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Conserving the Benguela's Abundance

by Barbara Paterson
Namibia

Fifteen years ago, I traveled from my home country of Germany to Namibia, in southern Africa, intending to take a short holiday before becoming a PhD student. Instead I met my future husband who worked as a game ranger in the most remote parts of the country. Struggling to find work and obtain legal status, I soon lost sight of my hopes to continue my university education. At the time I was the only SGI member in Namibia, living in splendid isolation on the Skeleton Coast with my husband. I managed to set up my own business as an environmental knowledge consultant working on contract for the Namibian government and several environmental NGOs.

My dream to return to school resurfaced, and in 2002 I enrolled as a PhD student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. That year I had the opportunity to support the SGI environmental exhibition "Seeds of Change," during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. The exhibition highlights the Earth Charter, a statement of ethical principles for a sustainable world, and through supporting the exhibition I made the determination to continue to promote the values expressed in the Charter through my work.

My research explored the space between environmental conservation, information technology and ethics. I became increasingly aware of the tension between the needs of society and the threats people pose to their environment. Western thought tends to regard human beings and nature as separate--to the extent that some believe that human beings are bad for nature. In contrast, Buddhism regards life and its environment as deeply interconnected. As a Buddhist I felt that it was no coincidence that I found myself living in a former German colony. I really wanted to repay my debt of gratitude to the country I now call home.

In 2008, with hopes of contributing more directly to society, my husband and I relocated to the harbor town of Walvis Bay. The Namibian coast is situated in the center of the Benguela Current marine ecosystem, which stretches from the Cape of Good Hope in the south all the way to southern Angola. The Benguela Current supports an important global reservoir of biodiversity and biomass of plankton, fish, seabirds and marine mammals. Many of the coastal regions are still pristine and amazingly beautiful. Against all odds, I was then accepted as a postdoctoral fellow at the Marine Research Institute of the University of Cape Town, which conducts cutting-edge research in the field of fisheries management in the Benguela region and supports a holistic approach to fisheries management.

In fisheries management there has always been a strong focus on mathematics and natural sciences to determine fishing quotas. In the face of overfishing, climate change and coastal poverty, however, it has become clear that there is a very important human dimension to fisheries that past approaches have failed to address. My work, in a transdisciplinary research environment, is about clarifying these human dimensions. I speak to many different people including scientists, government officials, fishers and community representatives in order to get a better understanding of the issues. How do people think and feel about fish and fishing? What are their values and goals? Most importantly, how can these perspectives be brought together?

To me the ocean is an amazing space. The sea can be terrifying, nourishing, beautiful and destructive. For those who live inland it can seem like a world far removed from everyday life. For the fishers I meet, the sea is not separate from their lives but central to them. For me, the Buddhist concept of the oneness of self and the environment and the notion that nothing can exist in isolation provide the philosophical basis for my research toward a holistic approach to fisheries management that can help bring human society back into harmony with nature.

[Courtesy, April 2010 SGI Quarterly]

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