Symposium on Coastal Livelihoods in the Arafura and Timor Seas, Charles Darwin University, 16th-18th May 2016


Symposium on Coastal Livelihoods in the Arafura and Timor Seas, Charles Darwin University, 16th-18th May 2016

Post date: Body:

Still energized by the inspiring discussions and fruitful debates, we take this chance to look back at what were 2½ days of highly engaged dialogue.

In May 2016 Dirk Steenbergen and Natasha Stacey from the Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods (RIEL), School of Environment, hosted an international research symposium on coastal livelihoods in the Arafura and Timor Seas (ATS) at Charles Darwin University. The initiative was spearheaded by an editorial team made up of the two symposium organisers in collaboration with Emeritus Professor Leontine Visser from Wageningen University (WUR) and Associate Professor Andrew McWilliam from Australian National University (ANU). The symposium was organized in response to a widely noted need for a better understanding of the dynamism of vulnerable coastal livelihoods in the region. Its objective was to present the state of knowledge and policy around coastal livelihoods in the ATS through a series of empirical case studies, and to identify ‘ways forward’ for policy and management. In doing so experts were asked to highlight environmental, socio-economic and governance challenges coastal people are facing and to recognise opportunities they are taking to address these challenges. Twenty presentations were given over the first two days, leaving the final day for interactive group and plenary discussion.

Of the 28 participants in the symposium 15 were international and regional experts (academic and practicing), 3 represented government institutions in Darwin, 5 were senior and early career research academics from CDU, and 5 were CDU-based PhD candidates. The symposium also sought to provide important opportunity for PhD students to showcase their research and for them to engage in discussions with other experts in finalising their research proposals and approaches. In doing so it allowed them to connect with new academic and practicing networks. The symposium drew from our existing research collaborations with partner universities in Australia (Australian National University, James Cook University and Murdoch University), and Indonesian research institutes and NGOs (Agrcultural Unversity of Bogor (IPB), Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), Indonesian Locally Managed Marine Area network (I-LMMA) and Blue Forests). Furthermore the symposium built on cross-faculty support, with participants from the Northern Institute (Faculty of Law, Education, Business and Arts - LEBA) and RIEL (Faculty of Engineering , Health, Science and Environment - EHSE).

Coastal Livelihood Symposium-CDU



Victor Williams, an elder from Larrakia Nation, opened the symposium with a Welcome to Country by acknowledging the Larrakia people and their land on which this symposium was being held. With his personal historic reflection on coastal development across his homeland, Victor sketched a vivid image of the many changes that have occurred for him and his people. Given the prominence of the region’s different indigenous coastal people in the discussions that were to come, this aptly framed the days to come. Following his Welcome to Country, CDU Pro Vice Chancellor of Research, Professor Lawrence Cram, and Director of RIEL, Professor Andrew Campbell, formally commenced proceedings. They encouraged participants to think critically, engage their curiosity and continue to question the reasoning behind our various observations from the field. The opening session was concluded with a presentation by Dirk, who presented why there is a timely need to enquire into the sustainability of coastal livelihoods in the region. In doing so he laid the foundation and direction of the symposium for the next couple of days.

The morning’s second session probed deeper into some of the pressing challenges that are faced across the region and further helped frame the discussions that were to follow. Emeritus Professor Leontine Visser (WUR) argued for more transdisciplinary engagement in addressing the region’s coastal livelihood challenges, both within academia and across academia and applied sectors. She further urged participants to think of how to frame these challenges; whether to look at them as being coastal specific and in that create a niche space for discussion around coastal contexts, or to broaden our frame by looking at the challenges as rural development problems and in that embed them in broader debate around community development (regardless of the coastal context). Dr Simon Foale, from James Cook University, extended this by presenting how powerful narratives from science influence how livelihood issues are being framed and dealt with. A strong focus on coral reef systems amongst the scientific community for example was argued to be a significant driver of conservation activities in coastal areas across the Asia-Pacific. Dr Julian Clifton, from the University of Western Australia, followed in providing a final overview perspective. Drawing from his experience in Indonesia, he presented the policy and management landscape in which much of today’s coastal development and conservation work in Indonesia takes place. He took particular care to position the ‘local fisher’ in this landscape, highlighting the need for true inclusion and more accurate understanding of local contexts.

