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Written By

Bianca de Loryn

College/Division

College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

2 November 2021

Fairness is important for our wellbeing

Six villages in Fiji are sharing the income from a new marine park, the Vatu-i-Ra Conservation Park. But what is a fair division of this income that makes everyone in these communities happy? That is what JCU’s Dr Georgina Gurney has examined in her latest research project.

Fairness is important for our wellbeing

JCU’s Dr Georgina Gurney, Senior Research Fellow in Environmental Social Science at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, is researching what people see as fair when it comes to protecting the environment.

“Fairness and justice are fundamental to all societies,” says Georgina. “Perceptions of fairness are important in terms of an individual's sense of wellbeing and can influence social interaction and therefore overall community wellbeing.”

We come across ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ situations more often than we think. “At work, for example, we often think about fairness in regard to who should wash up the dishes in the office kitchen,” Georgina says. “Is it fair if the person who used the dishes washes up, the person who is paid to be a cleaner, or perhaps someone else?”

Things can get even more complicated when it comes to different groups or nationalities.  “Fairness is an everyday part of our lives,” Georgina says.  “But we don't necessarily think about how perceptions of what is fair differ for different groups.”

Fairness and the environment

Fairness in conservation and management of the environment is an important issue for Georgina, and she says that “it matters whether the local population think that conservation is fair or not.”

“First and foremost, it’s an ethical and moral issue, because conservation should contribute to people’s wellbeing,” she says. “Also, for many conservation projects, biological success rests on the support of local stakeholders, and this is in turn is affected by their perceptions of what is fair.”

Georgina Gurney in Fiji
Fiji island people.
Left: Georgina with long-term collaborator Sangeeta Mangubhai, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Fiji Program, at a fish market, Suva, Fiji. Right: Ra province, Fiji. Supplied by Georgina Gurney.

Unfairness can lead to sabotage

When people feel that something is not fair, it can have consequences for the community, but also for the environment.  Georgina has experienced such a case herself, when things went wrong because people thought marine management regulations were unfair.

“In one of the marine protected areas I worked on in Indonesia there were issues with the treatment of people who broke the rules,” Georgina says. Of those who illegally fished in that marine reserve only a few were prosecuted by the local government, and the local population was not happy with the laxity of the regulations.

“As a protest, the community fished together inside the protected area where fishing was prohibited. This even included the management committee of the marine protected area,” Georgina says. This was neither a success for the environment nor for the community.

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Finding a fair solution in Fiji

For a recent research project on the northern coast of the island of Viti Levu, Fiji, Georgina collaborated with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an international non-profit society, and researchers from the University of Western Australia and the University of Michigan.

“The Wildlife Conservation Society had been asked by the communities to help develop a marine protected area , the Vatu-i-Ra Conservation Park. Tourists would be asked to pay for a permit to scuba dive in the area that the communities had decided to close to fishing,” Georgina says.  An approach like this is generally called a ‘payments for ecosystem service’.

“The six communities in that area were thinking through different ways of distributing those funds,” Georgina says.  “So, we asked people in these communities, Indigenous iTaukei people who hold customary tenure rights to land and sea, about the fairness of five different approaches to distributing the money.”

Ra province, Fiji

Traditional rights are important

“We found that the fairest  way to distribute money was according to who held rights over the area,” says Georgina.  The research team also found that the least fair way to distribute money was according to the costs incurred to fishers who were affected by the new rules that prohibited fishing, a method that had been suggested earlier on by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“Conservation practices are often developed in rich Western countries, and they are underpinned by Western ideas about fairness, which do not necessarily align with those of local people,” says Georgina. “Our study demonstrates why identifying what is considered as fair by those most affected by conservation is important, particularly in low- and middle-income countries such as Fiji.”

When money doesn’t always matter

Something that is called a ‘marine resource’ in Western-based conservation practice may mean a lot more than just a money in the wallet for those who have lived in a place for generations. “Indigenous iTaukei people living in these communities have strong cultural ties to these ecosystems. They maintain these ties through fishing and other harvesting practices as well as looking after these places,” says Georgina, adding that these rights go back for hundreds of years.

This is why some people were concerned about introducing a payment system to stop fishing in this area.  “It can change the nature of the relationship between the people and the place,” says Georgina. “The very idea of considering payments for ecosystem services, regardless of how the money is distributed, was considered unfair by some people.” This is an important matter that Georgina plans to examine in future research.

Looking into the future – ideas about fairness in the tropics

Looking into the future, Dr Georgina Gurney is planning to research perceptions of fairness in sharing marine resources in different cultures. Her research will bring her to Port Douglas in Queensland, the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia and to Indonesia.

Georgina’s paper on fairness, “Equity in environmental governance: perceived fairness of distributional justice principles in marine co-management” is available from Science Direct (doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2021.05.022).

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Featured researcher

Dr Georgina Gurney

Senior Research Fellow – Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Georgina is an Environmental Social Scientist, whose research focuses on environmental governance, in particular, governance of conservation and natural resource management initiatives. Her research program has two key themes: 1) understanding the sociocultural and institutional drivers of opportunities for collaborative conservation and resource management; and 2) identifying the multiple socioeconomic and environmental outcomes of such initiatives.

Georgina takes an interdisciplinary approach to her research, drawing from a range of disciplines including social psychology, human geography and political science. Much of her research is transdisciplinary, involving collaborations with practitioners and policymakers in conservation and resource management. To date, she has undertaken much of her research in the context of coral reef management in the Asia-Pacific region, including Indonesia, Australia and Fiji.

Georgina held a five-year Social Science Fellowship (2016-2020) at the ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies, and in 2021, was awarded an ARC DECRA Fellowship. She has published more than 60 papers in leading journals, including Global Environmental Change, Nature and PNAS.

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