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By Fran Molloy 28 July 2016 6 min read

A small island in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. Image: Flickr/Charles Davies

Healthy ecosystems, such as intact coral reef systems, forests or wetlands, provide lots of livelihood benefits to communities, such as food, fuel, clean water, fibres, medicines and shelter.

These ecosystems can also form natural buffers for extreme weather events like floods or storm surges, and often (particularly in remote and rural regions) do so more effectively and at a fraction of the cost of physical engineering structures like levees, dykes or seawalls.

It makes sense, then, for communities to capitalise on biodiversity and ecosystem services in their adaptation response to a changing climate. This ‘ecosystem-based adaptation’ is a key tool adopted by the United Nations Environment Program to help communities become more resilient to climate change.

Putting ecosystem-based adaptation into practice

The Coral Triangle Initiative, launched in 2009, is a multi-lateral partnership managing the coral reef ecosystems to Australia’s immediate north and east. These are home to 76 per cent of the world’s known coral species and provide a critical source of food, income and protection from severe weather for hundreds of millions of people. Australia is one of six signatories to the initiative.

CSIRO researchers have been working with decision-makers responsible for planning in Papua New Guinea to develop climate-change adaptation strategies under the Coral Triangle Initiative.

“We worked with different levels of government and with other stakeholders like private companies and NGOs, to help everyone better understand, think about and plan for how climate change would affect development,” explains Dr Russ Wise, a senior sustainability economist.

The team looked at how different drivers of change – like population changes over time, global economic developments and so on – would play out, how exposed Papua New Guinea was to those changes and where people and organisations could best build their abilities and their capacity to deal with those changes.

One of the key conclusions from the three-year project was to expand an existing livelihoods strategy called Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs). This strategy was designed to reduce current pressures (for instance, from overfishing) and better support current livelihoods, to also be managed in a way that enhances the resilience and adaptability of communities to climate change. In so doing, LMMAs are a form of ecosystem-based adaptation.

Implementing Locally Managed Marine Areas

One oft-cited example of successful ecosystem-based adaptation is in Kimbe Bay in Papua New Guinea, where a network of locally managed marine protected areas was initiated in 2007 in the close vicinity of coastal communities, and where rules around fishing and harvesting restrictions were managed by the local community.

Dr Wise and his team first visited the community in 2011, to investigate the way that LMMA’s worked in this area and how they could be expanded to other parts of Papua New Guinea. They were disturbed by what they found.

“The marine biologists on our team assessed the coastal fisheries and reefs and found widespread and sometimes severe signs of degradation including bleached corals, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, depleted fish populations, and only small sized fish,” he says.

“This LMMA initiative in Kimbe Bay was being spoken about and written about in some of the top publications, as a shining light and a great example of community-based natural resource management. But we found it was not actually being managed or implemented anymore.”

This raised a number of questions for the researchers: Were the LMMAs designed appropriately to fit the local, traditional practices? What governance arrangements were set up? Did they consider all the key players involved? Dr Wise and the team set to work find answers.

Fish swimming above coral
Marine life atop a sea mount in Kimbe Bay. Image: Flickr/Rob Jeff ©  (C) by DSC User

Understanding LMMAs on the ground

The team consulted with four coastal communities around Kimbe Bay that had established LMMAs: Tarobi, Papa Vula Baka, Patanga and Kulungi.

Their views were sought on topics such as the condition of the marine areas, the way that the LMMAs had impacted on communities’ livelihoods, their perception of current and future threats to marine biodiversity and fish stocks and on the costs of monitoring and enforcing LMMAs.

Communities reported that conditions had improved since the LMMAs were introduced. They attributed this to both less-destructive fishing practices by local communities, and to the national closure of the beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) fishery in 2009, which reduced the incentive for immigrants to fish illegally.

Importantly, it was found that the costs of monitoring and enforcing LMMAs were largely borne by the local communities, with the direct income benefits to cover these costs being relatively small and insufficient to cover the additional demands on individuals’ cash (such as for fuel) and time.

While coastal communities depended to a limited extent on the LMMAs for their income and subsistence, the goods and services derived from the ecosystem do in fact contribute between 11 and 25 per cent towards overall livelihoods in the study communities.

However, other benefits not associated with direct-use or economic values – such as cultural or spiritual values attached to natural areas, cultural practices and sacred sites – were important to many communities in parts of Kimbe Bay.

LMMA communities also said that the LMMA management plans were no longer being actively implemented or monitored because of insufficient sources of funding and support, exacerbated when The Nature Conservancy closed its office in Kimbe Bay in 2013 and the provincial government were unable or unwilling to take up the ‘slack’.

Population growth and economic development were seen to be greater threats than climate change impacts, especially in the shorter term.

Lessons to be learned

For Dr Wise, this investigation was a stark example of the need to revisit case study sites.

“Often a project is cited as successful based on the last report, but if you revisit the sites, you will often find that things are no longer working like they were at the beginning of the initiative – and that many of the initial assumptions such as how the project would be sustainable financed were incorrect or no longer hold, particularly if  key proponents are forced to leave.”

He says that it’s a harsh lesson on the need to avoid viewing ecosystem-based adaptation projects as closed systems.

“Sometimes there are some implicit assumptions that decision-makers or communities have the agency to be able to act on the knowledge that they get, when often they are highly constrained, by regulations, informal rules, traditional practices, norms, taboos or access to finances or other resources.”

In the case of the Kimbe Bay LMMAs, the researchers found that communities had neither the capability nor the capacity to address some externally driven impacts on the LMMAs.

“Some of the damage to these reefs is caused by land-use practices upstream of the LMMAs, such as logging and palm oil, and by global warming caused by fossil fuel emissions” Dr Wise explains.

“These are large-scale activities with potentially large impacts on downstream environments and activities.  The whole design of the governance arrangements of the locally managed marine areas just did not consider these types of factors and the key actors behind them.”

Current and future planned work by the team is now focused on working with local communities to explore different governance arrangements that will be more inclusive of all interested and affected stakeholders and more effective at generating sustainable financing of the local management of the LMMAs.

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