For developing countries, industry has often equated to exploitation. For centuries, minerals, timber, oil and other industries have left little behind except wealthy elites, enriched foreign companies, and a mess for future generations.
Perhaps pearl farming will be different, argue two researchers from the University of Vermont, Laurent Cartier and Saleem Ali. The multi-billion market for pearls promises a sustainable economic model for some coastal and island nations. By demanding pristine waters, attentive labor, and consistent oversight, pearl farms incentivize a clean environment and strong labor demand in places with little of either. “Pearl farming can be one of the most profitable forms of aquaculture” in isolated islands with “very limited economic opportunities,” write the pair in the journal Solutions.
At the moment, pearls are one of the Pacific islands’ most valuable commodities, generating more revenue than every other industry (PDF) except tourism in places such as Tahiti in French Polynesia.
Yet pearl oysters are now being grown everywhere warm waters will support them. From China to the United Arab Emirates, a growing global demand has helped feed the expansion of the industry and a small but rising interest in verified or fair trade raw materials (although there have been “no demonstrable efforts” to investigate such certification for pearls).
As pearls are tested as a new model to generate economic opportunities while protecting ecosystems, that may change. One “recent and tentative success story” is emerging in the Federated States of Micronesia where pearl farming is slated to replace income lost from reef fishing after the establishment of no-fishing zones and marine protected areas.
A report by the United Nations Environment Programme argues that linking environmental and economic well being is just good business: “there is a clear link between poverty eradication and better protection and restoration of habitat, marine fishery resources and biodiversity.”