Poverty and environmental issues are interconnected and entangled in a complex web of human-environment relationships. Poor people often have no alternative but to degrade the environment to meet present needs at the expense of their future benefits. Conversely, environmental degradation tends to exacerbate poverty through deterioration of their livelihoods, income, and health [1
]. It is a significant paradox that poor people often place the least burden on the environment, while disproportionately shouldering the harmful impacts of a rapidly deteriorating environment [2
]. This poverty–environment nexus is particularly visible in local communities’ interactions with coastal and ocean ecosystems. More than 3 billion people in this world directly depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods, and on the oceans as their primary source of protein [7
]. Marine fisheries directly or indirectly employ more than 200 million people globally, and the market value is estimated at US$
3 trillion per year. In addition, oceans absorb about 30% of carbon dioxide produced by humans, greatly buffering the impacts of global warming [8
Human impact on the ocean has been profound, ranging from the destruction of marine ecosystems and loss of biodiversity to degradation of the natural environment, including from unsustainable coastal development, overfishing, and destructive fishing practices. With more than 80% of the world’s wastewater flowing directly into rivers, lakes, and eventually oceans, land-based pollution is also a significant cause of coastal and ocean degradation [9
]. Global warming caused by increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions further exacerbate these processes and contribute to rapid ocean acidification, fundamentally altering the world’s oceanic systems.
The severe environmental degradation of our coastal habitats and oceans poses great threat to local people and communities whose livelihoods directly depend on marine ecosystem services such as tourism and recreation, fisheries, coastal protection, biodiversity, and climate regulation [10
]. If managed properly and used sustainably, these coastal habitats will continue providing ecosystem services to human beings and other living things [11
]. While the potential of the oceans to serve the needs of sustainable development is quite high, it can only be made possible if they are maintained in or restored to a healthy ecological state [12
]. A blue economy approach is proposed to balance between the environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainable development, and address the poverty–environment nexus in ocean and coastal management [18
]. Blue economy refers to a concept that seeks to promote economic growth, social inclusion and the preservation and improvement of livelihoods, while at the same time ensuring the environmental sustainability of our ocean and seas [8
]. In the blue economy, our oceans contribute to poverty eradication by creating sustainable livelihoods and decent work, provide food and minerals, generate oxygen, absorb greenhouse gases and mitigate the impacts of climate change, determine weather patterns and temperatures, and serve as highways for international seaborne trade.
The objective of this paper is to examine and highlight how local practices of blue economy can address the poverty–environment nexus in coastal livelihoods. This paper is written based on a global study of the Blue Economy portfolio of the GEF Small Grants Program, implemented by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The study resulted in a UNDP publication “Blue Economy: Community Solutions” [8
]. In the blue economy, our ocean contributes to poverty eradication by providing sustainable livelihoods and decent work, supplying food and minerals, generating oxygen, absorbing greenhouse gases, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and serving as highways for seaborne international trade [20
]. While many disciplines touch upon the concept of blue economy, few studies exist on the following:
How the blue economy finds its application on-the-ground, particularly at local and community level.
How local blue economy practices can help addressing the poverty–environment nexus, including by upscaling best practices.
In this article, we present three case studies of blue economy practices initiated and implemented by local coastal communities in China, Samoa, and Vietnam. The outcomes from each case study are examined based on their environmental and socio-economic results. In doing so, we hope to contribute to the literature on blue economy and lessons learned from its application on-the-ground. By demonstrating the success and value of local, community-based blue economy projects, this article not only aims to contribute to the conceptualization of “blue economy” but also offers policy recommendations for civil society and decision-makers about how the application of blue economy principles can benefit coastal communities around the globe and help bridge challenges of the poverty–environment nexus. Finally, this article also draws on innovative community experiences that test and experiment different approaches for achieving economic returns in an environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive manner. These cases demonstrate that effective management can be achieved through local self-governance, as Ostrom theoretically and empirically showed that local communities can devise ways to govern the commons to assure ecosystem sustainability for human needs and future generations [21
]. We hope this can add value to the larger conversation on governing local commons with international financial and technical assistance.
