Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
The atoll of Ontong Java, in the Solomon Islands, is unusual for a few reasons. First, it’s huge, one of the largest atolls in the South Pacific. Second, unlike the main islands of the Solomon Islands with their Melanesian populations, the people of Ontong Java are Polynesian. The third reason is that they have been able to maintain their traditional fisheries of beche-de-mer and trocus shell by following locally-designed conservation methods.
That’s why I was surprised to see an article in the Solomon Star newspaper that starts out (emphasis mine):
$2m pay-out queried
FRIDAY, 04 JANUARY 2013 04:49
A CONTROVERSIAL $2 million was paid out by the government to the Malaita Outer Islands (MOI) people without Cabinet approval, sources say.
According to government sources, the money was paid out by the Ministry of Environment & Climate Change to the Luaniua and Pelau community to facilitate climate change programmes.
However, the source said after some disagreements within Cabinet, a cabinet paper was withdrawn following confusions because the amount was not enough and whether the money was for climate change or to buy beche-de-mer.
Can’t tell climate change from beche-de-mer? Reminds me of the old joke about watermelon and rat poison. The joke is, someone asks you “Do you know the difference between watermelon and rat poison?”. When you answer “No”, the person says “Well, I’m sure as heck not sending you to town for watermelon”.
So how could you mistake a beche-de-mer purchase for a climate change project? And what is a beche-de-mer when it’s at home, anyhow? As you might imagine, it’s a very South Pacific kind of story, with a huge surfeit of inconsistencies and uncertainties, and a correspondingly great paucity of empirically verifiable facts. What’s not to like?
A “beche-de-mer” is also called a “sea cucumber”. They are collected, dried, and sold to some Asian folks. I assume the eventual consumers are in a re-education camp somewhere and for some reason they have been brainwashed into thinking that sea cucumbers are good to eat, or maybe that’s just all that they are fed. I can’t conceive of another reason to eat them. Here’s one in his (her?) native habitat on the ocean bottom, a beche-de-mer, that is to say, not a concentration camp internee:
For self-defense, when you pick them up, beche-de-mer turn themselves inside out and evert their own intestines all over your hands. Sea cucumber innards are really sticky. Believe it or not, looking like the photo above, plus their habit of puking up their sticky stringy guts on the slightest excuse, plus resembling something you could buy in a seedy Times Square shop with batteries not included, that combined picture does not scream “eat me” on my planet … especially after they are boiled and smoked, or buried in the sand, or both as part of the curing process. The smell of them getting treated is enough to make a man lose his breakfast, and not even desire to find it again for some considerable span of time. The only worse smell is trocus drying on the beach. But beche-de-mer are valuable, as are trocus, so the folks bear the smell.
The trocus is a marine snail, whose bad fortune is that its shell is the kind of shell that most shell buttons are made from. You dive down to get them. You have to leave them out on the beach to let the snail inside die, and then you have to get it out of the shell. The rotting snail has a truly remarkably bad smell, an olfactory thermonuclear explosion that insinuates itself into the crevices of your cerebellum and that not even Lady Macbeth could wash out.
Measurements in centimetres, thank goodness. These two products plus copra (dried coconut meat) are about the only sources of income for many islanders around the Pacific. As a result, beche-de-mer and trocus are badly overfished around many islands. The people of Ontong Java, however, have been able to maintain their stocks of both trocus and beche-de-mer without problem up to the present. Here’s a description of how they did it.
Since a significant proportion of the atoll’s cash income is derived from beche-de-mer and trochus, the community understands the critical need for fisheries management.
The management measures adopted on Ontong Java are straightforward and easily understood by villagers. In combination, the measures are effective in achieving sustainable resource use and ensuring that the atoll’s limited income earning opportunities are protected. Because of communal resource ownership arrangements in the atoll, exclusion of fishermen from commercial fisheries (i.e., effort reduction by limited entry) is not a management option so that other measures must be adopted.
Management measures adopted for beche-de-mer and trochus fisheries involve (i) closed seasons, (ii) gear restrictions, and (iii) size limits. To permit resource regeneration in inshore areas, each fishery is closed every second calendar year. This ensures the availability of commercial quantities of both resources for harvesting in alternate years while concurrently providing a degree of stability in fishermen’s incomes.
