Tabu, MPA and community: nomenclature and the political ecology of marine conservation in Vanuatu



This article examines two marine conservation projects from the Republic of Vanuatu, and seeks to contribute to the regional political ecology literature. I question whether Marine Protected Areas (MPA) or tabu eria [lit. taboo area] are the most effective tool for regulating inshore fisheries in the Pacific Islands. Tabu eria – customary/neo-traditional spatial-temporal marine closures – are regularly presented as socio-historically embedded practices that are more likely to succeed as a resource management tool than MPAs, which are often deemed to be an "outside" intervention promoted by western conservationists. The case studies demonstrate that the adoption of MPA rather than tabu does not always question the moral competence of local forms of knowing and doing. On the contrary, the local adoption of an MPA can be a strategic, local appropriation, e.g. to justify territorial claims, resource capture, and/or enhance regulatory sanctions. Examples foreground the analytical limits of 'local' and 'foreign', or a failure to properly address (and locate) human agency. The uncritical valorization of tabu eria as local and authentic shows the same prejudice that its advocates purport to critique. An MPA and tabu equally prioritize and naturalize the essentialist idea of 'the village-as-community’, (re)presenting 'the village' as homogenous and undifferentiated. In short, the reality on-the-ground reiterates that socio-historical specifics matter, and human agency can be difficult to identify. Categories such as MPA, tabu and 'community' obscure more than they reveal and can unintentionally erode, rather than enhance, marine conservation objectives.

Keywords: Vanuatu, regional political ecology, taboo area, conservation, Marine Protected Area (MPA)

How to Cite: Love, M. W. (2021) “Tabu, MPA and community: nomenclature and the political ecology of marine conservation in Vanuatu”, Journal of Political Ecology. 28(1). doi: