Making mussels work in South Africa


Posted: 7 August 2003

Author: Gregory Mock

Until two decades ago the Sokulu people of South Africa harvested mussles from a 30-mile stretch of coast near Durban - until the government designated the area a nature reserve. Cut off from an important source of food and a way of life, their livelihood crumbled. Now, a five-year programme has put responsibility for the mussels back in the hands of the Sokhulu, as Gregory Mock reports.

The Sokhulu people in South Africa know that when the msintsi tree is flowering, mussels are good and fat. They know the Zulu names for the rock ledges that mussels inhabit. Their ancestors have been harvesting mussels along a 30-kilometre stretch of coast in KwaZulu-Natal Province near Durban for years beyond counting. Yet, for the past two decades, the Sokhulu have been called thieves and poachers and driven to harvest only what they could get under cover of darkness.

In 1984 the government designated the Mapelane Nature Reserve along the same coast where the Sokhulu people harvest mussels. Designation of the reserve, which was combined with several other reserves in 1997 to form the 240,000 hectare Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park. Park officials required mussel collectors to purchase permits and placed strict quotas on mussel harvesting.

Gathering mussels© Jean HarrisWith little employment in the region, most villagers simply could not afford to give up their subsistence on free wild foods. And the park's small daily quota meant that even villagers who could pay for a permit had to walk 2 hours to the coast and back for barely enough mussels to make a family meal.

Resource conflicts

When Jean Harris, then a University of Cape Town researcher, arrived in the area in 1995, she found the situation for traditional mussel harvesters to be dire. Clashes with vigilante foresters, fishers, and park officials had made gathering mussels a high-risk activity. To avoid detection and arrest, Sokhulu harvesters walked to the coast at night, stripped mussels from the rocks wholesale, and cooked them in drums over fires built in the nearby woods. Although women were the traditional mussel harvesters, only men willing to risk being beaten or arrested took part now. They worked fast, using spades and bush knives, causing significant damage to the mussel beds.

The practice significantly reduced the number of mussels, eliminating the protected spots among older mussels that serve as sanctuary for young mussels and attachment sites for mussel larvae. Conservation officers and vigilante fishermen, convinced that harvesters were damaging the beds, sought out and ambushed Sokhulu camps, attacking and arresting the villagers.

The conflict between the Sokhulu people and park authorities echoes similar clashes around the world where indigenous communities feel their resource rights have been violated by outsiders. In Central America, indigenous use of forest resources, including fruits, game, and medicinal plants, has often taken a back seat to commercial resource extraction or the establishment of parks intended to preserve biodiversity and promote tourism. Around the world, indigenous communities often find themselves on the losing side of resource conflicts.

Sustainable harvesting

After assessing the situation, Harris concluded that efforts to protect the Mapelane shoreline were causing significant damage. Reasoning that the goals of the park officials and the harvesters weren't so far apart, she proposed that a collaborative approach might protect the mussels and quell the violence.

In 1995, Harris and Terry Ferguson, the Mapelane's officer-in-charge, convinced park authorities to agree to a five-year program that would put responsibility for the mussels back in the hands of the Sokhulu - as long as they could demonstrate, in hard numbers, that they were harvesting the mussels sustainably.

Harris reports that on the first day of legal harvesting, an 80 year-old woman told a local journalist: "Today is a big day. I eat mussels for the first time in many, many years. As a young girl, I used to collect mussels with my grandmother. Then came the restrictions."

Of course, crucial questions remained about determining a sustainable harvest level. How many mussels should harvesters be allowed to collect? Could they harvest year-round?

Harris helped Sokhulu women set up an experiment to answer those questions. They established zones of different harvesting intensity along the shore, marking them with color-coded flags. They hired several youths from Sokhulu and, with help from park personnel, trained them as monitors to oversee the experiment and record harvest data in a scientifically rigorous manner.

The experiment with different harvest levels led to some unexpected changes in attitude. A wide range of collection intensities was chosen at the beginning of the experiment and some, of course, were not sustainable. After they saw the effects of the more intense harvests on mussel populations, and how slow the stocks were to recover, villagers who had wanted higher quotas at the start reconsidered their demand.

Developing income

The Sokhulu project has been such a successful model of community participation in resource management that it is being used as a model in 17 other communities in KwaZulu-Natal Province where indigenous people depend on collection of fish and shellfish.

The program is also working on developing new sources of income for the Sokhulu people in hopes of reducing its dependence on mussels. For example, the co-management project has spawned a "craft initiative" that has tapped government funds to train some harvesters in craft development and marketing. The group now sells its crafts to three tourist shops in Durban.

And with the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park now drawing about 1 million tourists annually, officials hope that ecotourism ventures will bring more than 1,000 new jobs and associated income in the next few years.

Gregory Mock is co-director of World Resources 2002-2004: Decisions for the Earth, from which this feature is excerpted. The full report is available online at