2. Materials and Methods
Launched in 1992, the Global Environment Facility (GEF)—Small Grants Programme (SGP) supports innovative local and community-based actions to address global environmental issues, promote livelihoods, and empower local communities. To date, SGP has supported 1147 community projects with more than $30 million GEF funding and having generated more than $45 million co-financing for the protection of international waters at the local and community level. SGP works to localize the implementation of the SDGs and contributes to the achievements of almost all SDGs.
In the international waters focal area, Table 1
shows the distribution of SGP’s international waters portfolio by region. SGP projects have mainly focused on the following categories of activities:
conservation and rehabilitation of coastal ecosystems and habitats;
prevention and reduction of land-based pollution;
freshwater resources management;
fisheries, land and forest and other natural resources management;
capacity development, networking, knowledge sharing and learning
Through the international waters portfolio, SGP supports innovative community experiences around the world that test and experiment different approaches to achieving economic returns in an environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive manner in our oceans. Under this portfolio, almost all international waters projects adopt a “blue economy” approach to reconcile the environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainable development.
In order to collect these on-the-ground practices, a questionnaire (Appendix A
) was distributed globally to more than 110 SGP National Coordinators (who oversee the implementation of SGP-supported community-based projects in their respective countries). The questionnaire was designed to capture context-specific community-based blue economy practices. The questions were open-ended and covered project description, key activities and innovations, challenges, environmental, policy and socio-economic impacts, indigenous peoples’ involvement/leadership, sustainability, partners, replication and up-scaling, lessons learned, and any awards/recognitions.
Innovative practices could include customizing technology, cooperation with local scientists and research hubs, indigenous leadership and practices, and application/reworking of cultural practices—as they relate to the environment, local governance and community leadership—to boost key activities. Finally, the open-ended questions allowed for project participants to define what they deemed to be innovative for their community and context. The questionnaire was also attuned to include issues such as gender, climate change and adaptation strategies. The data on socio-economic and environmental benefits gained through the projects was abstracted as input for a UNDP publication on community solutions within a blue economy [8
]. We received more than 30 country programs’ responses and further conducted multiple rounds of follow-up correspondence to clarify context and results. This also allowed us to filter out any cases of under/over reporting. As most of the respondents are long-time partners of SGP, there exists a high level of trust and transparency. A UNDP technical publication “Blue Economy: Community Solutions” was published in 2018, including 12 case studies from around the world. This article summarizes the results of this global study and includes three cases that reflect key experiences and lessons drawn from the study [8
]. This paper includes three representative cases that can shed light on community-based approaches to blue economy practices while addressing the poverty–environment nexus.
We chose China, Samoa, and Vietnam as cases for this article (see Table 2
for summary), for four reasons. First, they represent main types of activities in the portfolio including eco-tourism, coastal habitat conservation and sustainable fisheries. Broadly speaking, one or more of these three livelihood avenues are present in almost all of our sampled cases. Second, these cases cross-cut through the global experiences registered in our sample, as well as the lessons learned manifested in the portfolio and highlighted in the UNDP publication. Third, the Asia-Pacific region’s high level of vulnerability to climate change behooves us to pay specific attention to local practices and understanding of their biodiversity on the ground as their losses are predicted to be far higher than in other parts of the world. For example, China is expected to lose 76% (9810 km2
) of its coastal wetlands in the case of a one-meter sea-level rise [22
]. Learning more about the best practices of these communities will shed light over some common challenges for coastal communities and expand our knowledge of potential solutions. Fourth, the three countries (a large mid-income country, a Small Island Developing States (SIDS)_ and an emerging economy) provide a good representation of the diversity of countries SGP works in. Based on the lessons learnt from these cases, we also make recommendations for policymakers, which include directing greater attention to community practices in high-risk coastal regions.
