Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 15

3 Assessment of village-based marine resource management measures 


A fisher from Maevo Island
demonstrating his traditional net
 making skills.

The previous chapter documented that village-based marine resource management measures, initiated prior to 1993 in the surveyed villages, had with few exceptions been continued through to 2001. Furthermore a considerable number of additional measures had been implemented during this period. This chapter discusses some possible reasons for the ongoing introduction of these village-based measures which reflects general support by communities for them and their potential future evolution.

A local conservation ethic

Above, a
woven basket
Island and
below, a fish
trap from
Futuna, used 
by the women
for catching 
small fish 
from the


A conservation ethic can be defined as an awareness of the ability to overharvest or otherwise impact natural resources coupled with a commitment to reduce or eliminate the problem. Marine conservation ethics can be found in some tropical fishing cultures but not in others (Johannes, 2002). The existence or absence of such an ethic determines how to go about education for conservation. If a marine conservation ethic does not exist, then village educators, such as fisheries extension officers, must start at the beginning – they must first inculcate this ethic which can be a very challenging job. Only then can they take the next step and promote specific conservation measures.

The number of different traditional reef closures in addition to the numerous other cultural practices that contribute to marine resource management (Hickey, in press) supports the contention that there was a strong conservation ethic at work in pre-colonial times in Vanuatu. However, many of these traditional measures were not specifically identified as conservation measures as such, but were already incorporated into existing customary frameworks of meaning, beliefs and practices. A marine conservation ethic is also clearly in evidence in Vanuatu today. During a study in the mid-l990s, representatives of 12 Vanuatu fishing villages employed a total of 48 individual marine resource management measures (Anderson and Mees, 1999). Enhancing, preserving or protecting marine resources were the explicit reasons given for 43 of these measures. Other reasons included financing village development, protecting spawning fish and providing a source of occasional income. Additional implicit reasons were operative in six instances that related to protection or establishment of property rights. Villagers’ appraisals of the observance of the 48 marine resource management measures by fishers was ‘good’ in 37 instances, ‘fair’ in ten instances and ‘poor’ in one instance.

This research supports the observation of this present study that most of the surveyed villages did manifest a marine conservation ethic; they were not only aware of the need for marine resource management in their waters but were also taking concrete actions to address this need. Young men were sometimes singled out as the group least imbued with this ethic and were usually identified as the main breakers of marine resource management tabus and government regulations.

Department of Fisheries extension activities

Since l993 the Department of Fisheries Extension Services focused less effort on fisheries development and more on nearshore fisheries management work. The new focus for fisheries extension officers was to assist with the management of nearshore resources by providing scientifically relevant management advice and information to fishing communities while advocating for the use of traditional marine management practices. The officers were provided with preliminary training in cooperative management, whereby the combined value of both traditional and scientific knowledge was highlighted during a ten-day workshop. The Research Section of the Department played an active role in this training and follow-up by working with the fisheries extension officers in the field to help introduce this cooperative management approach. The enforcement officer was also involved in this process.

Since then fisheries extension officers have made numerous 'awareness tours' to villages in most parts of the country and have broadened their focus from trochus to all nearshore living resources. According to the Department of Fisheries, their work has resulted in numerous communities asserting their customary rights in placing tabus on select resources, reef areas and fishing methods, as well as adapting other aspects of their traditional management practices within the framework of customary marine tenure to the needs of contemporary village-based semi-commercial and subsistence fisheries (Hickey, in press). An important aspect of this awareness work was to inform chiefs and villagers of national fisheries regulations and, most importantly, their underlying rationale to protect a number of marine resources.

A large sail canoe used to access
deepwater reefs off north Ambrym.


Beginning in 1999, the Extension Services initiated steps to assist in providing alternative sources of income for rural communities, in part to compensate for the sacrifices required in order to rebuild nearshore seafood stocks through closures and other tabus. The new initiatives include the culture of Eucheuma seaweed, giant clams and blacklip pearls, revitalizing the canoe enhancement programme (using local canoes for the deepwater fishery), deploying new fish aggregation devices to promote the pelagic fishery, and the reseeding of reefs with trochus juveniles and adults. A green snail reseeding programme is also being planned to assist with the management of this species. A number of new ice-plants were also purchased and will be placed at provincial centres to assist in the development of the deepwater and pelagic fisheries. The Extension Services now spends roughly half its time on cooperative management and the other half promoting new development initiatives. The Extension Services underwent a name change to reflect this shift in focus and is now termed the Rural Fisheries Development Programme.