A session on ‘impacts of marine protected areas (MPAs) and tourism on livelihoods’ brought forward the first of the case study presentations. These case studies showed how restrictive interventions implemented as part of MPAs, which were to improve environmental quality, left little alternatives for coastal people who on their part depended on those resources as a source of living. Other examples showed how opportunities brought about by a booming tourism industry led to a local rush amongst residents to gain a piece of the lucrative ‘tourism pie’. This jeopardised the overall sustainability of the activity as well as the long-term vitality of the resource base it depended on for operation.

Coastal Lveelihood Symposium-CDU PresentationThe session that followed, entitled ‘addressing livelihood needs from fisheries’, echoed some of these concerns. However, it delved further by highlighting how local coastal people find themselves balancing a need for household income with an inherent identity and interest they associate with particular activities, like fishing. Following resource degradation or restricted access, some cases here showed how some households shifted livelihood focus while others persisted fishing despite a lack of return. In doing so this session brought forward experiences from existing initiatives in the region, including indigenous oyster farming development in the NT, coastal farmer field schools in Sulawesi and community-based small scale fisheries around Lombok, eastern Indonesia.

The second day saw continued presentation of case studies with a session on ‘vulnerability of coastal livelihoods’. The case studies here highlighted the dynamism and changeability of coastal livelihoods. Responses were presented that occurred following shifts and acute shocks, induced through environmental change (climate change), social change (globalisation) or economic change (market expansion). These presentations highlighted various ways in which people adapt and how inherent cultural mechanisms in coastal communities may hold valuable lessons on how change can be dealt with across a broader scale. The role of particularly influential players, like powerful traders, was addressed here too. These individuals were shown to often be villainized as part of initiatives seeking to stop exploitative activities, while in fact arguments were presented for them to play more constructive roles in achieving sustainable local governance.  The final case study session presented on ‘shifts in livelihoods and resource bases’. Here causal links were shown between trends in resource depletion and shifts in peoples’ livelihoods. Market and legislative factors that were observed to either discourage participation or restrict access presented a suit of challenges for people having to look for other forms of income. This session also saw several CDU-PhD candidates at different stages of their candidacy present their research projects; including Kim Hunnam, Gianna Bonis-Profumo and Emily Gibson. Their presentations covered several topics, ranging from small scale fisheries dependence and nutrition and food security in Timor Leste, to gender dimensions of livelihoods in coastal eastern Indonesia.

Coastal Livelihood Symposium-CDU Presnetation2The final day of the symposium saw us shifting gears into more interactive plenary and discussion sessions. Associate Professor Andrew McWilliam (ANU) stimulated thought among participants by presenting a comprehensive summary of the presentations over the previous two days. Split into four groups, participants were invited to reflect on the past days’ presentations and discuss findings according to particular themes. Each group presented their summary. This in turn spurred off lively discussion among participants about questions of governance, livelihood vulnerability and what are appropriate avenues to address contemporary challenges. The symposium was drawn to an end by a closing speech by Professor Leontine Visser.

The way forward

Drawing from the cases study presentations and the interactive discussions during the symposium, we are presented with valuable material which we are looking to publish. Targeting both an academic and policy oriented audience, we are looking for broad coverage to communicate our main findings. Be sure to look out for outputs from the symposium over the next few months!

Coastal Livelihoods Symposium-CDU cruise


First and foremost, the symposium was made possible with the institutional and funding support from the EHSE Faculty and Collaborative Research Network (administered through the Northern Institute) at CDU. We are moreover very thankful for the kind support from the RIEL administrative staff for all the help provided during and in the run-up to the symposium.