How IMPAC3 will reflect the evolution of the MPA field: An MPA News interview with Dan Laffoley

[Editor's note: The following essay by Tim Gray of Newcastle University was mentioned in the March-April 2014 issue of MPA News. Gray is a co-author of the book.]

GOVERNANCE OF MPAs: An Essay on the Book Contested Forms of Governance in Marine Protected Areas: A study of co-management and adaptive co-management, by Bown, N., Gray, T. and Stead, S.M. (2013, London, Earthscan from Routledge)

This book is a study of two forms of MPA governance – co-management (CM); and adaptive co-management (ACM) – applied to the case of the Cayos Cochinos Marine Protected Area (CCMPA) in Honduras. The book extensively analyses the meanings of the two concepts of CM and ACM before employing them to make sense of two management plans for the CCMPA – the first management plan (2004-9) which incorporated CM; and the second management (2008-2013) which incorporated ACM.1 The main finding of the book is that while the two management plans did aspire to implement CM and ACM respectively, their application of them was far from ideal. Whether the management plans would have delivered more successful ecological and socio-economic outcomes had they more faithfully incorporated CM and ACM, is a moot point, though in our view, some principles of CM and ACM would probably be beneficial to any MPA.

In the 1980s, marine protected areas became an important part of Honduras' strategy for economic development, largely to encourage tourism. Tourism zones were created and tax incentives were used to encourage foreign investment, while a law forbidding foreigners to own land within 40 km of the Caribbean Sea was abolished in 1993. During this time, many protected areas (including marine areas) were designated, and a new government department, SERNA (Secretary of State for Natural Resources and Environment) was created with the authority to designate and monitor MPAs. In 1996, another government department, HIT (Honduran Institute of Tourism), was established to promote tourism in the newly designated national parks and protected areas, generating US$90 million through foreign investment within two years (Higham, 2007).

Theoretically, tourist enterprises were required to adhere to the principle of sustainable development, minimising damage to the country's natural resources while maximising socio-economic benefit to the Honduran people (Stonich, 2000). But in practice, the policy was 'conservation for tourism' (Brondo & Bown 2011), and newly-created rights of foreign tourists to use natural resources were prioritised over the traditional rights of the indigenous populations (Contreras-Hermosilla, 2002).

The CCMPA was chosen as a case study because not only does it illustrates how MPAs are governed, but it also shows how a MPA's system of governance may change from one mode (CM) to another (ACM). The impact of this change was investigated both in the CCMPA as a whole, and in three Garifuna communities residing within the sphere of influence of the CCMPA - Rio Esteban, Nueva Armenia and Chachahuate. Rio Esteban and Nueva Armenia are both coastal communities, while Chachahuate is a cayan (small island) community located inside the marine reserve. These three communities were selected because of the representativeness of their fishing-dependent households; their engagement with the Honduran Coral Reef Fund (HCRF);2 and their relations with Operation Wallacea (Opwall).3 To collect the data necessary for this study, Natalie Bown spent a total of twelve months over a four-year period in these communities, splitting her time evenly between the three sites.

The Cayos Cochinos, consisting of two large islands and 13 smaller islands, is located 15km off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, and forms extensive coral reefs in the south of the MBRS (Harborne et al, 2001). In 1993, it was designated a Natural Marine Monument after the Smithsonian Institute discovered the damage to bioversity inflicted by overfishing, and HCRF was appointed to conserve its marine resources, which covered an area of nearly 500km2. Virtually overnight the area changed from being an open access resource to a private good owned by a conglomerate of international environmental NGOs and Honduran business leaders. Moreover, although the local Garifuna people (Afro-indigenous artisanal fishers) were allowed limited access to it, HCRF applied a moratorium on the extraction of any form of marine life within a five-miles radius of the central cay, with a 24-hour navy patrol established to enforce this ban. This moratorium on fishing activities, whilst addressing the immediate threat to the biodiversity of the CCMPA, posed a substantial threat to the livelihoods of the small-scale Garifuna fishers (Brondo and Woods, 2007). The Garifuna (as the local resource users) were blamed for the environmental destruction that is now more accurately linked to non-Garifuan industrial fishing in the region, and after five years under the moratorium on fishing, successful mobilization of national Garifuna organizations, especially the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), led to its lifting in 1999 and the Garifuna were permitted to return to subsistence fishing.