Most of the above-noted initiatives are donor-funded. Ongoing training will also be provided to Rural Fisheries Development Programme officers to enhance their ability to continue to provide the cooperative management needs of communities. For example, a workshop to train the officers in basic reef assessment techniques was held in 2002. With these skills, the fisheries extension officers will be able to better assist communities in monitoring the impacts of exploitation and management of their reefs.

Marine tenure disputes

While customary marine tenure provides the basic foundation on which sound, village-based marine resource management in Vanuatu can operate, it does not guarantee it. Johannes (l998a) reported that reef ownership disputes interfered to varying degrees with marine resource management in Vanuatu in l993. Ownership disputes were reported in five of the 21 villages in l993 and in eight in 2001. While the difference is not statistically significant, it is consistent with the prediction made by some village leaders to Johannes during the l993 study; namely, that disputes over natural resources will increase as cash economies and export markets become increasingly important in rural Vanuatu, the population continues to increase and access to natural resources become more valuable (Johannes, l998a).

Such disputes sometimes related initially to land tenure, but had spilled over into contiguous fishing grounds. Aswani (l997) and Foale and Macintyre (2000) report similar disputes in nearby Solomon Islands.

In 2001, the eight Vanuatu villages reporting internal disputes had a mean of 2.25 marine resource management measures in place. In two of these villages there were none. In the 13 villages where no disputes were reported, the mean number of marine resource management measures was 5.3. The difference was statistically significant (p<0.01). These findings thus provide strong statistical support for the conclusion of the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries that village-based marine resource management is stronger in those communities where there is an absence of disputes over community leadership and customary marine tenure.

With respect to land/reef tenure dispute resolution, commencing on December 10, 2001, a Land Tribunal Act was enacted in Vanuatu to formalize the provision of ‘a system based on custom to resolve disputes about customary land’ and including ‘the waters within the outer edge of any reef adjacent to customary land’. This new legislation allows for the establishment of Village, Custom Sub Area, Custom Area and Island Land Tribunals to adjudicate all customary land disputes. Effectively, appeals of the Village Land Tribunal decisions can only go as far as the Island Land Tribunal, hence, under this new legislation, customary land disputes will be resolved locally through custom on the island where the dispute exists. Prior to the introduction of this legislation, many land disputes were appealed all the way to the Supreme Court in the capital and delays in processing these appeals resulted in a lack of timely resolution of land disputes. The application of the western legal system was found to be not only slow but also expensive and culturally inappropriate to be adjudicating on matters concerning customary land.

Prior to the introduction of Land Tribunals, there were six levels of resolution for fishing disputes available to the owners of Vanuatu fishing rights. These ranged from adjudications involving heads of families, clans or villages, Area Council of Chiefs, to Island Courts up to the Supreme Court of Vanuatu (Johannes, l998a). Resolution of customary land disputes by heads of families, clans or villages through purely customary means still remains an option, but, if this fails, then the newly established Land Tribunals are meant to be drawn upon to resolve them. This system is gradually being introduced to rural areas of Vanuatu.

The Department of Fisheries' decision to withhold its support in the form of trochus transplants or other village-based mariculture developments from villages with unresolved marine tenure or leadership disputes, provides an additional incentive for villagers to resolve them.

Village-based enforcement and factors affecting compliance

The punishment for breaking village-based marine resource management rules ranges from simple admonition to fines in the form of money and/or local foods such as yams or mats, and other articles of customary significance like pigs or kava (Piper methysticum) – a large pepper root from which an extremely popular and mildly intoxicating drink is made. The largest fine noted during the survey was in Pelongk, and consisted of two pigs, two 25 kg bags of rice, six kava roots, some other food, plus 30,000 vatu (about US$250). This fine is roughly equivalent to the amount expended in the initiation ceremony of this closure. This is a very high price to pay for the average rural villager. Some villagers also mentioned the shame and embarrassment involved in being caught and fined in village court. The comment applies mainly to villages where respect for traditional authority remains high. This respect generally tends to be weaker in peri-urban villages.