The analysis of factors influencing the effectiveness of community-based actions to address the poverty–environment nexus is informed and triangulated by two other research methods: participatory research and interviews. The lead author has been working with SGP for thirteen years, having observed actors and factors that work and others that do not at the community level, and having developed and implemented numerous community-based projects over the years. To further analyze the cases, interviews were undertaken with project managers and grantee partners who have been implementing the local actions on the ground. Experiences, lessons and conclusions have been drawn through an inductive approach based on inputs channeled through the above three research methods.
4. Discussion: Experiences and Lessons Learned
For a long time, development has been often achieved at the expense of the environment. The debate between development and environment has been persistent, largely pitching them as opposing forces. As a result, oceans are under threat from unsustainable exploitation and pollution, even though their marine and coastal ecosystems provide a range of critical services, reaching across supply chains, from food, biodiversity and culture to regulating important functions such as carbon sinks, climate regulation and flood protection [25
]. One of the most critical ocean governance challenges is the lack of understanding of the socio-economic benefits generated from healthy ocean ecosystems. How can we reconcile the relationship between development and the marine environment, and implement strategies and practices that balance the needs of both? This is not just a key question for political debate, but also a challenge to daily practices on the ground.
A blue economy includes both established industries such as tourism and fisheries, and emerging industries and technologies such as marine biotechnology, offshore renewable energy, seabed mining, and aquaculture. Despite this potential, developing a blue economy is constrained by serious limitations, including current profit-based exploitative practices of oceanic resources, the need to invest in both the employment and development benefits of the blue economy, to strengthen the concept through theoretical research and on the ground practices and finally, to overcome undervaluation of marine and community-based resources [20
] (pp. ix, 10–11), [26
Our findings in this article demonstrate some good on-the-ground blue economy community practices that have been successful in reconciling protection of the oceans and local marine ecosystems with the safeguarding of community livelihoods, and in addressing the aforementioned challenges associated with the poverty–environment nexus in coastal communities. They illustrate innovation in established industries such as (eco)tourism and (sustainable) fisheries as well as in scientific collaboration, partnership-based scaling up, and community-based management. Our findings also broadly indicate congruence with Dietz, Ostrom, and Stern’s strategies for addressing problems in governing the commons, which included “dialogue among interested parties, officials, and scientists; complex, redundant, and layered institutions; a mix of institutional types; and designs that facilitate experimentation, learning, and change” [28
]. ”Of course, the application of the blue economy concept in local contexts varies according to the different challenges and needs that communities and the local environment face and, hence, there is no one-fits-all approach to be offered. Each case presents some highly contextual good practices based on local situations and includes specific experiences and lessons learned at the end of each case. However, these cases also share some cross-cutting experiences and lessons learned.
4.1 Science-Based Blue Economy
The role of science and technology in bridging and reconciling the needs of economic development and ocean sustainability. Science and technology play an important role in designing and implementing blue economy projects in the field. If communities continue business-as-usual schemes, the environment and livelihoods will not be sustainable. Relationships between the economic, social, and environmental aspects of sustainable development are extremely complicated and delicate. Finding new solutions must involve new information, science and technologies, ranging from baseline information collection, management interventions, and design of alternative livelihoods. For example, the replanting and restoration of mangroves and coral reefs may sound easy and simple, but in reality, they are highly technical and scientific measures, involving informed choices with regards to type of species, nursery, timing and spacing. Furthermore, understanding ecosystem functions, identifying flagship species for conservation, and monitoring of species can help gain an understanding of broader ecosystems and their relationships to economic activities to ensure sustainability.
In the China seagrass case, the First Institute of Oceanography of the State Oceanic Administration provided the technical support on sexual reproduction with artificial auxiliary to obtain the seeds of Zostera marina, a new innovative technology on seagrass reproduction and restoration. In Vietnam, The Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography and the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) provided technical support for training about resource protection, demonstrating how FED (fish enhancing device) systems can be used to create safe habitats for marine species. In addition, the Japan International Cooperation Agency supported the project by dispatching experts to organize trainings and share Japan’s experiences in community-based, sustainable and decentralized fishery management.
