African fishermen find way of conservation in the Koran

An experiment in Tanzania is emerging as an Islamic model for spreading environmental ideals.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

For years, Salim Haji was told by government officials and international groups that his methods of fishing were destroying the coral and weren't sustainable. But few fishermen on this small island off Tanzania's coast paid much heed.

Then, the local imam told him that using dragnets to fish and spears to catch octopuses was wrong.

As a devout Muslim, he listened.

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"I've learned that the way I fished was destructive to the environment," says Mr. Haji, "This side of conservation isn't from the mzungu," he says, using the Swahili word for white man, "it's from the Koran."

On this remote edge of the Indian Ocean, an experimental model for implementing Muslim environmental ethics and education is yielding results. Local and international nongovernmental organizations, which pioneered the project, will publish a guidebook later this year in English and Swahili to be distributed throughout the Swahili-speaking coast of East Africa and eventually in Muslim communities around the world.

Many of the fisherman here are now members of the Misali Island Conservation Association (MICA), which helps to protect the resources of this important islet off the west coast of Pemba.

"Misali is a benchmark for the faith community," says Fazlun Khalid, the founding director of the Britain-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), one of the NGOs involved with the project. "It shows that Islamic leaders can empower and organize their constituents on conservation issues much faster than governments can."

Mr. Khalid was first invited to Zanzibar in 1998 by Rob Wild of CARE, who was frustrated that traditional conservation messages were not reaching the fishermen. Khalid had been eager to pilot a methodology using Islamic teachings to communicate conservation, and Misali became the first experiment of that methodology.

Khalid, together with CARE, met with religious leaders and fishermen to discuss how the teachings of the Koran related to the environment and the use of natural resources. Later, they worked with MICA to train religious leaders to incorporate conservation messages into their Friday prayer sermons.

"We researched lost teachings and put them together in a modern form," says Khalid. "The Koran gives ethical principles on guardianship and relationships with other beings, which can form the ethical foundation for conservation. And there are other sayings and practices of the prophet [Muhammad] that relate to sustainable use of resources."

One Koranic verse selected for its ecological significance was Sura 6:141: "...it is He [Allah] who produces gardens, both cultivated and wild.... Eat of their fruits when they bear fruit and pay their dues on the day of their harvest, and do not be profligate. He does not love the profligate."

Misali Island, a teardrop-shaped atoll that makes up part of the Zanzibar archipelago, is part of a lush marine ecosystem where more than 300 species of fish breed and swim through a maze of 42 types of coral.

Fishing and tourism, together with small-scale cultivation of fruit and spices like clove, form the backbone of Tanzania's coastal economy. More than 12,000 Pemba residents in 36 villages count on fish from Misali's waters and little else for survival.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature's Tanzania office, the biggest threats to the region's marine ecosystem are illegal fishing with destructive gear such as dragnets, small mesh nets, and poles used to break coral; catching of endangered species like sea turtles; deforestation of mangroves; and overfishing of species such as chango and kingfish.

The creation in 1998 of the Misali Island Conservation Area, a reserve of 22.4 square kilometers encompassing the island and its surrounding waters, was the first policy to preserve the reef ecosystem. The conservation area allowed for sustainable use of fish stocks except in a one-kilometer core zone around the island and was run by a management committee made up mostly of fishermen as well as government representatives. In 2005, the conservation area expanded to include all of Pemba's west coast and is now called the Pemba Channel Conservation Area.

After the formation of the conservation area, Ali Abdullah Mbarouk, a project manager for CARE International, saw that traditional conservation messages were not having the desired effect on the Pemba fishermen.

"But if people are told to do something from their religious leader, they are likely to obey," Mr. Mbarouk says.

In addition to facilitating the communication of the Islamic environmental ethic, CARE has worked to help the fishermen find alternatives to fishing. The program encourages the fishermen and their families through a credit and savings program to grow and sell produce, tend beehives, and make handicrafts. Haji, the fisherman, now grows pineapple as a cash crop and raises bees with help from his three wives and 17 children.

Many fishermen have also switched to more sustainable fishing gear.

Hamza Sleiman, chairman of the conservation committee for Wesha village, says village men have switched from dragnets, which collect unwanted fish, in addition to commercial species, to ring nets that allow better selectivity.

Though no study to assess the project has been done in recent years, a baseline study by CARE in 2000 showed that only 34 percent of fishermen thought that Islam related to their use of the sea and its resources. In 2003, another study showed the number had risen to 66 percent. It also found that the lessons learned through the project had actually spread beyond the villages directly concerned.

Yet despite the program's successes, challenges remain.

According to Mbarouk, some less pious community members have not taken the message to heart and still use dragnets and poles to poke at the coral.

Ali Thani, now with WWF and helping other Tanzanian coastal communities to apply the model, says that some religious leaders lack the education to communicate conservation issues.

"The religious leaders have to relate complex ethical issues to conservation practices and that can be hard work," says Mr. Thani. "Not all of them are up to the challenge."

But Khalid of IFEES is optimistic that the lessons of Misali can be applied to Muslim communities wrangling with the same issues.

IFEES recently began working with communities in Indonesia to rehabilitate mangrove swamps in Aceh, and manage a forest reserve on Sumatra.

"We will start small, like Misali, and empower the villages through the local Muslim teachers," says Khalid. "They are the best people to tell them it's their responsibility to manage their resources sustainably."

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