Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance
“The communities have seen how natural resources are being exhausted, so they understand the need to restore this resource over the long term. When you show them the data, that’s when they realize the importance of conservation.”
The Cayos Cochinos National Marine Monument, administered by the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation with technical and financial support from WWF and the Avina Foundation, is situated in the Department of the Bay Islands, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. The protected area includes an archipelago of two islands (Cochino Grande and Cochino Pequeño),12 sandy cays and five nautical miles around these formations for a total area of 460 km2 (178 mi2). The zone has coral reefs that form part of the Mesoamerican Reef System.
Some 350 persons inhabit the zone, including Garifuna indigenous communities. There are two fishing communities: East End and Chachahuate Cay, whose inhabitants mostly live on the mainland. Protected area authorities have developed an excellent relationship with these communities and have even established agreements about the fishing activities that are allowed and under what circumstances. But it wasn’t always such smooth sailing.
Adrián Oviedo, Director of the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation, describes the key to transforming the local communities from enemies into allies for conservation.
Question: When Cayos Cochinos was established as a protected area in 1993, how did you first approach the communities?
Oviedo: It has been a considerably long process with a lot of ups and downs. At the beginning when the Cayos Cochinos area was decreed as a protected area and the Foundation began to work in the zone, we had more of a conservationist and scientific approach. At that time, a series of restrictions was established that limited access to and use of the resources by the communities and of course, this created a huge conflict to the point where the communities demonstrated against the Foundation and the designation of the zone as a protected area. After that, the Foundation changed its policy because we realized the importance of reconciling with the communities and achieving their participation in conservation processes.
It was then that we began to develop projects geared toward environmental education for the purpose of raising awareness and involving the communities. We tried to get them to see the importance of resource conservation for their own benefit. And it was then that we began community development projects so that the communities would feel that they were getting a direct benefit from the Foundation and our conservation activities.
Today we can say that we have overcome the conflict stage, and we are working in a more harmonious way to the point where year after year we establish agreements with community leaders about the areas that will be assigned for the development of certain types of exploitation in the zone. They are consulted, and together we establish regulations that they are obligated to respect and that we of the Foundation are obligated to control and enforce.
Q: What was the key for achieving this reconciliation with the communities?
Oviedo: It has mostly depended on the Foundation’s change of mentality in no longer considering the area as something that should be untouchable and realizing that there are people that depend on this resource and that options must be sought for them, so that they will have other means of subsistence.
We also thought it was important to involve the communities in the process and raise awareness that the way they use resources can be sustainable, so as not to exhaust it and so that future generations might continue enjoying it. The communities have seen how natural resources are being exhausted, so they understand the need to restore this resource over the long term. When you show them the data, that’s when they realize the importance of conservation.
Q: How has the ban on fishing hawksbill sea turtles been received by the communities?
Oviedo: There are international regulations and national laws that establish mechanisms for conserving some endangered species, such as sea turtles. Our task is to enforce the laws and patrol the area so that there is compliance. We work jointly with the Coast Guard. In addition, we have a sea turtle conservation program that involves the communities. We are working with the schools and the children, to whom we explain what conservation projects are. They become involved and adopt little turtles, and this has helped us a great deal in raising awareness among youth about the importance of conserving these species.
Q: What other environmental education activities do you promote, in order to raise awareness about the importance of conserving the area’s resources?
Oviedo: Some of the environmental problems in the cays and on the mainland are related to do solid and liquid residues and wastes that are thrown directly into the sea. Also, we have agreements with the universities and with the public and private sectors, so experts come to teach about different topics. We also work at different levels: with community leaders, raising awareness through training events, as well as through exchanges with other nations in which they become acquainted with other experiences such as those in Banco Chinchorro, and we work directly with the community and the schools.
Q: What’s the attitude toward the rosy boa constrictor, an endemic species on Cayo Grande and Cayo Menor?
Oviedo: Some people are aware that it is a unique species that it must be protected. But in others there is a natural fear of snakes, so sometimes the tendency is to kill them. We are working through environmental education programs, but we are also fighting against a natural instinct. We still see cases in which they kill the snakes in the belief that they are venomous. But at least awareness now exists in part of the population.
Q: Patrol work seems to be inevitable, but how does environmental education help?
AO: Environmental education process has helped us a lot. One of the big advantages has been that now we have “watchmen”. Every community member, every fisherman, to the extent that they are aware, can see who is breaking the law, so they become our informants and help our patrol work a great deal. So, they are not violating the agreements, plus they are reporting those who do.
Q: What are the principal problems affecting the reef?
Oviedo: Some are unrelated to human activities, but are natural conditions: viruses and temperature changes in the sea that are lethal for some species of coral. Apart from this, we have problems on the mainland. Some rivers flow into our zone that come from intensely farmed areas, where there are African oil palm and banana crops that require great quantities of chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers. Similarly, deforestation affects us a great deal because it causes sedimentation problems.