Voices of the Lagoon - Local and Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Coastal Communities in the Western Indian Ocean Region Islands of Mauritius & Rodrigues

Ravi Nunkoo (ELP 2021) | Lecturer, Middlesex University, Mauritius Campus, Mauritiu

“Do you know how many types of ‘pwason kato’ (parrotfish) there are? How many species? There are over 100 species. They (hotel operators) don’t even know how many ‘lapas’ are there in the Balaclava Marine Park, BMP, what types of ‘ros’ (rocks) are in the BMP (“ros manuel, souval, parasol, plat”) We know which areas the whales, turtles and dolphins visit the BMP. We can tell the tides by looking at the moon. I want to share my knowledge of the sea to re-build a sustainable Mauritiu” (Balaclava Marine Park, BMP fisherman)1

“There were no hotels, or a road in the BMP, there used to be a ‘laliann’ called ‘laliann san finn’, it grew on the beach, it doesn’t have any roots or seeds. Today you can’t even find a piece of them anywhere in BMP due to the hotel developments. All the ‘ros’ in the BMP lagoon have changed.  There was a ‘laliann batatran’ that stopped erosion. You used to have a rock and coral barrier that prevented erosion from high tides. Today, this is no longer here due to the hotels” (Balaclava Marine Park, BMP fisherman)2

Figure 1. Traditional ‘golet’ (pole and line) artisanal fishing in the Balaclava Marine Park lagoon, Mauritius. Small wooden boats, ‘pirog'’ can be seen in the background © Ravi Nunkoo (2011)

‘pwason kato’: parrotfish, Scaridae family 

‘lapas’: boat pass in the lagoon, gap(s) in reef

‘ro’: rocks                                                                                 

‘laliann’: native vines, creepers rarely found along coastal regions of Mauritiu

Figure 2: Map of Mascarene islands in the Western Indian Ocean showing Mauritius & Rodrigues islands (IUCN, 2004)

Mauritius and Rodrigues (Figure 2), Small Island Developing States (SIDS), form part of the Western Indian Ocean Mascarene Islands, one of the 25 internationally recognised biodiversity ‘hotspots’ (UNDP Mauritius, 2021). Extensive reef systems surround all of the islands of the archipelago; Rodrigues, in particular, harbors a large reef expanse, three times the size of the island (UNDP Mauritius, 2021).

In SIDS such as Mauritius and Rodrigues, biodiversity provides the building blocks for marine, coastal ecosystems and the foundation for the islands’ economy (e.g. fisheries and tourism), culture and traditions (Stock, 2014; UNDP Mauritius, 2021).

The islands are ecosystems of global significance but they are at risk and marine biodiversity is threatened (WRI, 2011; Secretariat of the CBD, 2021; Stock, 2014; UNESCO, 2021b). The Mauritian islands’ people livelihoods are directly dependent on these fragile marine ecosystems for food, income, and coastal protection (WRI, 2011). Thus, protection of the islands’ marine biodiversity and ecosystems is essential for sustainable development (Secretariat of the CBD, 2021; Stock, 2014; UNESCO, 2021b).

Mauritius and Rodrigues coastal communities have built strong links to their marine environment through Traditional and Local Ecological Knowledge (TEK, LEK) passed on from generation to generation (Berkes, 1999, 2012; Berkes et al. 2000; Johannes, 1981; Johannes et al. 2000; Drew, 2005; Drew & Henne, 2006; Nunkoo, 2011) where sustainable marine practices, e.g. fishing, is a way of life that goes beyond the means to earning a living (Van Ginkel, 2001; Nunkoo, 2011) as shown in Figure 1. The Western Indian Ocean, Mauritius and Rodrigues seascape are ‘bio-cultural’ entities which include both the natural and cultural diversity of marine ecosystems and traditional coastal people (Figure 1).

Traditional and Local ecological knowledge (TEK, LEK), is defined as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice and belief evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (Berkes et al. 2000) and there is today a growing appreciation of the value of traditional knowledge that can make a significant contribution to sustainable development (Adams et al. 2014; CBD, 2021a).

Although Mauritius was the first country to sign and ratify the CBD in 1992, there is a poor understanding of the islands’ Marine TEK which is under-researched; yet under Article 8(j) of the Convention, Parties are required to “respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application”. 

Marine TEK in Mauritius and Rodrigues is in fear of becoming lost (Johannes, 1978; UNESCO, 2021a,b) as fishers’ children no longer aspire to be fishermen and hence, the artisanal fishers who are the custodians, creators and transmitters of Marine TEK, are becoming an ageing population (Nunkoo, 2011).

By integrating Marine Conservation and TEK (Drew, 2005; Drew & Henne, 2006), this ethnoecological knowledge will make a significant contribution to the conservation and sustainable use of marine and coastal biodiversity in Mauritius, Rodrigues and the islands’ communities that highly depend upon them; safeguarding TEK for future island generations, two fundamental objectives of the CBD (Aichi Biodiversity Target 18 and Article 8(j), CBD, 2021a, 2021b); be invaluable for managing and conserving coastal, marine resources (Aichi Biodiversity Target 18, CBD, 2021; Aswani, 2014), in developing a TEK indicator and baseline; and can also make a significant contribution when planning Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in data-poor (Johannes, 1998) SIDS such as Mauritius prioritising sustainable development, hence strengthening coastal community resilience through ecological, social and cultural diversity.

By exploring the intimate relationship between traditional coastal communities, people and place; we make visible and share the rich Marine TEK that exists in the seas around Mauritius and Rodrigues which is in danger of being lost. Through strengthening their voice and in supporting local coastal communities in SIDS such as Mauritius and Rodrigues in bringing their TEK together and to document and articulate their TEK in ways that make a real difference for future island generations. Integrating local coastal communities TEK into current Marine Conservation practice in SIDS such as Mauritius and Rodrigues such as developing a TEK indicator and baseline is essential in strengthening coastal community resilience through ecological, social and cultural diversity.


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