4.2. Community-Based Blue Economy
The role of local consultation and community leadership and ownership. Community ownership and community participation are considered crucial components for the sustained positive impact of development [29
]. Recognizing the important role of a participatory approach, many community-based organizations strived for regular communication with stakeholders through periodic meetings, workshops, trainings or other activities through which feedback from community members on project progress could be gathered. To enhance transparency, messages should be conveyed in an understandable way and new rules and regulations should be formulated so that they are easy to implement or follow. In Vietnam, regular stakeholder meetings were important for the Fishermen’s Community Association to receive community feedback, reassess planned interventions and adjust regulations. Within the community, efforts should continuously be made to build trust and develop community mechanisms for conflict resolution.
For the project cases discussed in the paper, it was deemed essential to involve the community in all phases of the project, from the beginning to the monitoring of project outputs. Although science-based input is essential for providing solutions to technical challenges associated with ocean conservation, or highly specialized issues such as coral transplantation, it is also understood that local challenges often benefit most from local solutions. Giving fishers’ associations or local women’s cooperatives, for example, a prominent role in problem-solving helps the community to implement but also take ownership over the project.
Community ownership of a project also goes hand-in-hand with giving primary stakeholders the tools and responsibility for independent and continuous monitoring and evaluation, such as fishers in the designation of a protected marine area. Project monitoring in general is important, including surveillance and the gathering of data and statistics. By involving the community in the monitoring process it becomes easier to periodically monitor impact and to answer questions such as, are we reaching all stakeholders and beneficiaries, and are we getting the projected results. Field work and field visits are equally important for effective monitoring and evaluation and are necessary to evaluate and adjust working plans and propose measures to prevent and deal with risks and challenges. Promoting the role of the communities in self- and cross-monitoring proved to be helpful in this process. Finally, community leadership is critical for the design, implementation and continuity of the project. In the case of Vietnam, the rules, regulations and fishing rights set out by the Fishermen’s Community Association were developed with input from the fishing communities themselves and as a consequence none of the fishers of the Association violated regulations on sustainable exploitation and protection of aquatic resources, while the number of violations among fishers from other localities decreased by more than 90 percent. Much of this community-driven take on development follows recent scholarship and practice that focuses on putting local communities at the steering wheel of today’s commons governance [21
4.3. Visibility of Local Benefits and Practicality of Results
It is essential for communities to witness the tangible benefits of blue economy project implementation. Consistent broadcasting of project developments, both in terms of achievements or setbacks, and the use of social media are considered effective tools for outreach. Stakeholders who were directly earning a living from the local ecosystem services, such as fishers, were also more engaged when they could see tangible benefits and practical results from conservation actions, such as enhanced biodiversity and more aquatic species, or an increase of high-value fish stocks. Temporary closure of marine areas is a powerful management tool that can demonstrate the economic benefits of fisheries management rapidly, to fishers and seafood buyers alike. By producing tangible benefits to coastal communities, this approach can build robust support for broader marine management initiatives. These local livelihood benefits are critical to ensure community buy-in and participation. All projects documented in this publication have reported extensively on the socio-economic benefits for the community.
