A conversation with a friend saddened me how most people perceive local communities who live in areas rich with biodiversity and depend heavily on the resources from their surroundings. When we talk about human impacts, everyone sees them as the culprits to environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. Seriously, don’t put all the blame on these people. Saying they are not educated? I can guarantee that sometimes, in fact most of the time, they know about their surroundings better than we do.
I will use Perhentian Islands as an example since I have spent my recent years living there. The islands are gazetted as Marine Park to conserve the marine environment, as well as to promote education and research, plus tourism. Imagine if we were locals and had been fishing all the while on a subsistence basis to feed our families and earn some income, and one day the islands are being establish as Marine Protected Area and no fishing is allowed 2 nautical miles from the islands, what would we do? The easy solution is to fish out of the area but hello, it costs more to drive a boat further away!! Even educated folks in the city, given a choice, would rather spend less on shopping. The only time we might drive to a shopping mall further is it sells something cheaper.
Luckily at Perhentian Islands, tourism started to boom. Many diversified their livelihood strategies into tourism activities, working as boatmen, snorkel guides, dive guides, opening shops and restaurants, etc. Due to the nature of the islands, tourism comes to a halt (not completely) during the monsoon. Most resorts and dive centers are close from mid October until beginning of February. If we were fishermen in the past and now became taxi boat drivers during the tourism season to fetch tourists around, what would we do during the monsoon season? Just because there are less or almost no tourists on the islands and we are not earning from tourism doesn’t mean our families don’t have to eat. Some would still fish for food and some money.
As people who don’t live on the islands, where our livelihoods don’t depend on the natural resources, we only see things as black and white. Rule says no fishing in Marine Park so in short fishing is illegal by law and we conclude that the locals broke the law and are wrong. Put this in mind, most policies and laws are set by a group of people in the higher management level, whose livelihoods do not depend on these resources. How to protect an area? Reduce the human impact or prohibit fisheries activities within a protected area. Have we thought how these policies or laws would impact people who depend on the natural resources? Maybe not so because whether or not an area is close, sincerely, it doesn’t really affect our lives. Our lives still go on but what about the locals?
Before we blame anyone, especially the locals, think twice. I always believe everyone can be part of the change instead of condemning about other people’s actions. Maybe the policy and law should protect an area by not allowing tourists there as well. We, as tourists, have a great impact on the islands too! Did it cross our minds that there are too many of us visiting the islands and the islands are suffering as it is more than what the carrying capacity can contain at one time? Locals have been fishing for decades or longer, the marine life is still around. The moment commercial fishing began and tourism exploded, everything started to go down the slope. Irresponsible travel practices like stepping on corals (in fact locals are wise enough to know not to step on corals because they might get cut in return), grabbing turtles, leaving rubbish on the beach, etc. Rubbish and sewage management is another issue. Don’t just say locals throw rubbish everywhere, I have seen tourists doing the same, including educated city people throwing cigarette butts into the sea.
Humans have coexist with nature for centuries. Lately, it seems that human’s advancement in technology have cause natural resources to deplete in a faster rate. Mahatma Gandhi once quote “the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed”. When we assess a situation, think what we can do now, not who to blame because we all contribute, directly or indirectly, to what is happening to the Earth.