Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Samoa: preserving marine heritage

"When the missionaries arrived in Samoa, they were fully dressed, while the local population was completely nude. The former obliged the latter to cover up, until the day they realized that it was very hot. Then they took off their clothes. Today, the Samoan missionaries are half dressed, and the indigenous people fully clothed."

This story, told by Peter Varghese of Samoa’s Education Department and coordinator of the UNESCO-financed Saanapu-Sataoa project, illustrates the upheaval that Samoa has experienced over the last two centuries. The introduction of foreign values transformed the inhabitants’ peaceful life and complex social structure. More recently, local traditions have been confronted head-on with a drive for increased profitability and production. The marine environment is paying the price.

Peter Varghese explains how island-life, - with its dependence on tourism and subsistence agriculture - has changed.

P. V. : Most of Samoa’s 165,000 inhabitants live on the archipelago’s two main islands, Upolu and Savai’i. Of these, 60,000 live in the cities. Monoculture, the market economy and - "profitability", a word alien to the Samoan spirit 20 years ago – have produced a profound change in mentalities and caused many conflicts.

How has the marine environment suffered?
Traditional communal fishing which served the village is becoming less common. The sea worm "palolo", which was given away a decade ago, is now sold. Mangrove swamps have been drained. Traditional methods of resource management have been eroded. Dynamiting for fish has increased to dangerous levels (because the state police force lacks manpower, the policing of this illegal activity is up to local communities). Today, the Samoan people no longer have a healthy marine environment and there is an urgent need to apply sustainable management systems for renewable resources.

When did you realize something needed to be done?
The cyclones of 1990 and 1991 destroyed the country’s economy. Fish stocks diminished. The government then passed a law relying on technical support from the villages. Inhabitants draw up their own rules and have the power to prosecute infractions. Marine reserves – where fishing is banned completely – were also established. These measures were taken in the hope of increasing fish stocks.

You are organizing a pilot project with UNESCO’s Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and in Small Islands platform (CSI). What is it about?
Our project, called "Saanapu-Sataoa", is named after the two villages concerned in the heart of a mangrove zone, selected because it is still relatively unspoilt. UNESCO has contributed $20,000 to the effort. To tackle the depletion of natural resources, we decided to focus on the need to preserve and conserve the marine environment. We will do this through education but also through the direct participation of villagers in the project.

What are your main objectives?
They are multiple: we will collect data and information about the local ecosystems, and the degree of pollution they suffer from, but we will also record traditional knowledge and local ideas about the ecosystems; we will identify the risks to the environment and encourage the communities to formulate durable conservation strategies; we hope to publish information on the subject which can be used in primary and secondary schools; we want to offer training programmes to the local population and youth groups to enhance more responsible management of the environment; we also hope to provide opportunities for students to carry out guided research and field studies.

But if you are encouraging controls over fishing, fishermen will find it more difficult to survive. Have you considered alternative activities?
Yes. We anticipate recommending alternative income generating projects and if possible, helping the community implement them. For example, this zone could be visited by Samoa’s 50 primary and 45 secondary schools. An entrance fee could provide a source of revenue. Tourists could be allowed into the area in canoes to visit the site without disturbing it.

How does the educative approach fit in?
We are targeting two village primary schools (part of the Associated Schools network) and secondary school students whom we will encourage to undertake field trips and research on the mangrove ecosystem. The goal is for them to understand how to protect the biodiversity of the zone and so conserve their natural heritage. We also hope to develop cultural identity through the recognition and application of indigenous ecological practices and knowledge. This will help the community discover the symptoms and causes of environmental problems and exercise critical thinking and problem solving skills.

In Samoa, certain NGOs have been criticized for imposing their own conservation ideas on local populations. Has the project taken this risk into account?
We don’t have a problem of ecocolonialism as far as this project is concerned because all the local community is involved. They are the ones doing the work and we are constantly in touch with them.

Interview by Cristina L'Homme, UNESCO Sources, January 1999 - N108, p.8-9

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