Faith In Conservation
--Ragunath Padmanabhan
5 minute read
Oct 1, 2015

Changing Worlds

O children of Adam! . .. eat and drink: but waste not by excess
for Allah loveth not the wasters.-Holy Qur'an, Surah 7:31

In 1989, when communism fell in Mongolia, there were three registered Buddhist monks. Today, along with the government and the World Bank, Buddhism and the many revived monasteries area fundamental part of the development and environmental program for the country. The sounds of the explosions could be heard for miles. Even at night it was possible to spot the giant plume of water shooting up into the air, casting up its bounty into the night sky. Then, like sharks, the little boats would swoop in and trawl up the dead and dying fish-and not just fish. For anything that was swimming in the waters off the coast of Tanzania on those evenings when the dynamite fishermen went fishing, died in the blast.

For centuries, the Muslim fishermen of the Tanzanian coast had fished these waters. Based on islands such as Zanzibar or Masali, they depended on the sea and their harvests for their livelihoods and for the survival of their communities. Deeply religious, these poor communities eked out a living generation after generation. Then someone introduced dynamite. The results were dramatic. For centuries the fishermen had had to hope that they were casting their nets in the right places, deep enough and wide enough to make a decent night's catch. Now, by throwing sticks of dynamite into the sea, they could haul in almost guaranteed catches and it took so little time.

What they did not know (and did not think was their business) was the terrible destruction they were doing, not just to the fragile ecosystem of coral and reefs but also to their own long-term survival. Dynamite wreaks havoc on the delicate balance of nature-of which fishermen are part. It indiscriminately takes out the young fish along with the mature ones, whereas traditional fishing leaves the young to slip through the nets and breed later. The explosion also destroys the very environment within which the fish live. It kills plankton, breaks up reefs and corals, and wipes out the vast array of plant life and other species upon which the shoals offish depend for their survival. Ultimately, the fish shoals die away and the fishermen and their communities are left with decreasing catches or have to travel much farther out to sea in order to find any fish at all. No one benefits in the long run. But it was dramatic and fun and for a while yielded high returns.

The question therefore became how to help the fishermen understand the long-term problems they were causing, and then stop them. It was the kind of environmental issue that many governments around the world were, and are, trying to address. At first, the Tanzanian government and associated environmental agencies went the usual route: they launched an education program. But like the majority of people in marginalized communities (or indeed perhaps any communities), few fishermen either read or pay much attention to government leaflets, and even fewer looked at those produced by NGO groups, no matter how worthy.

Then came legislation: dynamite fishing was officially banned. But again, such communities take quite a pride in ignoring or outwitting such laws. Then a group of scientists, sent by an international body concerned with species loss, arrived on one of the main islands. They brought all their own food and tents and camped out in the wild rather than living with any of the fishing communities. After three weeks spent studying the issue they came to an extraordinary conclusion. The only solution was for the government to have armed patrols capable of hunting down, or at the very least deterring, the dynamite fishermen. These scientists ostensibly focused on the survival of species, but they made only passing reference to one of the most important species of all: human beings.

In part this was because in choosing where they stayed and what they ate they had not made any effort to know the fishermen and their families. But partly it sprang from a strange problem that bedevils certain approaches to ecology and environment: that of ignoring human communities, which are of course as much part of the environment as plants and animals. To its credit, the government only half-heartedly applied the draconian measures-not particularly wanting to shoot its own citizens, even if they were acting illegally. So the problem dragged on.

Then a solution of startling simplicity was developed.

The fishing villages of the East African coast are almost all Muslim, and as such they are organized under a religious leadership of sheiks who have enormous authority in the communities. And unlike government officials in far-off capital cities (and particularly unlike well-meaning foreigners from European and American NGOs), the sheiks are very much part of those communities. The basis of the lives of these fishing families is Islam, with its Qur'an, its Shariah laws, and the traditions and customs of the faith. This is what holds the lives of the people together, and this is what provides the worldview that they consider to be paramount.

In 1998, in a joint venture with several NGOs (CARE International, WWF International, ARC, and the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science), the sheiks on Masali island came together to explore Islamic teachings about the appropriate use of God's creation. From these studies the sheiks drew the conclusion that dynamite fishing was illegal according to Islam. They used Qur'anic texts such as "O children of Adam! ... eat and drink: but waste not by excess for Allah loveth not the wasters" (Surah 7:31). Stories about the Prophet Muhammad's own actions denouncing waste (see chapter 5) were told to convince the fishermen and their communities that what they were doing was against the express wishes of God.

In 2000, the Muslim leadership of Misali and surrounding smaller islands banned dynamite fishing and taught that anyone who ignored this ban risked incurring the wrath of God and endangering their immortal soul. Dynamite fishing was dramatically curtailed. Three years later, in collaboration with scientists and ecologists but guided by the profound insights of their own faith, the communities are developing sustainable fishing. What government laws and the threat of violence failed to do, Islam in partnership with the environmental insights of conservation bodies managed to achieve. And it did so for the simple reason that it made sense within the people's culture and worldview, and it drew not just upon ecological information but on a profound understanding of human nature in the sacred texts.

Excerpt from the book Faith in Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment by Martin Palmer with Victoria Finlay.

Posted by Ragunath Padmanabhan on Oct 1, 2015