Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Dominica workshop papers

Communication and Coastal Stewardship

Jocelyne Josiah 

‘Today, there is an unprecedented need for change to assure our future well-being on earth.   But who plans such change, and how? And how do individuals, groups and societies come to an awareness of the need for change and act accordingly? Communication, through interpersonal, group and mass media, is at the heart of these processes, for people take decisions for change once they have been motivated and empowered by information they have internalised and found relevant to themselves and their interests’. (Why communication? Chapter 2, Communicating for Development - Human Change for Survival, by Colin Fraser and Sonia Restrepo-Estrada). 

What is Communication? 

Communication is the transmission of data or information from one actor to another.  One can attempt to communicate by sending a message or a bit of information or by sharing a thought with someone.  Such an act satisfies the definition of ‘communication’, provided there is reasonable assurance that the message has been received.  All communication should have a purpose and the degree to which this purpose has been satisfied determines the success or failure of the communication.  As can be imagined, the effectiveness of an ‘act of communication’ is considerably improved if a reaction (feedback) to the message could be obtained either immediately or soon after the message has been received.  Immediate or early feedback ensures early correction or improvement, if necessary. 

Consequently, the best forms of communication are those that achieve interactivity…encourage feedback…maintain a two-way flow…so that the message is influenced and informed by the views of the recipient, thus allowing a dialogue to replace a monologue. 

I once heard a story about a small fishing village near a secluded cove that was used by pirates centuries ago.  Most of the villagers could neither read nor write but the stories of their history were passed down from generation to generation, as fairy tales told at village meetings around a campfire during the full moon.  The stories told of shipwrecks on the coral reefs that were hidden along the coastline and of nesting turtles, breeding whales and the schools of fish that fishermen caught for their families and for barter with neighbouring villages.  They told of the generations of villagers that were sustained by Mother Nature…of the sea and its gifts…of the land and its gifts and of the delicate balance that the people of the village maintained between their livelihood and Mother Earth…of their love for the sea and the sand and how intertwined these were with their lives and livelihood.  The people of the village then grew to love and respect Nature and to live lives of harmony with nature, accepting the periodic hurricanes and tidal waves as parts of the never-ending cycle of lives spent close to nature. 

These stories tell us many things:

        That information is power and useful information can be the difference between life and death.
  That people have to be informed of the connections between their interests and the preservation of their natural heritage from generation to generation rather than from day to day.  In today’s parlance, ‘what does coastal stewardship have to do with me?’
  That there are consequences to every action and that these consequences must be factored into the daily patterns of life of the village.
  That knowledge must be stored and passed on and the lessons of history and the wisdom of the ages used to inform and sustain current activities.

The Information Challenge 

The complex, multifaceted issue of promoting stewardship in the coastal management of small, vulnerable states of the Caribbean should thus be seen as a challenge to inform, educate, empower and motivate the region’s people towards becoming managers and custodians of their environment and especially their coastal environment.   In addition, effective coastal management should be accepted as people’s sacred obligations to preserve and pass on their inheritance of the world around them to future generations and as important contributors to the quality of their own lives. 

The stories of the little village relate to a simpler time in our history when the oral traditions of our societies succeeded in communicating messages that motivated citizens to protect and preserve their ecosystems and natural environments.  Today’s methods need to be different but the principles of interactive communications are identical. 

The challenge is to improve our levels of coastal management.  The oral traditions and institutional memories of our villages and societies have fallen by the wayside. People are more dispersed and the technological revolution has brought many alien messages that confuse the landscape, present unsustainable options and divert attention from critical issues that need to be addressed.  People are less dependent upon nature for their livelihood and survival and the industrial revolution and urbanisation have created many new ways in which the environment and its ecosystems are destroyed. 

Effective Communication 

The proactive involvement of masses of citizens in the objective and adherence to the principles of effective communication is the key to success of this endeavour.  This step-by-step approach needs to focus upon the following elements:

        The message to be communicated.
  The medium to be used.
  The targets of the messages.
  The connection between new information and changed behaviour.
  The evaluative mechanisms and the means by which interactive messages could be informed and influenced by feedback to increase levels of understanding and ownership in the strategies to be employed.

A discussion of each of these, in turn, follows:


The message

  Identify and describe various coastal management and ecological issues that have had or will have positive or negative impact on the environment and/or the lives of citizens.
  Quantify the costs/benefits to society.
  Identify action required to maintain benefits or reduce damage to ecosystems.
  If possible, develop incentives to encourage positive activity and penalties the community can impose to prevent or reduce damage to ecosystems.
  Link recommended actions with historical traditions.
  For each message, describe ideal outcomes envisaged from its transmission.
  Describe the various forms that messages could take and categorise messages, e.g., public awareness; public education; public information, etc.

The medium

This will depend upon the range and type of available media.  Which is most accessible by the majority of people?  For such issues, it would be preferable to use community media in which masses of people are involved and in which they have taken ownership.  In many Caribbean societies, the extent to which people are themselves involved in the major issues that affect their lives may be constrained by the absence of easily accessible media that serve people’s interests, i.e. they are characterised by voicelessness.  In these circumstances, it will be difficult to create necessary levels of involvement. This presentation could be used as an opportunity to address this need and provide it with a ready focus. 

Prevailing levels of literacy (and access to print media) will determine the suitability of the print media for this purpose. 

In most Caribbean states, radio and in particular community radio may be the most attractive conduit for these messages.  Radio continues to be the most widely occurring mass media instrument and has proven to be an excellent tool for inclusiveness and wide accessibility as a medium.  It also facilitates open discussions, that, when augmented by telephones and other communication and information technologies, can include large numbers of people in exchanges of views and sharing of information.  Such exercises help to develop levels of consensus leading to action that, if sustained, can influence the policies of the society. 

Community Multimedia Network 

With the addition of a personal computer and Internet connectivity, community-based group discussions on environmental issues could be carried live (and recorded for later playback) on radio, television and the Internet, and thus increase possibilities of reaching higher and higher percentages of internal and external (regional) stakeholders.  These discussions and the feedback they generate could be shared through community newspapers while popular videotapes and documentaries could be produced to add range and depth to the exposure of the issues being highlighted, thus creating a powerful multi-media network in support of this and other critical initiatives.  Examples of such videotapes have been produced under the UNESCO/COSALC pilot project on video production for broadcast in the Eastern Caribbean Islands (Anguilla, Grenada, St. Lucia) 1998-2001). 

The targets of the message 

These are people that can be identified by characteristics that facilitate communication with them as large, contiguous, cooperative and possibly homogeneous groups of stakeholders. Refinements of messages directed at these groups are intended to facilitate their acceptance and encourage their adoption as being in the best interests of the target group.   

The need for behaviour change

This process of communication needs to be evaluated in terms of its success in empowering people to make decisions on subjects about which they were relatively uninformed.   Thus emphasis should be on the inclusion of the target groups themselves, as well as their new capacities, responsibilities and obligations that knowledge brings with it, i.e., requiring changes of behaviour and/or direction. 

Evaluation and feedback 

Throughout this presentation, the necessity to improve the quality and effectiveness of communication by replacing, as frequently as possible, a monologue with a dialogue and by allowing the views of the target to influence the message, have been highlighted.  Consequently, effective communication must always stand the test of whether it has reached its audience and whether it has encouraged a change of behaviour, of attitude and/or approach to the problem at hand. 

It is through such enlightenment and empowerment driven by effective communication that partnerships may be developed and coastal stewardship may become an activity in which all are involved.

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