Chiefs and their councils impose these fines on individuals or groups found to break the tabus. It has been noted by a number of villagers that compliance is generally more common when customary practices are drawn upon to initiate a tabu. These may include pig killings, kava drinking, communal feasts and the placement of locally significant custom leaves used to clearly indicate the area or species under tabu. These customary practices anchor these tabus more firmly in the continuing traditions of the past and this significantly increases respect for them (Hickey, in press). Compliance is also found to be stronger when the fine for breaking the tabu is made clear at the time of initiation of the tabu. Many tabus initiated today also draw upon blessings from the church which serves to further increase sanctification and respect for the tabu (Hickey, in press). The responsibility for the payment of fines by offenders is entirely customary as the village courts have no formal legal recognition.

Police support for customary law

Another interesting trend encountered in some peri-urban villages during this study is the increasing use of state police to informally backup decisions made by the chiefs. Individuals who repeatedly ignore their chief's rulings and do not pay their fines for breaking village tabus, including those relating to marine resource management, may be referred to the police.

This is only done when a chief has exhausted other possibilities within the village to ensure the compliance of the individual concerned. The offender is typically held by police overnight or longer in the local ‘calaboose’ (temporary detention accommodation) and encouraged to rethink their position on ignoring their chief's wishes. In this way, chiefs and police cooperate to maintain order within the village. The chief still makes the decisions, generally through consensus within his community, but the police sometimes help enforce his rulings where necessary. This cooperation, to date, is done on an informal basis.

Unlike peri-urban communities, most rural communities do not have police readily available to intervene in such situations. On most islands it is the chiefs who manage to maintain the day-to-day order and social harmony among their communities, as has been done for centuries.

However, with the ongoing social changes brought about by the intrusion of western lifestyles and individualism resulting in a gradual erosion of respect for traditional institutions, many chiefs are feeling the need for some sort of support from the government to formalize their ability to enforce their rulings. At present, decisions made by chiefs in the village courts are not legally recognized. This situation is currently under review by the government, which has commissioned a ‘Chief's Legislation Project’ to explore this issue and survey the chiefs’ viewpoints on this matter. Depending on the recommendations of the project, the government may consider enacting legislation to formally empower the chiefs’ village court decisions. This has essentially been done recently regarding the adjudication of customary land tenure disputes through the enactment of the Land Tribunal Act referred to above.

Legislated support for marine resource management

Despite the autonomy with which most communities continue to manage their marine resources, the Department of Fisheries recognizes the potential need to extend assistance to those who are unable to manage their marine resources. One of the major factors undermining their management ability stems from internal conflicts within the community. These may concern disputes over customary rights to land and/or reefs or leadership disputes. Both of these problems are related to the colonial histories of these islands. With the extensive depopulation and land alienation that took place during colonial times and lasted for a number of generations, it was often difficult post-Independence in 1980 to determine who were the rightful custom owners. Also, it was a fairly common practice of missionaries after their arrival in a village to appoint someone more to their liking as a new ‘chief’. By doing this they would upset the traditional balance of power within the village. This would also effectively change the bloodline of subsequent chiefs in these areas by interrupting the hereditary leadership system. The internal conflicts arising from these impacts are still felt today in some villages and this often results in the communities’ inability to effectively manage their resources due to the lack of cooperation and respect for the chiefly tabus imposed to protect resources.

Closed Area Order


Grating Barringtonia fruits for use as a
fish poison on Tanna.

Women and children from the Banks
Islands reef gleaning on a low tide.

To assist these communities, the Department of Fisheries is considering the introduction of legislation referred to as a ‘Closed Area Order’. Under this legislation, communities unable to effectively manage their own resources, due to internal conflicts or due to the loss of respect for chiefly authority, could apply to the Department to close an area to fishing or any other form of harvesting. The closure could be species specific, for example, for trochus and green snail only, or could be a complete closure to all fishing, depending on the community’s needs. The important point is that the community and their chief make the decisions on initiating a closure, the area to be covered and what species would be restricted. Complete long-term closures approaching the concept of a marine protected area are also being considered by some communities due to such an area’s ability to attract tourists for snorkelling and diving activities. This reflects villagers’ increasing awareness of the relationship between maintaining their marine resources and attracting tourist dollars. Further, under the proposed legislation, individuals or groups who contravene the Closed Area Order would be charged as such and be subject to a fine, imprisonment or both.