With respect to gear, SCUBA and hookah diving equipment are banned in both fisheries. Beche-de-mer can only be harvested by free-diving from sail or motor·powered canoes or by using weighted spears on strings. Trochus is collected by free-diving or from along the shore·line at low tide. These harvest restrictions are designed to prevent resources in deeper waters from being exploited so that they will be available to repopulate inshore areas in those years when the fisheries are closed. Minimum size restrictions are also imposed in both fisheries to protect juveniles.
Community-based fishery management in Ontong Java has functioned effectively in facilitating sustainable resource use despite pressures resulting from commercial development opportunities. Ultimate responsibility for management rests with village elders, essentially the local government council. It is reported that there is virtually total compliance with communally·adopted management measures since fishermen who fail to comply incur a significant penalty, exclusion from the fisheries. SOURCE
In other words, one year they would fish trocus, and the next year they’d fish beche-de-mer. In neither case could they use certain gear, to avoid depleting the resource. Pretty brilliant, devised and put into place by the local folks. People in Ontong Java obey their chiefs so the bans were respected.
Here’s where the story gets ugly. Because of widespread depletion and shortages of the beche-de-mer resource in most places in the Solomons except Ontong Java, in 2005 the Solomon Islands Government did a foolish thing. They outlawed the export of beche-de-mer for everyone, sadly including Ontong Java in the ban. So the folks on Ontong Java, who have done nothing wrong and everything right, are being punished by the loss of about half their income. As you can imagine, this is wholly and wildly unpopular in Ontong Java, particularly since it has led to hunger in the atolls. The fishermen in Ontong Java have stored up their dried beche-de-mer, but they can’t sell them … and they are desperate to sell them, in order to feed their kids.
And this is where the climate change question comes in, I guess. Because the only climate change project that I can find in Ontong Java is called the Ontong Java Climate Change Project: Food and Water Security. And it seems to me like nothing would provide more immediate food security for people on the atoll than to buy up the stockpiles of beche-de-mer from the Ontong Java folks … well, that would be the best thing for food and economic security except for the logical thing, which would be lifting the beche-de-mer ban for the Ontong Java atoll. Of course, there is huge agitation to lift the ban, and also of course, the Government has done nothing. As the Solomon Star article goes on to say:
When this paper contacted Environment Minister Bradley Tovosia yesterday, he said he was not in a position to comment, advising us to talk to his permanent secretary.
However, several attempts to speak to the permanent secretary were unsuccessful.
I bring all of this up for several reasons. One is to point out that hastily imposed sanctions can cause harm. The Law of Unintended Consequences still roolz. Sadly, this is a lesson that even the US hasn’t learned—having good intentions is not enough.
Another is to note that some places in the world actually do have customary methods that work to maintain the resources. In the Solomon Islands, these traditional methods go by the generic name of “kastom”, the pijin word for “custom”. When we find kastom methods that do work, we should build on that. I note in passing that not all traditional methods are worth saving, some should be napalmed whenever they are encountered..
Another is to reiterate that funds given for climate change may end up in another arena entirely. Even if these particular funds had not been spent on beche-de-mer, the original project goal was to improve the local gardening practices in Ontong Java … man, that seems awful sketchy to me, trying to teach gardening to some people who have gardened successfully for generations on a pile of alkaline coral sand. Don’t know as how I’d try that.
But anyhow, that’s where the climate change funds would have gone if they hadn’t been hijacked by a bunch of wild rampaging beche-de-mer. And while I would like to believe that a bunch of well-meaning folks could find new ways to farm a pile of alkaline sand, I hardly see much connection to the climate in that quest.
As in many third world countries, what the development funds end up getting spent on may bear no relationship at all to what the funds were supposed to be spent on. Climate funds are among the worst offenders in this regard, propping up ridiculous schemes around the planet.
It seems to me to be just another and not all that major example of the great overarching plan of the IPCC, which is to siphon money off from the industrialized countries and send it to the developing countries. As with many things in the South Pacific, there are lots of parts in the story which are far from clear. One thing that you can depend on, though, one thing is totally clear—that the money used to buy beche-de-mer, the money supposedly intended for climate, didn’t come from the Solomon Islands. They don’t have money to waste on such nonsense … although to be fair, that’s never stopped them in the past.
My thanks to my good friend Mike Hemmer and his blog, The Native Iowan, where I first saw the story.
PS—Please note that I do not mean to single out the Solomons Government or to say that they are unique or unusual. There are dozens and dozens of other examples out there of other countries exhibiting this level of foolishness, including the US at times. I write about the Solomons because I lived there for years, and for some reason, likely a congenital deficiency or genetic defect of some kind, I love the dang place and the people …