People, Oceans, Livelihoods

Applying a social-ecological lens to conservation and development

By Tania Devaiah and Puja Mitra

Over one-third of the world’s population lives within 100 km of an oceanic coast. The ocean is the Earth’s biggest ecosystem, providing food, livelihoods and even the air we breathe, making it one of the most precious commodities we need to protect. For a peninsular country like India especially – and similar coastal or island countries around the world with large communities dependent on the ocean and its ecosystem for their existence and livelihood – coastal policies and action have become an important tool to safeguard the future.

Mainstream media reports have increasingly begun to highlight the impact of plastic pollution, overfishing, climate change, coastal development and irresponsible tourism on our oceans. Government and private scientific research groups, institutions, independent scientists and ecologists have been studying marine species, coral reefs, coastal and marine ecosystems across India, making available a vast amount of information that should be influencing our policies and making citizens aware of the importance of conserving our oceans.

We use the phrase ‘should be’ because despite this data existing, the average person in India is still fairly disconnected from their marine heritage, and engagement with marine spaces is expensive and, therefore, elitist in nature. There is a proliferation of water sports, dolphin watching, scuba diving and boat trips across our coast, yet, few are aware of the complexity and fragility of our marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

This is largely due to data being too complex and, more often than not, inaccessible. Despite India being a peninsula, our education system has little mention of marine and oceanic ecosystems. Traditional dominance of the global North coupled with an intense focus on terrestrial systems and communities, has led to terrestrial spaces dominating the discourse even in conservation circles.

How, then, can one expect to understand and plan to protect/ conserve/ use an environment/ ecosystem that one has no real understanding of?

A Coastal Case Study: Goa, India

Located on the Western coast of India, Goa is India’s smallest state in terms of area and a biodiversity hotspot with rich flora and fauna; with its sandy beaches and thriving nightlife, it is also one of India’s most popular tourist destinations. The resultant human-marine co-dependence makes for a hotbed of conversation and conflict in the state.

Traditonally, native Goans engaged in agriculture, farming, shell fishing, traditional fishing and low key recreation. The only identifiable structures along the shore were a few cabins and thatched huts made of coconut tree leaves that housed sea-going canoes, some of which can still be seen today. The large plain areas behind the dune belts were used for farming and paddy cultivation, activities which are common in certain places even today; recreation was restricted.

As tourism emerged as a revenue earner, high-rise buildings, resorts, residential dwellings, commercial establishments and beach-side bars mushroomed almost everywhere along the shore. In less than 20 years, some strips became so overdeveloped that they bear little resemblance to the coast that existed prior to development.” (Proceedings of the Workshop on Integrated Coastal and Marine Area Management Plan for Goa, 204-224p).

The long followed systems of use – viewing the beach and inter-tidal areas as important resources to be safeguarded, kept clean and allowed to rejuvenate – are fast fading away. This, in spite of the fact that India has attempted to provide special protections to coastal areas and communities under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification 2011. In fact, these protections have been amended numerous times with the specific aim of facilitating “development” of the coasts – that is, to allow construction of resorts and other facilities to boost coastal tourism.

Over the years, Goa’s image and tourism allure became centred on that of a ‘party’ state with the promise of cheap alcohol, casinos, a profusion of hotels and resorts, a 100-km beach stretch with waterfront activities, and sunshine eight months of the year. This is despite housing a staggering biodiversity due to its proximity to the Western Ghats and a strong cultural and spiritual heritage.

Today, our government and industry are turning their eyes to the coast, with the Blue Economy (involving economic activity that engages with the various components of the oceans) and Sagarmala (a series of projects to leverage the country’s coastline and inland waterways for industrial development) along with coal ports and river linking, aimed at creating jobs and development. However, the process to develop this agenda has been devoid of community participation and no importance has been given to considering the well-documented impact of already existing industries (including mechanized fisheries) on these fragile ecosystems and vulnerable communities.

In all of this, the question that begs to be asked is – where do local communities, whose traditional livelihoods are intrinsically linked to the sea, stand vis-a-vis the drastic change in coastal use patterns?

The need for community-led Initiatives

In Goa, the marine tourism industry has grown organically over the years, with operators running dolphin watching, crocodile watching, pleasure trips, watersports, sport fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, yachting, sailing, surfing, party boats etc. The scale of operation varies from corporate chains to subsistence operators. Yet, at the policy level, the interests of individual operators and local communities are poorly represented while more commercial interests direct how enforcement, regulation and development is discussed and executed.