Under the proposed legislation the Department would consult extensively with any community interested in the Closed Area Order option to determine why they consider it to be necessary to help them to manage their resources. Requests for this service from groups simply wishing to exclude others from fishing their area, that is to exert their customary rights and/or ownership to an area while they continue to harvest resources, will not be entertained. Any closure would apply to all individuals within the community including the chief and all reef owners. However, there will be a provision within this legislation for communities to apply to the Director of the Department to allow them to harvest resources within the closed area from time to time, to generate cash by selling trochus or bêche-de-mer, for example. This would typically be for Christmas or Independence celebrations, or in other times of need such as when school fees are due.

Upon receiving such a request, the Department would respond by assessing the resources within the closed area and, based on that assessment, allow the community to harvest a specified proportion of the resources, or alternatively, decline the request if the assessment indicated that the resources were not sufficient. Thus, the Closed Area Order would give the Department the mandate to make resource assessments within the Closed Areas and their response to the community would be based on that assessment.

Given the potential demand on the Department’s time and budget to facilitate these resource assessments and to monitor the communities’ subsequent harvesting levels, the Department is looking towards training their extension officers based in rural areas to perform the assessments and monitor the harvest levels. In time, this training could also be extended to members of the community, for example to the Wan Smolbag Vanua-tai resource monitors. Localizing the assessments and monitoring in this way could also strengthen a community’s sense of ownership and responsibility over their resources, thereby further enhancing compliance with management decisions.

The Department regards the provision of the Closed Area Order option to communities as an extension of the cooperative management concept, whereby the Department provides backup support in enforcement on behalf of the chief. The Department will only consider this option where the area is either undisputed, but requires assistance with enforcement due to a diminishing of respect for chiefly authority (for example in peri-urban areas), or where all involved parties in a disputed area request the Closed Area. This may well be the only way to manage disputed areas on an interim basis until the dispute is resolved. As this survey has shown, disputed areas of customary ownership are often the first to suffer in terms of village-based resource management.

Community Conservation Areas

In March 2003, the Government of Vanuatu, for the first time ever, passed a comprehensive Environment Act. Within this Act there is a provision for creating ‘Community Conservation Areas’ in agreement with communities in areas held under customary tenure. Its primary purpose will be to assist in the preservation of areas of significant and/or ‘unique genetic, cultural, geological or biological resources’ or that constitute ‘the habitat of species of wild fauna or flora of unique national or international importance’. This legislation calls for the community, with the technical and financial assistance of the Environment Unit, to develop and implement ‘an appropriate conservation, protection or management plan’ for such an area.

The Environment Unit, which is responsible for administering the Act, envisages that the establishment and registration of Community Conservation Areas under this legislation will also be applicable to assisting and supporting communities that can no longer achieve their conservation goals due to erosion of chiefly authority. The communities and their chiefs will continue to make all of the decisions regarding the area, but these areas will be formalized and given legal recognition under this Act. The Environment Unit considers that this legislation will primarily be for areas that will be protected for long periods of time, i.e. for terrestrial reserves or marine protected areas. However, communities may terminate, amend or modify their arrangement under this legislation at any time through application to the Director of the Environment Unit.

Proponents of a legislated approach to community-based resource management see the steps outlined above as an inevitable progression to adapt to changing times. Critics of this approach point out that it may well have the long-term effect of undermining the chief’s status and power within the village, once power of enforcement is effectively transferred to the state. Another important consideration in this process is that the state has very limited resources available to monitor and enforce such regulations in an archipelago of more than 80 islands dispersed over 1,000 kilometres. This leads to the danger of the state being entrusted with enforcement of village-based resource management when it clearly does not have the capacity to do so, yet simultaneously removing that power from the chief. Such an approach could initiate confusion as to who is in charge within the village, and trigger a downward spiral in compliance with community-based resource management due to a lack of effective enforcement.

One final issue that arises is that the application of western law in the village context is generally poorly received in that it is perceived as creating a winner and a loser, as opposed to traditional forms of conflict resolution that tend to be based more on consensus, compromise and a sensitivity to the needs of all parties. The outcome of traditional conflict resolutions typically results in a cessation of the original conflict and a resumption of harmony and cooperation within the village as this conflict has been effectively ‘washed out’ through customary means. However, the winner/loser outcome of western law is perceived as divisive within the community leaving a lingering conflict and ongoing lack of cooperation. This is liable to manifest in a further deterioration in community cohesiveness and to negatively impact upon the cooperation and respect necessary for community-based resource management.


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