartheid policies, it was the colour of your skin that determined what beach you were allowed and not allowed to step foot on. During interviews individuals of Indian heritage recalled memories of being told as a small child to leave a beach due to the colour of their skin an injustice further punctuated by signs saying, ‘whites only.’
Although, the fishing ban did not restrict their access to the beach as in apartheid times, such parallelism with the past was affecting and distorting their value of the Marine Protected area and what its regulations were attempting to achieve. Some individuals were asking whether the ban was simply another way to remove Indians from a beach whose current residents were predominantly white. ‘When I arrived in South Africa the onshore fishing ban had only just come into effect. Judging by the numbers of those fishing, white and Indian, along this very small stretch of beach whatever the reason I was not convinced this community were going to comply with this new regulation.
Fear of Corruption
Many asked, how could the Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area could have any real-life value whilst being run by a corrupt government? Feelings of mistrust in government leaders, policies and activities in South Africa is not unusual to hear yet in this instance the mistrust was not hinging on conspiracy theories or past traumas. Instead, their distrust hinged on real life political upheaval with a President who had been forced to resign and who was now under investigation for corruption. Corruption was real. So surely the governments initiative to speed up the development of South Africa’s blue economy called Operation Phakisa (meaning hurry up in Sesotho) was also corrupt? Yes, Operation Phakisa was expanding South Africa’s Marine Protected Areas to 5% of their oceans, but the remaining 95% was being allocated to the development of further oil, gas, mining exploration and fisheries that all impact the marine environment. In the minds of this community surely this disproportionate polarity between protection and development could only be motivated by a corrupt and greedy political climate, who were only interested in exploiting marine resources, in contrast to protecting and conserving for future generations. Plus, regardless of the financial benefits the new blue economy may generate the community genuinely believed that these resources would never reach their shoreline due to corruption. Their overarching attitude was that when it came to marine conservation you were on your own.
Alongside this community’s reverence and respect for the ocean they possessed a formidable desire to collaborate, protect and ultimately to solve the challenges they had voiced. Despite a perceived climate of distrust, opposition, pollution, racism and corruption many spoke of actions they were taking to protect and conserve and be a positive influence on their coast, their ocean. Many participated, organised and funded a range of marine conservation activities. Some organised nighttime anti-poaching patrols along the rivers with friends and their boats, many gathered for large scale beach cleans during the rainy season, writers published children’s stories on the ocean, teachers taught marine education, surfers, divers, snorkelers delivered marine experiences and others volunteered for conservation trusts.
Yet despite their herculean efforts all were cognisant of how each of their endeavours merely scratched the surface of what could be achieved. So, when I gave them the opportunity to dream big by asking what effective marine conservation and a valuable Marine Protected Area could look like in their community, they imagined the following.
- Their very own Marine Protected Area hub/building, with education and awareness raising projects to cultivate a sense of marine stewardship, a sense of pride in their marine environment.
- Visibility, whether through the hub mentioned above, through signage, social media, law enforcement officers or marine activities the community believed that people need to tangibly see marine conservation in action.
- A circular economy where the resources generated from diving and fishing permits are reinvested back into the community to support social infrastructure that directly interacts with the marine environment.
- For the Community to be supported as a resource, to identify, support and strengthen what the community are already doing for the marine environment.
- And don’t forget technological innovations used for research, communication and increasing accessibility to the ocean.