Dolphin watching, for example, is still categorised as a watersport by the state’s watersport policy, despite the trip being focused on a Schedule I protected wild species of dolphin, in this case, the Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin (Sousa Plumbea). A study conducted by the Goa wing of WWF-India (World Wide Fund for Nature – India) supported by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), highlighted that dolphins were exhibiting signs of stress and avoidance around tour boats. The study also found coral damage due to indiscriminate anchoring of boats. And, more significantly, the operators running these services – originally from Goa’s fishing communities who have turned to more lucrative livelihoods – are plagued by high operating costs, tough competition leading to lower rates, and demanding tourists who view the whole outing as another water activity rather than a wildlife sighting. (For anyone who has been on tiger safaris in India, the comparison is stark and unfavourable.)

Globally, wildlife watching (a major part of marine tourism) is a multi billion-dollar industry. The annual shark diving industry in Fiji is worth $42 million, $18 million in Palau and $38 million in the Maldives. Whale watching globally is worth about $2 billion a year. A study conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that birdwatchers contributed about $32 billion annually to the US economy. If done right, wildlife watching can help to support conservation efforts, teach people about the amazing biodiversity all around them, build a sense of pride and community, empathy and compassion.

Terra Conscious, a Goa-based conservation travel company began its operations in 2017 to focus on addressing challenges in the dolphin-watching vertical of the marine tourism industry in Goa. (Terra Conscious is run by one of the authors of this piece, Puja Mitra).








The critical gap identified in this sector was market linkage between ethical and conscious travellers and empowering of local community operators to offer high-quality eco conscious experiences. Terra Conscious has partnered with eight local community boat operators, bringing to them travellers and conducting the ethical wildlife watching trips together, where Terra Conscious is the knowledge guide and marketing partner.

Learnings from the Terra Conscious model

* The social recognition, respect and dignity given to the boat operator community by the guests underpins their desire to transform the way they conduct the trips. Terra Conscious was able to bring them a responsible audience who would appreciate a knowledge-driven experience, thereby removing the pressure for them to find large numbers of customers and guarantee a sighting. Dolphins are wild animals and can be elusive, and should be treated as such.

* The operaters earned as much from 70-odd customers as they would have from 200 customers. Additonally, by following the wildlife sighting guidelines, they were able to save petrol and have better sightings for their customers. With no pressure to manufacture a dolphin sighting and with support for the segments they are not yet able to handle effectively such as digital marketing, signage, trip content, appreciation of their knowledge and skill from both the company and the guests, we saw immense growth in confidence and commitment.

* The operators also set up a system to collect waste at the beaches where they work, and also take part in regular clean-ups. None of this was in practice before the collaborative project was introduced. They continue to build their skills with Terra Conscious, with both company and community working on all aspects of developing an ethical marine wildlife watching experience.

In the past few years, similar initiatives have been springing up around the world proving that change can start small or large, causes can vary, and models may change but long-term impact needs community buy-in, livelihood potential and conservation at its heart – such as initiatives like Responsible Travel, Social Tours in Nepal, Blue Ventures and Wild Coast, while closer to home excellent work is being done by The Folk Tales, Ecosphere in Spiti Valley in the Himalayas, Native Folks, Broken Compass, and Nature’s Nest and Canopy and Aangan in Goa.

Today, on World Oceans Day (June 8) it is important for us to remember that every activity along our coasts affects the communities that depend on these resources. As we speak, the Government has proposed further amendments to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification in the form of the CRZ 2018 Draft Notification, which further reduces the area along the coasts that are to be kept free from construction. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is accepting public comments on this draft till June 18 and you can have a say on this here.

The role of citizens and community participation in decision-making is one of the most important tenets of our democracy. We also need to be mindful of the marine experiences we choose to engage in – be responsible, be ethical, and we could live in harmony with our oceans for a long, long time to come.


Tania Devaiah is a researcher, campaigner and activist with a passion for working on issues that arise in the intersect of human rights, environment, resource use, gender and conservation. With a Master’s degree in Social Work (TISS), she has been working on issues ranging from anti human trafficking, using media as a tool for social change and experimenting with campaigning models on rights based issues for more than a decade. Currently she is researching the role of communities in environmental governance and compliance in India. She also works on gender rights issues and supports social movements independently.
She tweets at


Puja Mitra is the founder of Terra Conscious, an ethical community-led conservation travel & marine outreach enterprise based in Goa. A conservation practitioner by profession, she has an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation & Management from the University of Oxford and is a Commonwealth Scholar. Her work in Goa focuses on working with coastal communities to build capacity for responsible tourism in the marine and coastal space as well as building awareness about marine conservation issues amongst the wider public.
She tweets at @Puja_Goa and can be contacted at +91-8308600699/

Leave a Comment