In 2003, a legislative decree established the Cayos Cochinos as the first statutory Marine Protected Area in Honduras (recognised under IUCN rules as a Category VI protected area), and awarded responsibility for the conservation of marine resources in the area to HCRF for the next ten years (2004-2014). In 2004, WWF helped to develop a five-year management plan (2004-2009) with HCRF that purportedly involved the participation of the local community (Brondo and Bown, 2007). In practice, the Garifuna were subjected to severe restrictions on their fishing activity, because the management plan was conservation-driven, having been produced by an environmental NGO-led co-management arrangement. Although the principles of good governance and decentralisation were applied at the national level, co-management of the CCMPA did not include much local community participation. As a result of political and social pressure, HCRF decided to revise the management plan for the CCMPA one year earlier than planned (2008 rather than 2009). The involvement of the TNC4 favoured a rapid appraisal methodology, and the second management plan (2008-13) was designed as an ACM arrangement with more flexibility and a greater role for local community groups and government agencies than in the first plan.

Two main questions are to be asked: (1) how far did the two management plans meet the conditions of CM and ACM, respectively? And (2) how effective were the two management plans in achieving CCMPA's ecological and socio-economic objectives? On the first question, the objectives of CM are to empower partners; enhance the legitimacy of management; make governance transparent, accountable, and equitable; ensure compliance with regulations; resolve conflicts between resource users; widen the sources of information available to management; improve the public's understanding of the ecosystem; and to avoid both top-down elitism and bottom-up ignorance. In our judgement, the first management plan met these criteria partially, but not fully, scoring poorly on some of CM’s performance indicators. On the positive side, the first management plan was a legally instituted partnership between its authorised agent, HCRF, the municipal authority of Roatan and the Garifuna communities, and it emphasised the principles of stakeholder participation and decentralization. Moreover, the Honduran government had committed much political capital to the plan and wanted it to work. On the negative side, the first management plan's partnership did not treat all partners equally: it was a state-NGO partnership in which HCRF played the dominant position; the municipality of Roatan was an invisible partner; and the Garifuna communities were not consulted but only informed. The representatives from the Garifuna communities were mainly the cooperative fishers, excluding both individual fishers and traditional local leaders (the Patronato), and local fishers' knowledge was ignored in management decisions. Finally, there was inadequate auditing of HCFR, and it lacked financial transparency and accountability. As a result, HCRF, and, by association, the first management plan, became unpopular, which led to increasing non-compliance with the regulations.

How far did the second management plan meet the criteria of ACM? ACM is an amalgam of co-management (CM) and adaptive management (AM). The elements of CM have been described above. AM is a recognition that since we cannot know for certain how ecosystems function, we must accept uncertainty as a permanent feature of our understanding of complex socio-ecological systems (SESs). AM argues that the complexity of SESs is their strength, in that their diversity is the key to their ability to survive/thrive in the face of constant threats and challenges. This ability to survive/thrive is what AM terms 'resilience', and indicates that the role of marine management is not to achieve any particular fixed target for stocks (such as MSY), but to enhance the adaptive capacity of SESs so that they can handle threats without collapsing. The AM adage of 'learning by doing' signifies that resilience is gained through conducting experiments and monitoring the results closely. But such adaptive experiments are expensive, time-consuming, and often opposed by defensive governments and vested socio-economic interests. So AM needs a strong grounding in public support – i.e., AM requires CM to gain the degree of public support necessary to implement AM.

