DURHAM, N.C.—Climate change and rapid economic development have placed increased pressures on many coastal communities in recent years. Now, a new international study shows there is also a third force—the unintended consequences of conservation measures enacted with little or no consideration of local rights and needs—that can compound the harm.

The study’s authors call the combined effects of these three forces a “triple exposure.”

They argue that to reduce harmful impacts and maximize social benefits from exposure to these and other external forces, we must first identify and address the social and economic injustices that are often root causes of a community’s vulnerability. These injustices, if left unaddressed, can also undermine a conservation project’s success.

This includes root issues such as unjust trade policies, hidden or remote sources of pollution, marginalization of women, colonial legacies, and systematic racism.

Taking a more inclusive, “participatory systems” approach—in which the local area is viewed as one interconnected human-natural system and local communities have a say in the planning, design, and implementation of a project—can help to shed light on these issues. 

“The outcomes from cases around the world clearly show the need for agencies to go beyond current ‘net benefit’ and ‘do no harm’ policies and move toward a more inclusive, just, and thoughtful approach,” said David Gill, assistant professor of marine science and conservation at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who led the study.

“If we want initiatives that are effective, equitable, and sustainable, we need to work with local communities and other agencies to identify and address root issues that contribute to inequitable outcomes from climate, conservation, and development initiatives,” he said.

This means working with local knowledge holders and other local agencies during the planning stage to understand local issues and how proposed initiatives might affect their communities and marine ecosystems. Then, working together, implement initiatives that can help address root issues and amplify social and environmental benefits. 

 “Creating these types of broad partnerships can also help identify positive synergies between initiatives. This way groups can pool their resources, networks, and influence to bring about even greater change.” Gill said. For example, in Fiji, a large collaboration of government and non-government actors integrated coral reef conservation and agricultural strategies with local customs to help reduce water-borne diseases like typhoid, empower local groups, and manage coastal watersheds.

He and his colleagues published their peer-reviewed paper Feb. 17 in the journal One Earth.

The inclusive approach they’re advocating is part of a new movement, called Blue Justice, that recognizes that addressing past wrongs is key to forging future successes, as highlighted in another related article the team published led by Dr. Jessica Blythe of Brock University.

“While climate, development, and conservation initiatives can provide many benefits to coastal communities, there are many cases where communities or certain groups within them have been marginalized and excluded from the decision-making process,” said Gill. “This is despite the fact that these communities and individuals often bear a disproportionate share of the burdens and have far greater knowledge of local systems and resources than outside experts ever could.”

This sort of externally driven approach is both inequitable and counterproductive, and can make local communities even more vulnerable, he said. 

One example of such injustice, highlighted in the paper is Aboadze in western Ghana. where development initiatives forced poorer residents to live in exposed, low-lying areas vulnerable to sea-level rise and reduced their access to farmland. Additionally, increased competition with industrial fishing fleets force many local fishers to resort to unsustainable practices like dynamite fishing to make up for lost catches, ultimately compromising the integrity of the ecosystem they rely on.

Several thousand miles to the east, in Indonesia’s Sunda Banda Seascape region, a brighter picture emerges.

A partnership of local and international teams of conservationists, policy experts, and scientists, including Gill, is working to monitor and assess the human well-being impacts—good and bad—of a network of seven marine protected areas (MPAs). Many of these MPAs were established in partnership with local communities, building on local customary rules that these communities have long used to manage their coral reefs.  

“As more and more coastal communities grapple with the impacts of triple exposure and other changes, it’s important to recognize that sometimes our efforts to make things better can backfire if underlying local social injustices are not considered,” Gill said. “These issues are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully resolve in some contexts. Nonetheless, even small steps to advance social justice and build resilience to the multiple stressors these communities face will go a long way in helping us achieve positive change.”

Rebecca C. Horan and Dana Baker, current and former PhD students in marine science and conservation at Duke’s Nicholas School, were among Gill’s co-authors on the study.  

Other co-authors came from Brock University, the Peopled Seas Initiative, the University of Exeter, the University of Central Florida, the University of Victoria, the Université Paris-CRIOBE, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Sicily Marine Center, the University of Waterloo, the University of Bremen and the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research, the University of Guelph, James Cook University, the World Wildlife Fund, Talanoa Consulting, Stanford University, and the University of the Basque Country.

The study was supported by the French Foundation for Biodiversity Research.

CITATION: “Triple Exposure: Reducing Negative Impacts of Climate Change, Blue Growth, and Conservation on Coastal Communities,” David A. Gill, Jessica Blythe, Nathan Bennett, WithLouisa Evans, Katrina Brown, Rachel A. Turner, Jacobo A. Baggio, Dana Baker, Natalie C. Ban, Victor Brun, Joachim Claudet, Emily Darling, Antonio Di Franco, Graham Epstein, Estradivari, Noella J. Gray, Georgina G. Gurney, Rebecca P. Horan, Stacy D. Jupiter, Jacqueline D. Lau, Natali Lazzari, Peni Lestari, Shauna L. Mahajan, Sangeeta Mangubyai, Josheena Naggea, Elizabeth R. Selig, Charlotte K. Whitney, Noella Zafra-Calvo, and Nyawira A. Muthiga; One Earth, Feb. 17, 2023. DOI: https://doi.org.10.1016/j.oneear2023.01.010





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