Understanding Coastal Livelihoods in the Arafura and Timor Seas: Impacts and opportunities of contemporary approaches to rural development, conservation and resource governance

Understanding Coastal Livelihoods in the Arafura and Timor Seas: Impacts and opportunities of contemporary approaches to rural development, conservation and resource governance

The livelihoods of marine resource-dependent coastal communities globally are highly vulnerable due to their exposure to various pressures resulting from socio-political change (e.g. globalization), economic transformation (e.g. market expansion), ecological shifts (e.g. climate change) and natural hazards.  Change to which coastal communities are subject occur over varying temporal scales, ranging from acute and intensive shocks (e.g. natural disasters, conflict and disease) to longer term shifts (e.g. warming sea temperature, globalization). 


These issues are all pertinent in the Arafura and Timor Seas (ATS) maritime region, which connects parts of N. Australia, Indonesia, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea. The warm, tropical waters of the ATS are adjacent to the Coral Triangle region - recognized as one of the most marine biodiverse regions in the world. Marine resources, both small and large scale fisheries and associated habitats in the ATS region provide food, income, employment and cultural value for its coastal residents.  Approximately 4.1 million people live in the ATS region, however the level of development and social and economic status of people varies considerably between countries. Notwithstanding, there are high levels of poverty in the region including in rural and coastal communities.


Developing stable and dependable sources of income for such communities, through sustainable resource use practices, are an increasingly prominent objective in conservation and development practice.  Livelihood diversification or enhancement is often implemented by external agents to relieve pressure on coastal or marine resources. Currently in the ATS region a number of conservation and development initiatives have been implemented, are under implementation or plan to be implemented. The Arafura Timor Seas Ecosystem Action (ATSEA) Program, the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF) Program and FAO’s Regional Fisheries Livelihood Programme for South and Southeast Asia (RFLP) are recent examples.  These programs have a major focus on improving livelihood outcomes, like income, food security and wellbeing, in these vulnerable contexts through ‘alternative livelihoods’ and ‘livelihood diversification’. These approaches moreover have become strong narratives in setting local development agendas and directing poverty alleviation strategies throughout the region.  However, there are very few examples of ‘success’ or documented successful approaches.  Common interpretations of what constitutes a 'livelihood' tend to frame livelihood activities, like fishing, as simply an activity for income generation.  These fall short in acknowledging deep values and identities that people attach to such livelihood activities which in turn highly influence their choice to change livelihood focus.  Other reasons for persistent failure stem from a lack of understanding of the complex and dynamic local social, cultural and historical contexts in which livelihoods are constructed and practiced.  These are all highly relevant to how local people address, or cope with, (livelihood) change in their vulnerable contexts.  Thus, although there is considerable attention in the research and development/conservation sector to improving local livelihoods, a range of challenges exist in developing effective strategies that allow for food security and sustainable livelihoods to function in spatially and temporally dynamic environments.


Acknowledging the connectedness between ecology, culture and governance systems , and the recognized need to address food security and resource sustainability in the region, warrants examination of coastal livelihood development and in particular, enquiry into the threats and opportunities for coastal resource-dependant people.


Project objectives

An international symposium on Coastal Livelihoods in the Arafura and Timor Seas will bring together academics and practitioners at CDU in May of 2016, to present the state of knowledge on coastal livelihoods in the ATS and how various forms of ‘change’ are impacting these.  Participants will discuss the main contemporary environmental, social-economic, and governance threats to coastal livelihoods and highlight potential ways to address these. The discussions will be drawn out in context of rural and regional development and conservation initiatives around sustainable coastal resource management and small scale fisheries.


Questions to be Addressed

Main questions the project will seek to address regarding local coastal livelihoods in the ATS region include:

  • § How are dynamic market systems, environmental changes and/or political shifts impacting on coastal livelihoods?
  • § Under what regional conservation and development objectives are initiatives implementing various livelihood interventions (e.g. alternative livelihoods and or livelihood diversification) in coastal communities?
  • § What opportunities does a livelihood perspective (with particular inclusion of social values and norms) provide in addressing the region’s coastal resource governance and food security challenges?
  • § What lessons in sustainable coastal livelihood development can be drawn from experiences in other archipelagic/coastal regions (e.g. Pacific)?
Dirk Steenbergen's picture
Dirk Steenbergen
Post-doctoral Fellow (NAMRA)

Primary research group

Natural Resources-Based Livelihoods


Doctor of Philosophy in Community Development, Resource Governance, & Conservation, at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia. MSc in Nature Conservation Policy and Management & BSc in Forest & Nature Conservation at the Wageningen University (WU), The Netherlands.
Dirk Steenbergen's picture
Dirk Steenbergen
Post-doctoral Fellow (NAMRA)
Assoc Prof Natasha Stacey's picture
Assoc Prof Natasha Stacey
Natural resources-based livelihoods, Associate Professor