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Net-WorksEmpowering communities, replenishing the ocean.

A new era for conservation

By Dr. Nick Hill - ZSL |

The Zoological Society of London’s Dr Nick Hill, Co-founder of Net-Works, describes the innovative approach Net-Works takes to empowering community-led conservation.

Every time I visit a meeting of one of the Net-Works community-banks (known locally as a CoMSCAs), I am both surprised and inspired. Run by community members, these banks are the social infrastructure that forms the foundation of Net-Works. They provide access to finance in a way that is convenient and local, enabling people to save the money they earn from net collection and take out small loans. They also manage the local net supply chain – organising beach clean-ups and facilitating sales transactions.

The first time I took my boss to see Net-Works in action, we sat in on a community bank members’ meeting. Once the “business” component of the meeting was over, the members turned their attention to discussions about group t-shirts. That in itself is not a surprise – everyone loves a team t-shirt! The question was: how to pay for the t-shirts? The group decided they would use part of their collective income from the sale of nets and top that up with contributions from each individual.

After the meeting my boss came over and asked me whether we should offer to pay for the t-shirts outright. “Definitely not!” I said. Whilst I didn’t want to be a miser, this one small step for a Net-Works community represented one giant leap for conservation and development.

Conservation has a long history of being dependent on financial donations. As a result, and completely understandably, people in developing world communities have come to expect handouts from foreigners and donor-dependent NGOs. This in turn has created a generation of aid-dependency and it has locked communities into a destructive poverty trap. With their limited financial resources far exceeded by the global need for support, donors quite rightly are reluctant to continue funding the same activities in the same places in perpetuity. The onus is on us as conservation professionals to break this cycle of dependency and use donor funding wisely to build sustainable solutions that only need external funding once.

To do that we need tools and approaches that empower communities to help themselves. The Net-Works model, based on the infrastructure of local community banks, is the beginning of a tangible, scalable solution. Team t-shirts will not be the thing that enables these communities to protect their marine resources, but what the t-shirt story shows is the sense of empowerment they feel. I have seen first hand how the confidence of Net-Works community groups grows with every decision they take. Once the groups get going their decisions get bigger and bolder. For example, some groups have made it a requirement of their members to join a beach clean-up every other week to tackle the problem of waste. And they don’t just pay lip-service – they fine any members who don’t turn up, and have written these fines into their own constitutions! They have also created benefit-sharing arrangements for distributing the income received from the beach clean up amongst the group. So they have both a carrot and a stick.

Most recently I have been inspired to see groups establishing their own Environment Fund. Each member agrees to make a small contribution to this fund each week, to be used to support vital community-managed conservation activities such as restoring and protecting mangrove forests.

Inspired by our partner communities, we at ZSL and Interface have also been encouraged to think bigger and bolder with our ambitions for Net-Works. Our challenge is that communities need ongoing technical support from trained conservation professionals who understand the science and who can draw on lessons learned from global conservation work. Communities can’t afford to pay for this expertise and the income from net collection alone won’t fund it. But what if we could expand the Net-Works community-level supply chain to include other products or services? Communities would then have multiple ways to generate supplemental income – not just through net collection. Perhaps this would generate enough to pay for a small, local, expert team who could provide ongoing support without the need for ongoing donor financing.

With a model like this we would have a truly scalable supply chain – one that benefits all life. And we could empower communities to dramatically change the face of marine conservation, forever.

Now that is truly exciting.

Dr. Nick Hill is the Conservation for Communities Technical Specialist, Marine & Freshwater Programme, ZSL.

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