Many indigenous people have survived in a harmonious relationship with coastal-marine environments for hundreds of years. From the Māori of New Zealand, through the Ikoots people in the Mexican tropical Pacific, to the Miꞌkmaq in the Atlantic of Canada. Indigenous groups from different parts of the world have demonstrated to have successful coastal-marine management practices. Thus, Indigenous marine governance (IMG) is increasingly recognized as a body of knowledge that can meaningfully contribute to seas, oceans, and coasts sustainability. Moreover, today, the same Indigenous nations reaffirm their right to participate in contemporary environmental governance structures (e.g. marine spatial planning).
Although each Indigenous culture has unique practices for using coastal-marine spaces, overall, Indigenous success is explained because they have understood that their continuity depends on healthy ecosystems. The Indigenous idea of development differs from the classic development paradigm due to its comprehensive, philosophical, and spiritual nature that considers the values of reciprocity, community, balance, and solidarity. Indigenous development vision understands that human beings should live within the limits of nature. Thus, Indigenous philosophy is living in harmony with the mother earth cycles, the cosmos life, and history, as well as respecting all forms of terrestrial and marine existence, something that the Quechuas in Ecuador call Sumak Kawsay or good living.
Contemporary marine governance strategies have similarities with Indigenous thought. For instance, the hegemonic idea of preserving marine ecosystems’ integrity. This is a belief promoted by marine spatial planning (MSP). MSP is ecosystem-based. It uses scientific knowledge to foster the protection of natural processes and the ecosystem structure and functions. In IMG, the same belief is understood as the practice of ancestral knowledge to live in balance with the natural cycles. Although there are similarities between IMG and MSP, Indigenous knowledge dates from hundreds of years, so new approaches to marine governance such as MSP can strengthen by learning from the extensive experience of IMG.
The Indigenous holistic philosophy is a field of learning for MSP. The classic management of terrestrial and marine systems is based on a fragmented view of space. There is a specific management policy for each environment. Thus, land planning has adopted terrestrial spatial planning, coastal zone, integrated coastal zone management, marine ecosystems, and marine spatial planning. However, land-sea interactions are closely intertwined by socioeconomic, biophysical, and geochemical processes. Therefore, coastal-marine ecosystems should be managed in an integrated way. However, it is not possible through the classic lens that fragments space.
On the other hand, Indigenous thought has developed a holistic world cosmovision. The old proverb “the sea starts in the mountains” has been well understood by the Indigenous nations and reflects their deep knowledge about the connection between land and sea ecosystems. Within this vision, a common thread unites sea with land, constituting a physical substratum that, in turn, joins to the intangible and spiritual. Konkaak people (an Indigenous fishing group in the north of México) illustrate this connection in their view of the earth’s origin. The Konkaak say that there was only the sea, the sky, and the marine animals in the beginning. One day, the animals tried to go down to the ocean bottom to get sand to create the land, but none succeeded. Then, the sea turtle’s turn came, and after a great effort, it was able to carry sand in its nails, forming the land where we live. In this way, Indigenous peoples express their unified vision of life, whether from oral tradition or daily practices.
MSP also has a lot to learn from the Indigenous approach of management based on local. Overall, MSP has adopted a post-political logic where a top-down approach dominates the planning process. The post-political processes are run by the government, foster a priori or fixed goals, and prioritizes national and international interests over the coastal communities’ interests. However, local stakeholders’ view is essential for MSP since the local communities are the ones that experience the benefits or consequences of the marine plan.
By contrast, the Indigenous strategy of marine spatial management embraces the local context. For Indigenous nations, understanding the environmental, social, productive, cultural, spiritual, and governance dimensions of surroundings is the basis for decision-making. Thus, the local knowledge and the community’s collective interest (hopes, fears, beliefs, and traditions) shape contextualized management strategies. For instance, Māori people in the Cook Islands practice the Ra’ui mutu kore. This is a marine resources management type where the Ui ariki and the Aronga mana (traditional leaders) define fishing exclusion areas. The objective is to ensure ecosystem health and community welfare. This traditional practice appeals to leaders’ authority. Although the Ra’ui mutu kore is not a written mandate, it has been successful because it is based on respect for community traditions.
MSP has a lot to learn from Indigenous people, especially about the Indigenous worldview and their management sensitive to the local environment. Indigenous people are living proof that the knowledge they have forged for thousands of years has successfully kept them in harmony with marine ecosystems. Thus, we have the challenge of integrating this valuable knowledge into modern marine governance. Always respecting the Indigenous nations’ traditions and with the humility of someone who does not know everything.
Photo credit: Pavel Martinez Calderon