Conserving the global commons can mean grappling with complex issues, studying the science underlying them, and making far-reaching commitments. But it can also involve measuring crabs in a hot village square.
At the end of June, delegates to the Sixth Global Environment Facility (GEF) Assembly in Da Nang, Viet Nam, did both. After two days of intensive meetings, involving heads of government, ministers, and top scientists and businessmen, a group of them headed off to the nearby Cham Islands to witness conservation, literally, at ground level.
The islands are home to a community-led initiative which has succeeded in saving their remarkable land crabs (Gecarcoidea Ialandii), a species that lives in caves in the islands' damp forests and only goes to the coast to lay its eggs in hollows in the rocks filled with seawater.
The initiative was made possible by the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP), implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. So far it has provided over $580 million to more than 21,500 projects around the world in grants of just $50,000 or less.
Taken together, the grants - which are given directly to community-based organizations and civil society organizations - have so far supported 8.41 million hectares of protected areas, conserved 1,803 significant species, brought 900,000 hectares of land under practices that counter its degradation, and placed 32,000 hectares of marine and coastal areas under sustainable management.
Yoko Watanabe, Global Manager of the programme, says “it provides finance as well as technical expertise and really empowers local communities to be agents of change in addressing environment and livelihood issues. Small grants, but big impacts – that's what we are!”
She calls the land crab project – on the eight small Cham Islands, totaling just 15 sq km – “a very innovative initiative by the local community.”
The islands are set in a rich marine reserve – host to 277 species of coral, 270 of fish, and 97 of mollusk – but less than a decade ago the large black-backed crabs were in sharp decline, overharvested as delicacies for visiting tourists.
Back in 2009, the authorities suspended catching and selling the crabs, but without success. They continued to be caught and sold illegally. So then - in cooperation with the help of the GEF SGP and the nearby mainland city of Hoi An - the local Tan Hiep Communal Association of Farmers devised a way of managing the crabs sustainably. This set up a community group, now with 43 members, to harvest the crabs. The group meets at the end of each month to monitor and review how things are going and decide how many can be caught in the following month. There is an annual maximum catch of 10,000 crabs.
Only mature crabs can be sold – the rest must be returned to the forest – which is how the delegates came to be helping to measure them. Any measuring less than 7cm across their shells have to be released back into the forest. The bigger ones are labeled with a highly adhesive sticker and go to the nearby market.
Studies at Vietnamese universities have shown that these community-imposed restrictions are conserving three-quarters of the islands' crabs each year, with the result that their population is now growing. Prices have more than quadrupled since the scheme was introduced, greatly increasing the harvester's incomes, and they, in turn, pay a fee of some US$1.75 per kilogram of crab to fund it.
The land crab is seen as a “bridge” species that connects the islands' forests with the ocean. It is a biological indicator of the health of both habitats, and its recovery has improved them. This, in turn, has increased ecotourism - and thus incomes and the islands' economy, since almost a third of the islands' households are directly involved in it
“On the one hand the land crabs are protected, on the other hand, local people still have livelihoods,” says Chu Manh Trinh, the representative of the marine reserve who guided the delegates round the project.
The GEF SGP project ended three years ago, but the sustainable management scheme has continued to flourish and has gained a national and international reputation, as the delegates' visit testified.
Stefan Schwager, who represents the Swiss government on the GEF Council said it was “refreshing” for Council members “to go to places where you see what's happening on the ground, meet and hear the people, and see it is beneficial for the environment and also at the same time for the local population”.