Blue Ventures is an award-winning social enterprise supports coastal communities to help conserve threatened marine environments.
Contraception is not a word often heard in the same sentence as marine conservation. However, for award-winning organisation Blue Ventures, adopting an inter-disciplinary approach that integrates conservation with community building is seen as the foundation for effecting lasting positive change.
Blue Ventures works with some of the world’s poorest coastal communities in countries such as Madagascar to conserve threatened marine environments. By working directly with communities, the organisation develops sustainable fishing methods, including the temporary closure of fisheries, the establishment of marine protected areas and the provision of alternative sources of income, such as community-run sea cucumber farms.
Led by founder and research director Alasdair Harris, Blue Ventures began in 2003, and has since received worldwide acclaim for innovation in biodiversity conservation including winning the Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award in 2011, being a finalist in the BBC’s 2010 World Challenge; and receiving the IUCN’s SEED Award.
Community engagement and empowerment are at the centre of Blue Ventures’ marine conservation strategy. This integrated approach means that concern about conserving marine environments translates into tackling the multitude of pressures faced by impoverished communities. This includes examining the root causes of pressures being placed on the environment and addressing those rather than seeing the marine issues as separate from social problems. As Harris explains, the aim is to support communities to find their own balance with their environment.
In a paper recently published in the journal Oryx, entitled “Integrating family planning service provision into community-based marine conservation,” Alasdair Harris and his co-authors draw stark conclusions about the link between an increasing population and decline in conservation values.
“Human population growth is one of the primary drivers of biodiversity loss,” Mr Harris says.
“Throughout much of the developing world, growth of human populations is occurring in part as a result of a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, and this is having profoundly negative impacts on biodiversity and natural resource-dependent livelihoods.”
In recognition of the link between public health and conservation Blue Ventures incorporated sexual and reproductive health services into a community-based marine conservation initiative In Madagascar which formed the basis of the study reported in Oryx. Madagascar has one of the poorest and fastest growing populations in the world, with Blue Ventures reporting that around 85 per cent of the population live in poverty and 65 per cent endure persistent food insecurity. Many children suffer stunted growth due to lack of adequate nutrition.
The health services provided during the study included family planning clinics, and providing contraceptive services and education to women. The contraceptives included hormonal injections, oral contraceptives, condoms and implants and were introduced into the Velondriake area in south-west Madagascar between 2007 and 2010.
The provision of contraceptives was heavily subsidised and supplied through partner public health NGOs and state health agencies. The education component of the study included counselling, the development of birth plans, and empowering women and girls to say no to sexual activity.
During the three year project, the use of contraception increased greatly, as did utilisation of clinic services, which were expanded into satellite clinics.
Of the study, Harris says, “The impact data are compelling, and indicate that this initiative has given women in Velondriake an opportunity to make their own reproductive health choices.”
“From the perspective of biodiversity conservation the results are equally persuasive, as the reduction in direct anthropogenic pressure on the region’s dwindling marine and coastal resources brought about by this project will be instrumental in conservation of Velondriake’s marine and coastal systems.”
The project, however, was not just about decreasing biodiversity loss through impacting on population growth. As the study’s authors point out, providing reproductive services to women also gave the women more involvement in key marine conservation projects.
“The developmental potential of communities can only be reached when all citizens are able to play a role in directing their future,” says Harris.
“By providing access to sexual and reproductive health services, Velondriake’s clinics are empowering women to take control of their own future with expanded life opportunities, whilst also engaging them in conservation.
“In this way the programme has strong potential to be transformative, not only through its own intrinsic public health and environmental benefits but also through its effects on attitudes, aspirations and self-confidence, all of which are fundamental to helping women participate as key stakeholders in conservation efforts.”
What Blue Ventures demonstrated through this project was that the efforts in marine conservation would be undermined unless factors driving unsustainable use of marine resources, such as population growth and lack of gender equity, were also addressed.
The organisation reported that providing reproductive health services was accepted by the local communities as a “logical natural resource management measure”; a measure seen as both practical and relevant to the lives of the local people, which made more sense to many of the villagers from a conservation standpoint than other strategies such as restrictions on access to marine resources.
This study raises important questions about the application of conservation programmes to countries that may be already be facing a host of social problems such as poverty and lack of access to adequate services and highlights the potential for integrated approaches.
As the study’s authors say, “The experiences of the first three years of Velondriake’s sexual and reproductive health services programme provide a further compelling case for the potential for this integrated approach to be replicated across other conservation sites where communities face similar challenges and where women in particular suffer from a lack of means to choose their own family size.”
The organisation is now working to secure continuity of funding to enable the permanent provision of reproductive health services for the communities in its study.
Blue Ventures also advocates the viewpoint that success in conservation projects is achieved by working with local people and allowing communities, rather than outsiders, to manage the projects.
“Community-based conservation is the only management model that can work in countries that have no form of good governance, no communications infrastructure and that are desperately poor,” Alastair Harris says.
“Our hope is that these types of integrated programmes could represent an entirely new architecture for the future of international development. This integrated strategy is cost-effective, smart and most importantly it works. With integration, 2+2=5, so the more people that hear about it, the more want to try and implement it.
“It’s a very different approach to just opening up a clinic–what has the real impact is linking up the conservation and health initiatives.”
New integrated projects are currently being rolled out, with a well-drilling program soon to commence which will increase access to fresh water, and improve sanitation and hygiene. Expansion of work into sustainable octopus fisheries is another priority.
“Blue Ventures is currently undertaking research into the exciting area of blue carbon–both conserving mangrove forest and using them sustainably as a way of mitigating the effects of climate change, while also helping to alleviate poverty in coastal communities,” says Harris.
Climate change and its disproportionate effects on the world’s poorest communities remain a concern.
“The reality is that conservation efforts cannot escape being undermined by the lack of global action on climate change,” says Harris.
“There is a clear moral imperative here to start taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions.
“While the fight to keep up the pressure on our leaders can be dispiriting at times it’s empowering to think about the things we can do at an individual level that aren’t subject to the same political sensitivities–the projects we invest in and our own levels of consumption are thankfully entirely up to us!
“We will aim to replicate our successes in other parts of the country and beyond. The sky’s the limit!”