“Whether you catch small-size fish, damage coral reefs, or use drag nets in seagrass areas … [it] is forbidden in the Islamic point of view,” said Ali Said Hamad, a field officer at local nonprofit Mwambao Coastal Community Network who began using the religious strategy in a few villages in 2016. “We should use our resources in a wise manner. That’s why there is mizan—an Arabic word which means balance, but balance in the sense of sustainability.”
Since 2016, Mwambao has been assisting villages’ shehia, or fishery committee, with closing 436 hectares of fishing grounds in intervals of three months per year, to allow the octopus population to regenerate. Some closures coincide with Ramadan, when fishermen will feel discouraged from entering the water, “because when water gets into your ears and nose it means that you’re breaking your fast,” said Ali Thani, the country coordinator at Mwambao. When the area re-opens toward the end of Ramadan, when celebrations require villagers to splurge, “they can sell the [bigger] octopus, get money for Eid, and buy clothes for their kids,” he added.
While foreign nonprofits and words like “sustainability” can evoke distrust in the population, the Quran does not: “We say, ‘It’s not from Europe—it is in your faith; it is in your religion; it has been there for a long time,’” Thani said. “[T]his is making the people to start trusting things.”
Although quantitative data is hard to come by, Thani said anecdotal evidence suggests these octopus regeneration efforts “got very good results.” The octopuses are heavier now, commonly growing to twice the size they used to attain before the religious strategy went into effect. “We left octopuses of 1kg and now they find ones of 2-2.5kg,” he said.
The Mwambao staff’s experience using Islamic environmental ethics to reinforce conservationist messages goes back several years. In the 1990s, when illegal fishing methods like poison and dynamite threatened Misali’s fish stocks, Hamad and Thani were employees of a nongovernmental organization called CARE International. They worked with clerics and fishermen to promote the Islamic concept of khalifa, or environmental stewardship, making Misali the site of the first documented example of a partnership between a secular NGO and Muslim clerics.
In the past, mixing politics and religion has facilitated the mass exploitation of natural resources in former colonies like Zanzibar, following Pope Nicholas V’s 15th-century edict to “capture, vanquish, and subdue.” But in recent years, the use of scripture to excite and involve communities in green activism has taken off. Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’, stressed sustainable development, while Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist environmental treatises launched similar commitments. When, in April 2016, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement, the accord’s success was credited in no small part to faith-based organizations lobbying behind the scenes.