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close this bookParticipatory Methods in Community-based Coastal Resource Management - Volume 1 - Introductory Papers (IIRR, 1998)
close this folderCoastal communities living with complexity and crisis in search for control
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentCoastal communities
View the documentComplexity
View the documentCrisis
View the documentWho owns this sea?
View the documentCoastal resource management
View the documentCommunity-based coastal resource management


Coastal communities are people living on the thin strip of land or on the water along the fluctuating line where the sea meets the land. Trying to otherwise define either this group of people or delimiting the resources upon which they depend is an elusive task.


The coastal zone may be defined "ecologically" as the land area influenced by the sea; politically by some arbitrary distance inland from high tide level; or socially as the area occupied by people dependent on the sea for livelihood. For any means except setting an arbitrary distance, the exact extent of the coastal zone defies rigorous definition due to the interconnectedness of ecosystems and human activities in this productive strip between land and sea.

In this chapter, aspects of the nature of the overall coastal system, including people and their coastal environment, will be discussed. It is dangerous to generalize but some aspects seem to be common enough to warrant comment. Understanding the nature of the complex system can help the outsider better work with people who are part of the system and may not themselves consciously think about the overall system. This should help the outsider contextualize work with coastal communities and "probe beneath the surface."

Common assumption: "Coastal resources" are living and non-living things found below the surface of the sea.

Reality: Livelihoods of coastal communities also depend on "terrestrial" resources for food or income.

Since terrestrial resources are essential for coastal communities and they affect the health of, or the use of, marine resources, they are considered by some to be "coastal resources" along with the living and non-living resources in the sea.

Coastal communities

Coastal communities have multiple sources of income but there are often serious threats to food security.

They live at the edge of the "bountiful sea"
but they are generally poor, crowded and

However, they are resourceful when resources are degraded;
they may lack monetary resources but they survive.


Fishers have traditionally been migratory, as families or as individuals. Recently, the increased population pressures in many countries have pushed inland people to the coast in the hopes of maintaining a livelihood based on marine resources which are often considered common property. Some of these migrants, either as families or individually, move to cities or foreign countries in search of work. All of these migrants contribute to change in local populations, mixing ethnic groups, cultures and language. Whether from inland or from other coastal areas, these migrants are people without previous ties to the locality, which means less local ecological knowledge but they add richness to the communities with different cultures.


The ecological and human systems which form the coastal zone are ecologically and demographically highly complex.

The interface of land and sea is a dynamic habitat where energy, nutrients and populations of plants and animals mix and are recycled. This results in some of the most productive areas on earth characterized by complex food chains that maintain high production potential. Anecdotal evidence speaks of the historically high levels of productivity of coastal areas, especially high levels of fish stocks. There is good reason to believe that the current dismal nature of some coastal areas is primarily due to the chaotic destruction of the complex ecological networks. By reversing the overexploitation of key parts of the food chain, which are often commercially valuable predatory species, the ecological balance can be restored.


Flow is an important part of the complexity of the marine and estuarine habitats. The complexity and flow of coastal resources and coastal communities make assessment or information gathering by outsiders a difficult task.

It is hard to observe resources that are: mobile, underwater, change seasonally and move between different habitats.

Such movement is often predictable on a seasonal, monthly or daily cycle but knowledge of the exact location or size of fish stocks is not easily obtained although local knowledge may be available. However, if the ecology has changed through overexploitation or habitat degradation, traditional ecological knowledge may no longer be relevant, or young, active fishers may not have experienced the richness of the habitat prior to its devastation. One option is to seek information from older residents but it is difficult to cross check such information. Fish catches many years ago occurred under very different market conditions and it may not be possible to obtain a good estimate of the potential yield of the resources even if the habitat is restored. Furthermore, if those active in fishery have recently moved to the area, their depth of knowledge of the local ecology may be limiting.

There is less isolation of marine ecosystems than one finds on land even when the marine habitats differ in appearance. The aquatic medium connecting different places in the sea is itself habitat and provides connectivity among distant locations. Many species spend different life cycle stages in very different habitats and fish move along the three dimensions of the sea.

Although they may be physically distinct, ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangroves and marshes are highly interactive with surrounding marine habitats. Outsiders may view the coastal ecosystem in separate units and not appreciate the level of interaction among them.

The ecological links between land and sea are tremendously important. Aside from the flow of people, possibly the most important connection, is the flow of water and silt from rivers to the estuaries and coastal areas. Under natural conditions in the uplands, this flow of nutrients would maintain a healthy coastal ecosystem. However, degradation of uplands, primarily due to deforestation, causes increased erosion and siltation, resulting in degradation of coastal ecosystems. Further impacts from the land come in the form of water pollution from cities and intensive farm lands.


Resources which are mobile, nocturnal and difficult to see pose problems for the researcher or change agent working with coastal communities. It is difficult to assess the range of available and potentially-available resources under these conditions.







