Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are increasingly being used by governments as instruments for conservation and management of coastal and marine biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has set a target of bringing at least 10 per cent of oceans under protection by 2020. The present decision to increase area under MPAs undoubtedly has significant implications for small-scale fishing coastal communities, the primary traditional users of coastal and marine areas, although across the world they have been setting aside 'no-take' or 'limited-use' areas as part of their own generations-old management systems.

Small-scale fishing communities, threatened as they are by biodiversity loss and degradation of coastal ecosystems, have been demanding effective action to protect and manage coastal and marine habitats and resources, given the close links between their livelihoods and the health of the resource base. In several parts of the world, they have been known to take their own initiatives, as part of traditional and more recent systems, to protect and manage their resources.

However, the current target-driven approach to expanding areas under MPAs, with a primary focus on meeting quantitative goals and the expansion of ‘no-take areas’, rather than on ensuring that processes undertaken are inclusive, recognize and build on existing local and traditional knowledge and governance systems, and respect principles of sustainable use, is inherently problematic.

The International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) commissioned a series of case studies in eight countries—Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Senegal, Tanzania and Thailand—in the context of Programme Element 2 on governance, participation, equity and benefit sharing in CBD’s Programme of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA). The studies reveal a mixed picture. They throw up stories of conflict and the growing socioeconomic vulnerability of communities traditionally fishing in areas declared as MPAs, faced with displacement from fishing grounds, arrests and other forms of harassment. They also throw up positive examples of community-led management, where communities are using MPAs as one among several available tools, with evident benefits for biodiversity conservation and social well-being.

These case studies demonstrate that communities can be powerful allies in efforts for conservation and management of coastal and marine resource. It has equally been demonstrated that processes that are not inclusive serve only to alienate and ‘criminalize’ local communities. The ability of such processes to meet conservation goals, in a context where local communities are excluded and alienated, is equally suspect.