A local woman in Madagascar carries octopus, a staple of the local economy. (Blue Ventures)
An NGO that helps impoverished communities in Madagascar is a finalist in this year’s prestigious Buckminster Fuller Challenge. Alasdair Harris, founder of Blue Ventures, tells host Bruce Gellerman that his project protects coral reefs and fisheries while providing a sustainable income for poor communities in Madagascar.
[BIRDS CHIRPING, OUTDOOR SOUNDS]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman - and right now, I’m at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a National Historic Landmark and heaven for birders. It’s America’s first landscaped cemetery - as much park as the final resting place for thousands of distinguished people including Buckminster Fuller – architect, mathematician, poet, visionary and inventor. His geodesic dome is the lightest, strongest, most cost effective structure ever devised.
Buckminster Fuller’s tombstone at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)
Buckminster Fuller died on July 1, 1983. And his tombstone, which I’m standing in front of, is a simple affair – two small slabs of granite both inscribed with the words: “Call me trimtab - Bucky." So, what’s a trimtab and why was it so important to the life of this extraordinary person that he would choose it as his epitaph?
Well, for an answer - we turn to Alasdair Harris - Project leader and founder of Blue Ventures. Harris and his organization are finalists in this year’s Buckminster Fuller Challenge. It’s the world’s most prestigious award for socially responsible design. So Mr. Harris - what's a trimtab?
HARRIS: Well, a trimtab is a tiny device on a ship’s rudder that can influence the rudder and turn the whole ship around. And we use it to demonstrate the huge role that a small component of a machine can have in affecting some pretty major changes, in this case, the direction of the ship.
GELLERMAN: Well, Buckminster Fuller used to talk about the Spaceship Earth. What’s your trimtab that you should be a finalist in this award competition?
HARRIS: Well our trimtab is we work in the oceans - we’re marine conservationists. In Madagascar, it’s one of the world’s great biodiversity conservation priorities; it’s one of the hottest of the hot biodiversity hotspots. That means it has unparalleled levels of species facing huge, huge threats because of human impact, because of habitat loss, etc. But it’s also one of the poorest countries on Earth. I think, according to a recent assessment, it’s actually the fourth poorest on Earth.
So, when we’re dealing with this level of pervasive poverty, we really can’t argue as conservationists that we need to protect biodiversity for its own right, because communities’ needs are paramount. These are often, in our case, subsistence fishermen that depend on biodiversity, coral reefs perhaps, for their survival.
So we approach conservation from the perspective of poverty alleviation. We try to demonstrate that managing a fishery responsibly, for instance, doesn’t just help the fishery recover - that can actually reap dividends for the fishes themselves, and it can mean that there are long-term profits that can accumulate. If we can demonstrate those profits, if we can measure those profits as we do, then we can actually start to work with the supply chain and get conservation to build momentum and pay for itself.
GELLERMAN: Well, where does the money for this project come from? I mean, it’s a poor country.
Madagascar is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. (Blue Ventures)
HARRIS: We fund all of our work - most of our work, I should say - ourselves, by our underlying non-profit social enterprise. So, we run ecotourism projects all around the world where we take paying volunteers that want to learn about conservation, learn about scuba diving, and take a part in our research and education programs. They give us the money that we need to invest in our conservation programs.
But, at the actual project level, the money comes from the fishery itself, so we’re managing fisheries more sustainably, the fisheries thus become more profitable, and then we can convince the supply chain that it makes sense in that way.
And what we’ve recently done through a long-term seven-year study that’s involved, actually, weighing over a quarter of a million octopus, if you can imagine that, we’ve actually proven that when villages get together and start managing their fisheries themselves, they can actually reap dividends and it’s profitable for them. Using this approach, we created the first community-run marine protected area in Madagascar.
GELLERMAN: Well, I’m looking at the criteria for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge. It says an entry has to be comprehensive, I guess you’re comprehensive. It has to be looking at future trends, ecologically responsible, feasible, verifiable and replicable. Is your project replicable?
HARRIS: Exactly. Because we can integrate these marine reserves into markets and get them to pay for themselves, yes it is replicable where there is a market. That one particular fisheries model has grown from one to over 110 sites in Madagascar alone. And just last week I was working in a very remote island in the middle of the Indian Ocean called Rodrigues which is a far-flung outpost of the Republic of Mauritius because their government is also interested in replicating it.
And we’ve also had visitors from a country called Comoros, which is somewhere that you probably haven’t heard of, and several places in East Africa as well. So it’s very exciting to see the international as well as the national scaling beyond that example in Madagascar.
GELLERMAN: I understand that there is another component to your project, and that’s something very far afield from fish, it’s family planning. How’s that?
HARRIS: That’s right. In many parts of the developing world, rural poverty is often driven, at least in part, by an unmet demand for reproductive health services. And this has severely adverse consequences, both for public health and for ecological sustainability. In Madagascar, the birth rate there is 6.7 children per woman, more than half the population is under 15.
This is a big driver of biodiversity loss. In the last three years alone, we’ve increased a metric called the CPR, or the contraceptive prevalence rate, in that one region of southern Madagascar from around 10 to over 40 percent. So that means that we now have, for the first time, women who are able to space their children. They’re empowered with the ability to choose. So, indirectly that’s having a huge impact on our conservation goals. It’s not a conventional approach to conservation, but it’s certainly a very practical and a pragmatic one.
GELLERMAN: Buckminster Fuller would have been proud! Alasdair Harris’s organization, Blue Ventures, is a finalist in this year's Buckminster Fuller Challenge.
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