Categories Article, Community Fisheries, Global, World

Let’s put our People of the Ocean first

To ensure effective, equitable, and sustainable approaches to ocean governance and management, we must first put the “People of the Ocean”—the custodians and guardians of the ocean—first

Graphics by Ines Hirata/ ICCA Consortium. Photos are courtesy of CoopeSoliDar, Mwambao, Mohammad Arju, Femy Pinto/ NTFP-EP, and Aris Leoven

First published on 06/07/2023, and last updated on 07/31/2023

Written by Mohammad Arju, Communications Coordinator, ICCA Consortium

Our shared heritage, the ocean, has always been cared for by our coastal and island communities. This can continue if we have the right of self-determination by Indigenous Peoples and local communities who are the custodians and guardians of our environmental commons.

Unfortunately, the legacy of colonialism and the unsustainable extraction of resources contributed to the present-day climate and ecological crises and still affect how we interact and care for the ocean.

However, there are many signs that the approach to the governance and management of the ocean is changing, thanks to the efforts of our communities.

Many coastal and island communities are reviving Indigenous and traditional knowledge and governance systems to care for the ocean in their territories. In many places, Indigenous Peoples and local communities refer to these areas and territories as territories of life. These territories of life are as diverse as the peoples and communities who shape and sustain them through their unique cultures, governance systems, and practices.

The policymakers have to recognize the positive contributions that these Indigenous and local governance systems can make. The states have a responsibility to create an environment where these communities can determine their priorities. If that happens nationally, these communities can protect oceanic habitats, promote bio-cultural diversity, and preserve their cultures and livelihoods.

I am lucky to work with communities worldwide that put the ocean first. Working with communities to tell stories of their accomplishments gives me immense joy. Let me share a few examples with you.

For example, on the Island of Pongso no Tao in East Asia, the island of the Tao People, for generations, their whole ‘world order and community rules’ have been based on what the Indigenous leader and my colleague from Pongso no Tao–Sutej Hugu–calls “the all-species harmony.” The Tao People have their traditional ecological calendar that defines seasonal rituals and sustainable livelihoods in response to the island’s ecological cycle and natural rhythm.

And to be able to continue to do this as the guardians and custodians of their marine “territories of life,” the Tao People, along with other Indigenous Peoples of the country, throughout the last decades, had to mobilize resources and organize themselves in the context of new and emerging external challenges in present-day Taiwan. As a result of their relentless efforts, Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan are going ahead with the plan for united autonomous governance.

The second example is the communities of fishers in the lower Casamance River basin in the West African country of Senegal. Almost two decades ago, the leader of the fishers, Salatou Sambou—now also my colleague in the ICCA Consortium—felt the need to revive his community’s territory. Salatou led the process, and the local fishers of Diola People in the region mobilized themselves and brought together nearly 12,000 people to form an association called Kawawana. Kawawana means “our heritage to be preserved together.” They declared their territory of life to sustain their livelihoods and all diversity of life.

With governance and management systems based on traditions, the territory is now thriving with aquatic diversity of life. This was also possible partly because the community successfully pursued the Senegal government to officially recognize their aquatic habitats as a territory of life in 2010. The success of Kawawana also inspired and helped other communities in Senegal to declare their territories of life.

For another example that gives me joy, in Latin America, in Chile, in the Aysén region, the Indigenous Mapuche Williche People took the initiative to work jointly with the local artisanal fishing communities; to together govern and take care of coastal and marine territories of life. This is significant progress for the ocean in Latin America and regarding collaboration across communities. To borrow the words from the community organization the Asociación de Comunidades Territorio Williche-Chono, this comes at a critical juncture in which the archipelagic marine ecosystem in that region and the people are threatened by unsustainable aquaculture, industrial overfishing, poverty, and inequity.

This initiative by the Indigenous People has been possible partly because there is existing policy support where initiatives by Indigenous communities in Chile can be legally recognized. Although there has been a general lack of effective protection by the state, Indigenous Peoples in the country successfully secured a national law in 2008 that can classify an area as a Coastal and Marine Area of Indigenous People. So now, these communities can rely on the fact that their self-mobilization and efforts to sustain and defend the ocean can achieve legal recognition and protection.

I want to highlight that, in all these examples of success, communities are thriving because they advocated for positive change in legal, policy, and institutional frameworks in their countries, both at the local and national level, which were adopted and implemented by their governments. I am convinced that if governments globally were to embrace this proven approach to the territories of life and were to remove the remaining structural and political barriers to the leadership–the stewardship–of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in the governance and management of oceanic and coastal territories, we can turn the tide for Planet Ocean.

I could tell you many more success stories of Indigenous Peoples and local communities who govern, manage, and conserve their territories of life. Let me conclude, however, by mentioning that these communities deserve our support and the support of their governments at the local, national, and international levels. To ensure effective, equitable, and sustainable approaches to ocean governance and management, we must first put the “People of the ocean”—the custodians and guardians of the ocean—first.