Reassessing Marine Protected Areas and the climate crisis

By Anu Priya Babu

Illustration credits: Prabha Mallya and Current Conservation
The urgency to combat what is now termed the ‘climate crisis’ has led to a paradigm shift in global discussions with COP28 in Dubai becoming a significant event. Notably, the attempt to re-center oceans in climate strategies highlights the controversial role of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in addressing climate change and biodiversity loss. MPAs, which are designated oceanic regions geared toward long-term conservation, have been promoted as vital tools in stemming biodiversity loss as well as in addressing climate change related vulnerabilities. They are promoted as buffers against climate-driven disturbances, offering refuge for vulnerable marine species and ecosystems. From coral reefs to seagrass meadows, MPA promoters argue that these bounded areas preserve critical habitats, support marine biodiversity and carbon sequestration. However, this view hides the long-persisting challenges around MPAs as conservation tools, especially in the global south, and in regions like the northern Indian Ocean, where a complex interplay of environmental, social, and economic factors call into question increasing MPA coverage targets as blanket climate solutions.
In India, the marine conservation landscape has revealed multiple problems. Tropical fisheries economies, coastal communities of small-scale fishers, and myriad marine ecosystems stand at a precarious juncture due not just to climate change impacts, but other historical factors that impact millions of lives. Overexploitation, top-down governance practices and exclusionary MPA models have contributed to ecological instability, exacerbated conflict and caused economic and social distress across coastlines of the country. Moreover, as we all know, conservation in India also encounters major challenges like skewed funding priorities, a fragmented and fortress approach to conservation, gender disparities in governance, as well as resource and capacity constraints among the most marginalised and resource-dependent custodians of these waters. Recognising these challenges is vital, and a holistic approach that includes comprehensive efforts to protect the diverse marine ecosystems of the country is the need of the hour.
In such a  complex scenario, the traditional model of MPAs under Indian law has proven restrictive, as it often neglects the rights and livelihoods of local communities. To address these challenges, we need a paradigm shift such as those engendered by the processes of creating and sustaining  Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs). By engaging communities in the sustainable management and conservation of marine resources in their proximity, LMMA-style initiatives hold the potential to truly empower local communities in ways that respect local knowledge systems and practices with diverse streams of scientific knowledge in collaborative resource management arrangements. The adoption of LMMAs stems from communities’ recognition of potential benefits, encompassing the recovery of natural resources, enhanced food security, improved governance, access to information and services, health benefits, secure sea and land tenure, biocultural diversity, and strengthened community rights. In the realm of climate change, LMMA initiatives are critically important, contributing not only to marine biodiversity conservation but also aiding communities in adapting to climate impacts, unlike traditional top-down resource management methods. 
At Dakshin, we strive to overcome the challenges embedded in the Indian marine conservation landscape through our promotion of integrated and community-centred approaches. Our interventions focus on promoting  plural conservation knowledge and on-ground actions always in tandem with the wellbeing of small-scale fishers. In  the climate action realm, we underscore the significance of designing equitable blue carbon pathways, placing emphasis on developing solutions to prevent injustice, carbon-related exploitation while collaboratively designing sustainable and fair carbon pathways crucial for a SSF-centric development in India. We also emphasise the active involvement of local SSF communities, especially women and marginalised actors, fostering grassroots leadership for ethical management of coastal and marine systems.
Harnessing the potential of approaches such as inclusive LMMAs and fostering ethical collaboration among diverse resource-dependent actors is key to addressing the complex challenges facing marine conservation and climate action in India. We aim to assist decision-makers, spanning government, community institutions at local, state and national scales to engage in concerted efforts that reconcile conflicting goals and work towards socially appropriate and just blue economy models. A community-based approach to oceans ensures not just ecological sustainability but also promotes the resilience and well-being of millions dependent on the ocean.