Sustaining ‘life below water and on land’ through collaboration, stewardship and reciprocity: Lessons from dolphins, seagulls and fishermen

SDG icon 14 sdg icon 15

Traditional Inidian fishing boatBy Prateep Nayak, Assistant Professor, School of Environment, Enterprise and Development

A group of fishers set out on a fishing trip in a large lagoon off the Bay of Bengal coast of India. A pod of Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) are immediately alerted and start to swim alongside the fishers’ boats. A lonely seagull begins to hover on top. Though perhaps not immediately obvious, there are inherent connections between these seemingly very different sets of species.

As the legendary story is told by my fisher friends from the Chilika Lagoon of India, the dolphins have a gregarious disposition that extends beyond the physical and social boundaries within which they live. So, they are happy to see the fishers setting up their gears in the open waters because they feel less insecure with the fast swimming schools of fish that are often hard to catch.  

No doubt, the fishers have a similar experience with the fish, which swim even faster with the returning tide. So, they - meaning the dolphins and the fishers - make a pact. The dolphins take one side of the fish school as the fishers occupy the other side, with their fishing gears spread out in the water, the fish are hardly allowed any space to escape. Now, neither the dolphins nor the fishers can see the direction the school of fish is swimming. So, they blindly rely on the seagull, which they know, flies in the same direction as the fish. The gull provides them with the luxury of using a sophisticated Global Positioning System (GPS) or a drone fitted with state-of-the-art cameras.

Pod of dolphins surfacing on the water

A seagull flying over the water

An Indian fisherman with nets over his shoulder


The collaborative effort between the fishers, the dolphins and the seagull often has a happy ending. The dolphins and the fishers have become friends, collaborators and benefactors of each other for generations and the seagull has tirelessly maintained its ties to both species as a crucial link between the two. For all three, their struggle for survival and identity relies on skillfully engaging with ‘life below water’. If one link in this interconnected system goes missing, life below water and everything revolving around it will start to disintegrate. So, in my understanding, sustaining life below water through the Sustainable Development Goal 14 will require ways to preserve ongoing practices, collaborations, and local customs that are already in place and further strengthening them so that the chase for life below water does not end as a zero-sum game. 

Not far from where the dolphins, fishers and seagull live there are many local communities on the foothills of the Eastern Ghats Mountain Ranges in India that are engaged in voluntary protection of their adjacent degraded forests. Known as Community Forest Management (CFM) systems, thousands of villages have taken up stewardship positions for managing local forests over more than five decades. The experience of these CFM groups tells a coherent story about ‘life on land’ (SDG 15). I highlight three key elements of this otherwise longer story: 

  1. A person standing on a forest hill with a long walking stickThe Thengapali system (or taking turns through rotating a bamboo stick) is a practice where one household takes a turn watching the forest on behalf of the entire community. When this person returns from the forest after finishing his turn as a community watch person, he/she places the bamboo stick in front of their neighbour’s house. Having the bamboo stick in front of one’s house signifies their turn to watch the forest the next day. ‘Forest is life’ for these highly forest-dependent communities and the thengapali system has been the foundation of sustaining life on land for generations. 
  2. Many community forest are blessed with Mohua trees (Madhuca longifolia), the seeds of which are a great source of edible/cooking oil. Community forests provide each village household with enough Mohua seeds to produce cooking oil for up to a year’s need. To allocate this precious resource, the entire village is divided into four groups, each group then is allowed to collect Mohua seeds for a specific number of days before another group takes over. Households engaged in seed collection report to the CFM committee who measures the entire collection by using a large and a small basket (see picture). The household collecting the seeds is allowed to take the big baskets while the seeds from the small basket goes to the community fund. At the end of the Mohua season, the cumulative collection of seeds from all of the small baskets is equally shared amongst all households. Here, principles of equity and non-discrimination are the cornerstone of sustaining life on land. 

People standing around a large and a small basket filled with seeds

Inidian villagers ration seeds under a large tree

  1. Each community forest nurtures different types of species - some have bamboo, others have bushes for fence material, a few others have trees used as thatching material, and other have leaf litter for fuel. CFM systems have developed reciprocal arrangements whereby they share and exchange these forest products across village boundaries, a practice that has continued over generations and has become a crucial element of sustaining life on land. For these CFM groups, without such elaborate and finely crafted systems of sharing and reciprocity, life on land will forever remain incomplete. 

Indigenous Indian man holding large bamboo stick

Two people carrying tree branches on the back of their bicycles

Indian woman bending over and touching pile of leaves she is standing on


What lessons can we draw from these stories to apply to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals 14 and 15 - life below water and life on land? There are, in fact, quite a few. The stories about fishers, dolphins and the seagull from Bay of Bengal and Community Forest Management from the Eastern Ghats Mountain Ranges provide evidence to these crucial lessons for success of SDGs 14 and 15.

  1. It would be a pity if we fail to respect the endless amounts of ingenuity, experiments and everyday risks on the land and below water. 
  2. Life’s sustenance, no matter whether in water or on land, is shaped by principles of reciprocity, linkages, trust, cooperation, collaborations and sharing in ways that are both material and non-material in nature. 
  3. Life below water and on land may be threatened by negative power dynamics, prevailing inequities and rampant injustice which need to be addressed by exploring who gains, who loses and who controls life on land and below water. 
  4. Adding power and recognition to the existing voices on land and below water will have long-term implications for sustainability. 
  5. Life below water and on land is a continuous movement – people who directly engage with issues on land and below water in their everyday lives are the best people to address those issues, provided an opportunity is given. 
  6. Life on land and below water takes shape in the local context which requires localising the global goals (SDGs) and turning them into local agendas as a way to achieve success. 

Indian villagers discussing around a campfire at night

Group of Indian women sit on floor in a half circle


Understanding ‘life below water’ (SDG 14) and ‘life on land’ (SDG 15) has been an integral part of my professional work and academic research over the past twenty years. I started exploring life on land through my engagement with CFM groups in the Eastern Ghats of India and slowly became an avid follower of life below water. My current research focuses on combining both life below water and life on land using an integrated social-ecological system perspective whereby sustainability of both rests in the idea that they are a highly-interconnected system rather than disconnected chunks of resources.

This story is part of our series on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Faculty of Environmen