In China, for example, benefits to the local community were very tangible given the financial benefits of both sea cucumber cultivation and tourism-related activities. In turn, this further boosted fishers’ enthusiasm for seagrass-bed restoration and protection. One of the reasons tangible benefits play a critical role in this regard is that they may help to create local project legitimacy, which is in its turn a key component for successful community-based natural resource governance [31
4.4. In the Sampled Cases, Communication, Awareness Raising, and Advocacy Were Found to be Key Elements
For project development, implementation, and sustainability. Introducing new ideas or new approaches to managing natural resources and ecosystem services has always been challenging as people have a tendency to stick to their long-formed attitudes and customs. Setting up a comprehensive communication strategy is important to strengthen communication with and within the community, to increase awareness about project motivation and goals, and to build trust. Engaging specific members of the community such as community elders, village leaders, local champions, non-partisan members of communities and overall people that shared motivation and understanding of the complex issues facing communities is helpful to bring more people on board. In Samoa, the project committee continues to build the capacity and awareness of villagers by conducting joint meetings and cooperation with villagers for monitoring the MPA. The impacts of these activities are evident in the village’s increased awareness of environmental protection; their ongoing monitoring and enforcement of village rules; and planning for the future of their MPA.
4.5. Multi-Stakeholders’ Partnerships
Involving the civil society, the government, the private sector and other key stakeholders are fundamental to successful implementation and possible scaling up of blue economy projects [19
]. For a successful implementation and potential scaling up of local projects, crucial elements are collaboration and alignment between various international and regional organizations, national governments and local authorities, project implementers or community-based organizations and members of the community. It is beneficial if the roles and responsibilities of each partner or potential stakeholder group is thought-through and clearly defined and agreed upon beforehand. Almost all cases made reference to the important role of the GEF-SGP in supporting outreach of the community and the crafting of relationships with different institutional bodies or partners. In some cases, these relationships were institutionalized by way of a project steering committee that met regularly and helped in solving issues regarding the implementation of the project. Further, working with national institutions has in some cases given a basis for continuity of various initiatives.
4.6. Partnerships Are Found to be Particularly Important for Scaling up Good Practices
Government policies and strategies often play an instrumental role in the scaling up process. Involvement of the private sector could help to expand the blue economy, for example the replication of sustainable aquaculture and ecotourism practices. However, due to the small scale of these blue economy projects, the engagement of the private sector usually remains at an artisanal, small-scale level. In Vietnam, there is a need to increase community understanding of the project’s intentions and proceedings in order to motivate the community to contribute their own resources such as boats, equipment and small capital. The local community designed sustainable livelihood models by establishing a revolving fund that provides financial support to the community for fishing, trading, aquaculture, ecotourism and agricultural activities. The model of a revolving fund has offered non-interest loans in the first phase, and priority is given to the persons in difficulty who have clear and potential plans with a high possibility of loan return. After the first round, low interest rates will be applied to reach more members. It should be noted that experiences of developing and managing revolving funds are still evolving and should be further explored.
In the first instance, the poverty–environment discourse focused predominantly on “downward spirals” and one-dimensional aspects (how poverty among people causes environmental degradation) or feedback loops (how environmental degradation in return affects the poor). More recent research recognized that the poverty–environment nexus is multi-dimensional, governed by a complex web of factors, and more attention now goes to investigating how marginalized communities are able to invent and maintain protective measures that can help minimize the negative impact of environmental degradation on their ecosystems and associated livelihoods through collective action [34
As shown in the cases, community practice or implementation of a blue economy is manifested differently in different local contexts; in the three different countries a variety of approaches and activities were developed to address the common challenge of protecting the ocean and its resources and securing human economic welfare. The implementation of internationally accepted principles of the blue economy approach eventually has to be done at the local level, taking into consideration of the conditions, needs, and relationships between local people and the ecosystems. The complexities and challenges of local level interventions should be fully recognized for development interventions to be effective on the ground. We hope that this article conveys the local specificities and complications that sometimes negate any attempts to generalize development pathways. Good practices to address the poverty–environment nexus should be locally designed, community owned and adaptively implemented.
The cases in this article demonstrate how vulnerable coastal communities may be uniquely positioned to be stewards of the environment and how community intervention and innovation in these communities helps to preserve the environmental resources on which their livelihoods depend. More proactive measures are necessary to enhance the access to and productivity of vulnerable coastal communities’ natural resource assets and to engage them as partners in natural resource management. This article presents several ways to do so in the field of blue economy to address the poverty–environment nexus.