Had a very interesting chat last week along with some of my ECEHH colleagues with Vik Mohan, who is a GP in Exeter four days a week and spends one day a week working for the NGO Blue Ventures. Blue Ventures started out as a marine conservation organisation, involved in ecological reef surveys performed by volunteers and ecotourism. Close involvement with the local Vezo community started of by chance almost, when confronted with declining catches of octopus (a main artisanal fishery in Madagascar), it was suggested by Blue Venture marine biologists to close of parts of the reef during the breeding season. When the locals found out that this led to greatly increased catches, they were keen to extend this approach to other fisheries.
Asking around in the local community to identify what social and medical problems were most significant, birth control was very high on the list. One of the main threats to stocks was the rapid rise of the coastal population, which almost exclusively depends on fishing as a source of protein. The population explosion is of course an issue that runs much deeper than fisheries alone; children as young as 11 were having babies; the average woman giving birth to 6-7 babies. This led to a very popular local Community health program with a focus on sexual and reproductive health. Offering women (and men) a choice of having less children can greatly affect the quality of life, with more sustainable resource use also having positive effects on the quality of the environment. This integrative approach to the improvement of the environment and human health is proving to be incredibly successful. The recognition that health problems, population growth, environmental damage and food insecurity are very much interconnected seems logical, but this is often not how NGOs work.
Community interventions also can have unexpected consequences as Vik illustrated with an anecdote on the introduction of condoms. These were completely unknown to the local population, but the resourceful fishermen soon discovered that they were (also) excellent for waterproofing their flash lights, allowing them to go fishing for squid at night. A bylaw therefore needed to be put in place to stop overfishing of this stock. The ECEHH is planning a follow-up meeting with Vik to discuss where our interests and expertise in the study of the links between the environment and human health overlap and what joint projects could be developed.
The development of sustainable aquaculture is a major focus of Blue Ventures: for instance of sea cucumbers, a delicacy in East-Asia.