San Pedro, Belize, presents perhaps the premier example of a community that has lifted itself out of poverty through assertive local management of its marine resources.
Now one of the key tourist destinations in Belize, in the early 1980s the town was a poor coastal community trying to resolve growing conflict between fishing interests and other users of the nearby Hol Chan channel - an area of magnificent coral formations and with some of the Caribbean's greatest diversity of marine life.
It looked as if uncontrolled fishing and development would decimate Hol Chan, as well as its adjacent seagrass beds and mangroves. Overfishing had already removed large predatory fish from the reef and depleted conch and lobster populations, while developers were starting to clear the mangroves and seagrass beds to build hotels.
... turned around
Following a lengthy consultation process, fishers, local tour operators, and conservationists agreed to a zoned marine reserve protecting Hol Chan, seagrass beds, and 7 mangrove islands, as well as to the regulation of fishing round the reserve. WWF helped to implement and fund this solution, and Hol Chan Marine Reserve was formally created in 1987.
Since then, the town has been hugely successful in protecting Hol Chan and capturing the benefits of tourism for local welfare. New jobs created by the tourism industry have raised the income level, and themselves created new jobs in supporting services (such as in banking and shops).
In addition, the fishing sector, while smaller than it once was, benefits from better catches (more and bigger fish) and more market choices from the tourists in town. On top of this, fees charged to tourists to enter the reserve cover its running costs.
Local involvement key to success
A key element of San Pedro's success is that local people are the chief beneficiaries of the tourism industry. Tourism assets (hotels, restaurants, etc) are owned by a diverse group of people, and the town has successfully prevented the proliferation of externally owned all-in-one resorts - which have denied some other Caribbean communities much benefit from tourism.
This success is largely due to the high level of public consultation in setting up the park, and the strong local cooperative traditions nurtured in the fishing industry.
The path has not been completely smooth, but San Pedro has been much celebrated. A comparative study of several MPAs in the Caribbean and their socio-economic effects concluded that the Hol Chan Marine Reserve is an unqualified "ecological success" which is "fundamental" to a local tourist industry.
Surveys show that San Pedranos themselves overwhelmingly believe that the high level of protection given to Hol Chan is the key to their enhanced welfare - indeed, the most common complaint is that it should be more protected from tourists, in particular those in the care of non-local guides attached to cruise ships.
This feedback from local people and the evidence of empowerment and success in strengthening local voices attests to the viability of a successful marriage between conservation and human development goals.
As of 2015, commitment to—and ownership of—the reserve continues, with an extention to the original protected area recently agreed on following public consultations spearheaded by local stakeholders.