Coral reefs


· Diverse

· Shallow

· Sandy/muddy

· Intertidal

· Productive

· Nurseries

· Tidal

· Shallow

· Trees

· Delicate

· Fluctuating

· Seasonal

· Productive

· Diverse

· Open to inputs and impacts

· Productive

· Muddy

· Colorful

· Nurseries

· Brackish

· Open coast

Benefits and uses

· Nursery

· Fishing

· Nursery

· Nursery

· Fishing

· Fishing

· Shellfisheries

· Fishing

· Fishing

· Habitat

· Aquaculture

· Seaweeds

· Shellfisheries

· Shellfisheries

· Aesthetics

· Tourism

· Feeding for birds

· Sea cow habitat

· Fuelwood

· Tourism

· Medicinal plants

· Shoreline protection

· Forage

· Medicinal uses

· Shoreline stabilization

· Nutrient production

· Nutrient pollution trap


· Impacts of land-based activities

· Pollution

· Pollution

· Pollution

· Pollution

· Pollutant accumulation

· Land reclamation

· Siltation

· Overcutting for fuel

· Sedimentation

· Land reclamation

· Aquaculture ponds

· Dredging

· Aquaculture ponds

· Sand and coral mining

· Eutrophication

· Land reclamation

· Cyanide fishing

· Over-exploitation of shellfish

· Tenure

· Fishing

· Boating

· Ecotourism

· Biopiracy

· Anchor damage

· Thorns

· Storms

· Other destructive fishing methods

· Nutrients from land run-off


Ecosystems and coastal communities are in crisis due to overexploitation and overpopulation. Much of this crisis is due to lack of control of resources, however, local people can take control.

The devastation of coastal resources has been increasing in recent years. Degradation of coral reefs, mangrove forests and estuaries is caused by: poverty driven over-exploitation, destructive fishing methods, pollution, erosion and other impacts of land-based "development".

Few coral reefs near populated areas are healthy. They have lost biological and structural diversity and the abundance of life they should support. Many mangrove forests are gone. Many estuaries have become sewers. It might be argued that the main crisis is that of control.

Who owns this sea?

There is a tremendous diversity of systems throughout the world determining who "owns" or has "rights to" coastal resources. However, the harvest of fish stocks is often subject to a competitive scramble in an open access system. There are few or no tenurial systems recognized by central governments outside of the national policies. Informal rules for use of the resources are sometimes difficult to determine.

Case study: Mangrove degradation

Mangrove forests have sustained some communities for generations but with increases in population, the threats have mounted. The uses of mangroves by local communities are often so dispersed as to be considered unimportant in the national economy. Much of the "value" of mangroves is in non- market goods and services such as erosion control, nursery for species harvested elsewhere, providing nutrients, subsistence use of wood and food species, etc. Nevertheless, the major pressure on the mangroves has been a result of demands from distant "markets" or users. The open access of most mangrove forests make them easy targets for removal of wood for charcoal production. The demands of urban populations create attractive markets which are difficult for local people to resist in the face of no restrictions on mangrove use. Extensive areas have been turned over to national or international companies to raise shrimp for export markets. This free-for-all system results from the "nationalization" of resources by colonial and subsequently central governments. Local control of mangrove management has been lost but is essential for sustainability.


The uncertainty of rights of access or tenure of coastal resources has often left the poor fishing communities with little choice except to take what they can, when they can. Without assurance that young fish left to grow will return benefits to the one who practices conservation, there is no incentive. However, it has been demonstrated that when people have incentives and reasons to expect that investments in conservation will bring future benefits, they do protect the environment.

Although the coastal zone is currently seen as being seriously impacted and fishing is often considered an occupation of last resort, the potential productivity may be recaptured and provide support for well-being of local people. This productive area can continue to support many communities but control and management are essential.

Coastal resource management

Who is involved?

The sea goes from the beach in one village past the next village, around the country, and connects to the rest of the world. "Everyone" should be involved in managing the resources of the Sea or coastal resource management.

International agreements regulate some activities in the open sea. National agencies are often involved in Coastal Zone Management (CZM).

In recent years, a number of integrated approaches to CZM have been adopted. These include consideration of jointly managing all the activities of commerce, housing, fisheries, recreation, government, etc. which take place in the coastal zone. This process includes all the "stakeholders" in CZM in variations such as: Integrated Coastal Management (ICM), Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), Integrated Coastal Area Management (ICAM), and Integrated Management of Coastal Zone Environment (IMCZE).

Although details of these variations differ, they are almost universally initiated by governments and include different levels of government. Because the USERS are involved, these "integrated" approaches to management may generally be described as CO-MANAGEMENT. More and more. the user groups include "community groups".

However, the degree and effectiveness of "involvement", "sitting at the table " or being a "stakeholder" depends on the social and cultural context, the ability of local people to negotiate with the political and economic interests, and the political will of the government to ACT.

As in many natural resource areas, the management of coastal resources through central authorities has failed to curtail overexploitation and destructive impacts. However, many countries are turning to local control of many natural resources because those who directly depend on resources are often the most committed, conscious and capable guardians.

There are some problems that are difficult to control locally such as global market pressures and pollution. However, there are many issues that can be addressed locally.

Community-based coastal resource management

Community-based coastal resource management (CBCRM) is a process of involving local communities in managing the coastal resources upon which they depend. As more and more users of resources are directly included in management decisions and the scale of responsibility becomes local, the "ownership" of responsibility increases and the compliance to rules increases.

CBCRM is a movement to address the problems through more local control of resource management. As CBCRM becomes more sophisticated, it addresses the issues of coastal communities in a more holistic way. CBCRM is a conscious effort for the "community" to have control.

A perspective of sustainable livelihoods rather than a more restricted "alternative livelihoods" approach encompasses social, cultural and political dimensions impacting peoples' well-being in addition to those which are considered economic and environmental. If people are to take responsibility for management, the benefits have to be obvious, real, equitable and not result in unacceptable trade-offs. A holistic assessment is essential. Most of the degraded ecosystems can be recovered. Control of use and abuse will bring back the productive potential of the coastal zone, and coastal communities, with care and concern, can improve their well-being and that of their children.

The sea has sustained people for a long, long time.
We have mistreated this gift.
It no longer provides what it could.
If we treat it well, the sea will respond and coastal communities may live "sustainably" again.

Prepared by Gary F. Newkirk