MISALI ISLAND, Zanzibar -- A conservation project based on Islamic principles is aiming to preserve the beauty of Misali Island, an uninhabited spot off mainland Africa surrounded by a magnificent coral reef.
''There are verses in the Quran that teach us why we should not destroy the environment,'' said Ali Mohammed Haji, a local fisher. ''To conserve is investment. There are a lot of benefits ... what we conserve will be used by generations to come.''
The coral reef around Misali makes the area attractive to divers, and the island itself is home to green and hawksbill turtles that build their nests in its white sand.
In order to keep out developers who wanted to turn the 222-acre island into an Indian Ocean resort, the semiautonomous government of Zanzibar -- which is part of Tanzania -- declared the island of tropical trees and volcanic rock a protected conservation area in 1998.
The Zanzibari government, CARE International, the Austrian government, the European Union, African Wildlife Foundation, Irish Aid and the local community have since established the Misali Island Conservation Association.
The group will eventually become the manager of the Jozani-Chwaka Bay conservation project, under which some 1,500 fishers have agreed not to fish along Misali's coral reef and in other breeding areas, and not to fish with dynamite, poison or nets that are tightly woven.
In exchange, the fishers will get a portion of the revenues from tourism by divers and other conservation-conscious visitors who may be drawn by the untouched beauty of Misali.
Organizers say the project depends on the Islamic concept of balance in nature, and also appeals to pre-Islamic beliefs that the island's coral caves were inhabited by spirits who would ensure good health and large catches if left offerings.
For generations, fishers from villages on nearby Pemba in the Zanzibar archipelago have been using Misali as a fishing camp and a site for spiritual activities.
Legend has it that Misali got its name after the prophet Muhammad appeared and asked for a prayer mat -- or ''msala'' in the Kiswahili language of Africa's eastern coast. When none was available, he is said to have declared that the teardrop-shaped island that points northeast toward Mecca would be his mat.
Ali Thani, who coordinates the Muslim ethics portion of the project, said his office provides local religious leaders and schools with posters and pamphlets that offer guidance on how to make the teachings of the Quran relevant to fishers and the conservation of their environment.
If the Islamic-based conservation education works on the island over a two-year period, Thani said, the concept will be tried on other parts of Africa's Indian Ocean coast whose inhabitants are primarily Muslim.
''The project is innovative as far as conservation is concerned,'' said James Hutchins, an American researcher. ''It is not demanding a lot from the resource users'' -- the fisher.
But he said the project is challenging because it involves working with fishers who remain in the conservation area, as compared to other approaches in which local communities are removed from the area to be conserved.
Of course, not everyone is happy with the project.
''We don't know why they are conserving Misali; now we cannot fish where there are fish,'' said Mkumbwa Said Ali, a 33-year-old fisherman who has been making his living at the work since he was 10.
''We are suffering ... they should go and conserve somewhere else. The project is benefiting people at the top, but we poor people are not benefiting because we totally depend on fishing.''
Hutchins said such complaints are valid because it will take time before the fishermen begin to benefit from the project, which is also introducing a savings and credit plan.
Project executive director Ali Abdalla said 40 percent of revenue raised from tourism on the island will go to the local community and 60 percent toward conservation management.
Project manager Amour Bakari denied claims that the project was fostering Islamic fundamentalism.
''We are not supporting Islam as a religion. We are supporting culture,'' Bakari said. ''We want to enable people to use principles taught in the Quran for conservation.''
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