WWF’s Vishwanie Maharaj on the power of incentives to drive conservation


Vishwanie Maharaj is fascinated by the numerous intersections between conservation and economics. As the lead economist for the Oceans team at WWF, she focuses heavily on using tenure rights and other incentive-based strategies to improve the conservation and management of fisheries in communities around the world. She has a PhD in marine resource economics from the University of Rhode Island and an undergraduate degree in oceanography from the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, where you can’t escape the ocean—and you wouldn’t want to. Everywhere you go, you’re surrounded by the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean. I was always thinking about ocean life because I felt connected to it.

So then, what better field to study at university than oceanography? I took marine ecology and oceanography courses, preparing for a career in protecting oceans.

Then I got my first job. It was with Trinidad and Tobago’s fisheries department, and I soon found myself working with local fishing communities. These people’s livelihoods depended on fishing businesses, which in turn depended on healthy fish populations. And to keep those fish stocks from becoming unsustainably low, the fisheries department needed to limit catches.

Being a part of that system taught me three key lessons.

First, be aware that when you ask people to limit their use, even short-term, of the thing that provides their income, you’re asking them to make a sacrifice. That’s hard for them to do if they don’t know how it’s going to benefit them in the long run. They need to know that today’s sacrifice will reap rewards in the future. They need incentives.

Second, look for cost-effective governance solutions, especially in developing countries, where budgets are tight and conservation is not a top priority. Models like comanagement—where local communities partner with government to carry out certain management tasks—can be a way around those obstacles.

Third, pay attention to how much everything overlaps. Conservation work overlaps with economic systems, economic systems overlap with social structures, social structures overlap with cultural values. Seeing those linkages inspired me to enter a graduate program in environmental economics.

Today, as the lead economist for WWF’s Oceans team, I work to find incentive-based conservation tools that take all of these complexities into account. One such tool is tenure rights, or rights based management: the practice of giving a group of people legal permission for exclusive use of a particular resource at a particular place and time.

Several years ago I visited a small lobster fishery in Mexico that’s a perfect example of how the incentive of tenure rights can drive conservation. Several communities there had wanted exclusive access to the lobster and other fish in certain areas. So each community worked out a legal agreement with the government that gave them fishing rights to a designated zone—and required them to share the benefits with other local stakeholders. The communities also agreed to fund a system for collecting data and monitoring fisheries so they could set practical conservation targets.

Today, that fishery is thriving—and certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. And the community members are proud to say they’re protecting the environment. Clearly, establishing tenure rights didn’t just grant them security: It empowered them with a sense of responsibility. I like the idea that giving someone a right can promote responsibility.

I also like the flexibility of the tenure rights model, which you can design to meet different social and environmental objectives in diverse contexts. After all, what’s fair and sustainable in the indigenous fishing villages of Alaska won’t look the same as what’s fair and sustainable in industrial tuna fisheries in the Eastern Pacific.

What excites me most, though, is figuring out how WWF can apply the incentives model to global level problems. Right now I’m working on a project concerning valuable tuna and billfish populations that migrate through the waters of many different countries as well as the high seas. Managing them is complicated. There’s a dizzying array of stakeholders involved, from small fisheries in the Caribbean to huge multinational companies. With funding from the Global Environment Facility and World Bank, we’re exploring how to apply incentive-based solutions to these highly mobile natural resources. And we’re collaborating with four partner organizations and a global think tank.

That’s the sort of work I want to do more of. I want to take what I’ve learned about incentive-based conservation from my years of research and fieldwork, and share it with organizations and partners around the world. When we train others how to use these techniques and manage their own programs, we free ourselves up to do even bigger projects and bigger thinking on these issues.

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