In our judgement, the second management plan partially lived up to these specifications of ACM, in that it improved the quality of CM that had been achieved in the first management plan, whilst adding elements of AM. The improved quality of CM included more participative mechanisms in the second plan than in the first; an enhanced auditing system which enabled stakeholders to share information about the performance of HCRF, and greater sensitivity to the needs of local communities and fishers' livelihoods. On the other hand, HCRF still monopolised the decision-making agenda and did not ensure that all stakeholders were present at the meetings. As for the AM element in ACM, traces of AM began to appear during the last year of the first plan, but it did not assume a prominent role until 2008, when, although not expressly endorsing AM principles such as complexity, diversity, resilience, and the adaptive cycle of SESs, the second management plan employed AM techniques such as adaptive capacity; learning by doing; social learning; experimental methods, monitoring, feedback loops; and local knowledge. For example, AM was evident in the greater flexibility shown by HCRF in removing some of the limits on fishing in the MPA; in the alternative community projects and household livelihood options tested by HCRF; in HCRF's incorporation of fishers' ecological knowledge into the decision-making; in the increased extent of social learning among stakeholders (as a result of environmental organisations such as SERNA, Opwall, WWF and TNC, providing the Garifuna with environmental education); and in local leaders' efforts pressing for participatory governance in the CCMPA. However, the extent of AM was restricted because monitoring data obtained by Opwall was not included in management deliberations; expert knowledge and hi-tech discourses still dominated meetings; HCRF failed to fund training for community members to understand the complexity of SESs; reduced funding meant key leaders (e.g., from TNC) had to leave the CCMPA area; double-loop learning did not occur extensively enough to change societal values (Diduck et al, 2005); monitoring procedures were weakened because of inadequate analysis of data; and the self-interested response of HCRF to crises such as the military coup in 2010 suggested that its resilience might be more visible in its own survival rather than that of CCMPA.

On the second question (how effective were the two management plans in achieving CCMPA’s ecological and socio-economic objectives?), we found that the first management plan was more successful than the second management plan on the ecological test, but less successful on the socio-economic test. On the ecological test, the first plan improved the ecological health of the CCMPA in some respects (e.g., shellfish stocks) though not in others (e.g., finfish stocks), while the second plan relaxed some of the restrictions, thereby putting more stocks at risk since displaced shell-fishers targeted finfish. On the socio-economic test, while the first management plan reduced fishers' dependence on natural resources, it was less able to find adequate livelihood alternatives. This was partly because there was insufficient investment in tourism infrastructure; partly because of weak social capital in the communities; and partly because of the inherent volatility of the ecotourism industry. The second plan was more flexible, significantly improving the socio-economic position of fishers by reducing the number and extent of no-take-zones, and introducing more innovative modes of alternative livelihood strategies. Yet there was still a lack of equity between and within communities in the distribution of these benefits.

Whether the ecological and socio-economic performance of the CCMPA would have been improved if either CM or ACM (or both) had been more faithfully implemented, is a moot point. Our view is that other things being equal, implementing CM and/or ACM faithfully is likely to improve an MPA's performance. But since other things are never equal, a particular MPA may perform extremely well in the absence of either CM or ACM. Nevertheless, MPAs could well benefit from taking account of at least some of the principles of CM and ACM. The following nine principles (five CM and four AM principles) are particularly pertinent:

  • Participation: improving the participatory capacity of MPA communities would reduce socio-economic inequality and over-dependence on key individuals;
  • Empowerment: generating a sense of ownership over marine reserves would encourage community-level sanctions and greater compliance with regulations;
  • Legitimacy: legitimising MPA governance by greater responsiveness to stakeholders (not just legal authorisation) would give more standing to the regulatory framework;
  • Accountability: making management accountable to resource users for their decisions would counter corruption;
  • Transparency: openness about decisions and interactions between managers and other bodies would improve community trust in MPA governance;
  • Adaptability: greater ability of MPA managers to respond to changing circumstances would enable them to reflect the widest possible range of ideas and experience;
  • Monitoring: systematic monitoring (including fishers' self-monitoring) would help to evaluate the effectiveness of MPA management policies;
  • Feedback: continual feedback on the effects of policies would facilitate the evaluation process; and
  • Learning: continuous 'learning by doing' would develop stakeholder capacity for understanding MPAs' needs.


1 The first management plan, originally set to apply until 2009, was replaced by the second management plan in 2008, which was prepared after four stakeholder workshops in May-August 2007.

2 The HCRF is a not-for-profit organization created by Honduran business investors and financed by conservation organizations, including WWF and Opwall (Brondo and Woods, 2007).

3 Opwall is a private sector organization that recruits UG and PG volunteer researchers annually to carry out conservation field work in nine developing countries, including Honduras. Natalie Bown’s doctoral research was part-funded by Opwall.

4 The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is an international conservation organization leading the MBRS MAR programme (Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Programme) involving Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to promote ecological connectivity.

For more information:

Tim Gray, Newcastle University, UK. Email: tim.gray [at]