The Vezo people who populate coastal Madagascar and its nearby islands live in small, migratory communities and rely on the ocean for sustenance. As their population growth has increased, however, they have begun to face the problem of overfishing in their waters. They are now collaborating with a conservation-focused Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called Blue Ventures to develop a management plan to address both conservation and family planning issues.
According to a report by Blue Ventures, an international demand for Madagascar fish emerged in 2002, creating a market in which local fishers could sell their catch globally. Among other things, this created an explosion of octopus fishing in the area, making the octopus, an organism that plays an enormous role in traditional Vezo diets and livelihoods, rare. This crash was emblematic of the issues of over-harvesting and declining catch populations that the Vezo have been dealing with for decades.
Vezo communities have been growing rapidly. Most Vezo women have their first baby before they turn 18, and many go on to have more than ten children throughout their lives. In 2002, only 29 percent of married Vezo women were able access modern birth control methods. As their populations grew, the Vezo began to place increasing pressures on the marine resources that their ancestors had historically harvested.
In the past, says Garth Cripps, a specialist on conservation near coastal communities, when fish or octopus populations began to get low the Vezo would simply pick up and leave—move on to another area that still had plentiful resources. By 2002, however, when octopus populations crashed around Vezo villages, there was almost nowhere left for these fishers to find more catch.
Inspired by the effects that Vezo migrations have had on coastal fisheries, the Vezo worked with Blue Ventures to experiment with a strategy called temporary fishery closures. In 2004, they shut down fishing operations in a small area in southwestern Madagascar in order to allow octopus populations to re-stabilize after a period of intensive harvesting. The program was extremely successful, and by 2006 a large marine area now known as Velondriake (“to live with the sea”) became the first-ever community-managed fishery sustained by the temporary closure model.
The Blue Ventures website reports that after a fishery closure, fishers catch double the amount of octopus than they did previously.
While this plan is sustaining wildlife populations and increasing economic benefits in Vezo communities, Blue Ventures has also collaborated with locals to spread education about birth control and family planning in the Velondriake area. The first family planning clinic was located in the center of the region, but clinics spread north and south quickly. In the most isolated villages, Vezo women have begun making a profit selling birth control to their neighbors.
Finding the connection between reproductive health and fisheries health, and addressing both issues at once, has been the key to this program’s success.
“By combining sexual and reproductive health and environmental education, Blue Ventures has garnered greater acceptance and engagement by both men and women,” states the Blue Ventures report. The authors add that this education is allowing the Vezo people “to base decisions on an understanding of how population growth affects their livelihoods and how their environment impacts their health.”