Dr Nick Hill of the Zoological Society of London looks at how the Net-Works partnership with carpet maker Interface, judged best company in Ethical Corporation’s awards this year, is empowering fishing communities to protect marine biodiversity.
It is a warm, humid afternoon in Guidacpan, a small island in the Philippines. Down by the beach, fishermen count up the day’s catch and local children kick a well-worn football around. In a wooden shelter nearby, a group of men and women are meeting. A woman called Olivia claps her hands to get attention. “Last topic for today: team t-shirts. We know a local guy who can print them, but how should we pay?” Her colleague Ricardo answers: “How about we take 2,000 pesos [£32] from the group’s savings and top this up with 200 pesos from each individual? That will give us the amount we need.” Heads nod. “Great,” says Olivia, “that’s settled.”
Olivia, Ricardo, and the rest of the group are members of the Guidacpan Savers Association, a local community bank set up as part of a programme called Net-Works – a partnership between the international conservation charity Zoological Society of London, where I work, and carpet tile manufacturer Interface. We may seem like an unlikely pair, but ZSL’s conservation expertise and community organising, together with Interface’s business acumen and global network, has proven to be a winning combination.
Net-Works empowers people in coastal communities in the developing world to collect and sell discarded nylon fishing nets, removing these nets from the ocean, where they wreak havoc with marine life. The nets are then sold into a global supply chain and recycled into yarn to make carpet tile. Net-Works has been running since 2012 in the Philippines, and in 2015 it expanded to fishing communities in Cameroon. There are now 35 communities participating in the programme and together they have gathered more than 100 tonnes of waste nets for recycling – enough to go around the world twice.
Dr Nick Hill of the Zoological Society of London (credit: ZSL)
Community banks are the foundation of the Net-Works model. Run by the community, they provide access to finance in a way that is convenient and local, enabling people to save money, including their earnings from net collection, and take out small loans. The banks also manage the local net supply chain: organising beach clean-ups and facilitating sales transactions. Since 2012, more than 40 community banks have been set up, with at least 900 families gaining access to finance and 60,000 people benefitting from a cleaner environment.
The conversation about the t-shirts took place the first time I took my boss to the Philippines to see Net-Works in action. After the meeting she came over and asked whether we should offer to pay for the t-shirts outright. “Definitely not!” I said. I’m no miser but I felt it was important that the group felt a sense of ownership over their decision about how to invest their money. In my view, this small step of financial autonomy for the Net-Works community represented a giant leap for conservation and development.
Conservation has a long history of dependency on financial aid. Unsurprisingly, people in poor communities have come to expect handouts from foreigners and non-governmental organisations. This in turn has often served to reinforce the aid dependency and lock communities into a poverty trap. Ultimately, this cycle is in no one’s interests. As conservation professionals, we should be aiming to use donor funding wisely to create sustainable solutions that only need external funding for a finite period.
The Net-Works model, based on the infrastructure of local community banks, is one such solution. Team t-shirts will not be what enable these communities to protect their marine resources, but what the t-shirt story shows is the sense of empowerment they feel. I have seen first-hand how the confidence of Net-Works community groups grows with every decision they take.
Nets recovered from the sea, ready for sorting (credit: Interface)
And the decisions go far beyond t-shirts. For example, some groups have made it a requirement of their members to join a beach clean-up every other week, to tackle the problem of waste nets. They fine members who don’t turn up, and have written these fines into their own constitutions. They have also created benefit-sharing arrangements for distributing the income received from the beach clean. So they have both a carrot and a stick.
More recently I have been inspired to see groups establishing their own environment funds. Each member agrees to make a small contribution to the fund each week, used to support vital community-managed conservation activities, such as restoring and protecting mangrove forests, which absorb carbon and provide a natural defence against storm surges. It’s mechanisms like these that create the social structures and drive the behaviour change that is necessary to protect global biodiversity.
Inspired by our partner communities, we at ZSL and Interface are also thinking about bigger and bolder ambitions for Net-Works. We are looking at expanding the community-level supply chain to include other products and services. Communities would then have multiple ways to generate supplemental income and could afford to pay for technical support from trained conservation professionals to ensure optimal conservation benefits and learning.
This would remove the need for ongoing donor funding, and offer a truly scalable, financially sustainable solution. It would empower communities to take control of their own environment, and potentially change the face of marine conservation, forever. Now that would be exciting.
Dr Nick Hill is co-founder of Net-Works and conservation for communities technical specialist in ZSL’s marine and freshwater programme.
Interface Net-Works plastics circular economy ZSL