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African fishermen find way of conservation in the Koran

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

By Eliza BarclayContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 31, 2007



Pemba, Zanzibar

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.

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

As a devout Muslim, he listened.

"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.

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