Communities, coastlines, and conservation

WWF's Gabby Ahmadia on working with local communities in marine conservation

Bird's Hair Seascape, West Papua, Indonesia

WWF's Gabby Ahmadia

Our oceans provide food, regulate Earth’s climate, and are rooted in cultural traditions and community livelihoods around the world. When we work on ocean conservation, we are inherently also working with people dependent on the ocean, particularly those who live along coastlines.

At WWF, I specialize in area-based management of coastal ecosystems and community-based conservation across east Africa, Asia, and Oceania. All regions that are rich in marine biodiversity and heritage.

Starting in 2012, I began working with local scientists in Indonesia to study the effectiveness of community-centric marine protected area’s (MPAs) in the Bird’s Head and Sunda Banda Seascape. MPAs are specific sections of ocean and coastline where fishing or resource gathering is banned. Having sanctuaries for wildlife to live without direct human extraction can allow wildlife populations to remain stable. MPA’s don’t have physical barriers, so wildlife are not restricted to stay within an MPA and communities can fish or extract any resources that move outside the coordinates of the protected area.

To study the sustainability success of MPAs, we support monitoring programs to assess ecosystem health and changes in local communities, providing dashboards that give scientists and managers a way to track progress towards conservation outcomes. This also helps us better understand what leads to conservation success in MPAs. In the Bird’s Head seascape, we found that when communities were more engaged and involved in their local protected area, there were also more fish and community food-security significantly improved. Both of these positive outcomes helped meet our goals of helping communities and ecosystems.

Not all area-based conservation has to be through formal, government-managed, Marine Protected Areas. Research shows that an effective alternative to MPAs is in supporting Indigenous and local community managed resource use. These ‘Other Effective Conservation Measures’ don’t restrict people dependent on marine ecosystems for their livelihoods but still protect biodiversity.

Although Marine Protected Areas are the most commonly applied ocean conservation approach, not all are delivering on their promises to protect wildlife. Many are either underfunded or are ‘paper parks’ – meaning conservation protections were declared by the government but very little regulations are in place to enforce them. To better track true MPA progress globally, I collaborated with leading experts and other conservation organizations to develop a MPA guide that provides clarity on both the role of protected areas and how countries can report their steps towards full implementation more accurately.

Over the course of my career, it’s been clear that to achieve success in nature conservation work, we must continue to learn and build upon available science knowledge. But to fully address the complexity of conservation, we increasingly need to draw upon interdisciplinary approaches, particularly the social sciences that engage the communities whose lives and livelihoods could be highly impacted by nature loss. Interdisciplinary work helps us build better, more equitable projects that put people central to conservation solutions and outcomes.

Rock islands of Raja Ampat, Bird's Head Seascape, Indonesia

Children on a dock in Bird's Head Seascape, West Papua, Indonesia