How to save oceans with contraceptives - a radical approach

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 April 2015 11:17 GMT

A female octopus gleaner at work in southwestern Madagascar. BLUE VENTURES/Garth Cripps

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Marine conservation efforts have to focus on people as much as on saving endangered species

OXFORD, England (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Velondriake, a remote fishing community in southwestern Madagascar, a quiet revolution is under way that takes marine conservation beyond saving the environment to improving economic opportunities and offering health services.

The driving force behind this is Blue Ventures, a UK-based marine conservation charity, which works with Madagascar's semi-nomadic Vezo communities to create sustainable fisheries by giving local people responsibility for managing them.

Blue Ventures co-founder and executive director Alasdair Harris said that when he saw the rapid decline of the area's marine environment through over-fishing and climate change it became clear that his efforts had to focus on people as much as on saving endangered species.

Some 500 million people globally depend on small-scale fisheries for their livelihoods and 90 percent of fish stocks are under severe pressure, so there is an urgent need to build sustainable coastal communities, Harris, a marine ecologist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a conference in Oxford.

"Coastal communities in the tropics are very often living on the front lines of climate change, they are often living in extreme poverty and they are often living with such dependence on fishing for income that they have no alternatives economically for survival," Harris said.

Harris will receive the $1.25 million Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship on Thursday, the largest prize of its kind, for his pioneering work in setting up more than 60 locally managed marine areas in Madagascar, run by a committee of local people taking action on anything from over-fishing to fighting poaching and providing family planning services.

Community-based conservation through these locally managed marine conservation areas is now spreading in the western Indian Ocean and has taken off in other African countries, including Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.

Blue Ventures' holistic approach has been endorsed by leading conservationists, such as Britain's David Attenborough who has called it "a model for everyone working to conserve the natural life-support systems of our troubled planet."


Harris said Blue Ventures realised that poor local health services and rapid population growth - the population in the southwest of the island is doubling in size every 10 to 15 years - also put pressure on the environment in that region, where most people live on less than $2 per day.

Blue Ventures found that 84 percent of people in Velondriake thought there would not be enough resources for them to survive if they did not practise family planning and that 90 percent of the women would like to be able to plan their pregnancies.

In response to local needs Blue Ventures, which started in 2003 by taking conservation volunteers on diving expeditions to Madagascar, launched its community health service Safidy, which means "freedom to choose" in Malagasy.

The programme allowed local women for the first time to choose how many children they have and how to space their births, a choice they have never had before, said Vik Mohan, Blue Ventures' medical director.

Use of contraception has risen more than fivefold among women in Velondriake to 55 percent since Safidy started in 2007, compared with a national average of around 30 percent, according to Blue Ventures' data.

"What we're seeing now is that women feel more empowered, they're healthier, they have more economic opportunities and can play a more active role in fisheries management," Mohan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The rapid uptake in contraceptive use stems in part from Blue Ventures' good relationships with communities through their marine conservation work, but also from a culturally sensitive, rights-based approach to providing healthcare, Mohan said.

Eugene Andriamasy, partnership co-ordinator at Marie Stopes Madagascar, said collaborating with Blue Ventures had enabled them to reach people in remote areas more easily to provide long-acting contraceptives such as hormonal implants and intra-uterine devices.

"It allows us to do services at a better cost-efficiency ratio than if we did it alone," Andriamasy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Safidy now serves 20,000 people across 50 coastal villages in Madagascar through outreach clinics and by training local women to offer community-based family planning services.

The women receive contraceptives at cost price, which they sell in their village for a small income. They also offer counselling, mosquito nets, water purifying solution, oral rehydration salts and antenatal medication.

(Editing by Tim Pearce)

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