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What is "Mo"? Traditional Conservation Sites in the Marshall Islands
by Jorelik Tibon
The Marshall Islands is made of islands and atolls scattered and isolated from one another, some of which are as far apart as eight hundred nautical miles. The country has a distinct language and culture unique to these islands. However, there are slight variations, most notably between the two chains of islands. Ralik and Ratak. The traditional system of governance also differs from island to island, even between different "Iroij."
People who have been residing in the Marshall Islands have developed systems whereby they can live in harmony with their environment. As their livelihood depended on resources from the land and sea, the Marshallese developed sustainable methods of harvest of these resources, especially those used for foods. One of these methods (which has survived many generations and even until today is still maintained) was the traditional system to designate certain parts of land, a whole island, or a reef area, as a restricted site. This provided for conservation of food resources such as crabs, fishes and other marine animals used for food. These sites are called "mo," literally meaning a prohibition or a taboo. In other parts of the country, they are referred to as "laroij" denoting a chiefly land ownership.
Where a "mo" was designated, people were not allowed to visit unless the "Iroij" or Paramount Chief had given special permission. Special permission to visit these "mo" would be on specific occasions where there might be a feast, to which the "Iroij" may have the intention of inviting the whole community. On certain occasions, an "Iroij" would have authorized harvesting from a "mo" for special purposes as a last resort. For example during a famine an "Iroij" would have allowed harvesting from the "mo."
To visit one of these "mo," one must observe certain rules which can include going through certain rituals, or be prohibited from saying certain words or even using different names for some of the birds and animals. One is advised that failure to observe these rules could result in a disaster such as a bad storm that might not allow for a safe homeward voyage, or a member of the visiting party could be involved in a tragic accident.
Other rules were meant for the conservation of food resources such as those practiced on Wotje Atoll, where harvesting of coconut crab was limited to certain size and no female crab with eggs was allowed to be taken. Seasonal harvesting for different stock was also a common practice for sustainable use of these resources.
In most cases, it was through these "mo" that biological resources were conserved. Some of these "mo" are still recognized today. Although the degree to which the rules are observed varies, most people still know where the "mo" are and to whom they belong in terms of the traditional land tenure. However, in some cases, where there is a land dispute, it may be difficult to declare or enforce a "mo."
The number-one priority that was expressed in the atoll and national workshops was to reactivate "mo." It was felt that sustainable harvest of the biological resources must be put in place right away so that future generations can inherit and enjoy these resources as well. Traditional food resources both from land and from the sea are being depleted at an alarming rate, especially in the urban centers of Majuro and Ebeye. Discussions at the workshops pointed out that one measure to ensure that resources are not depleted would be to allow them safe areas to regenerate. The "mo" would create these necessary sanctuaries.
The workshops recognized, too that the three governance systems must work together to provide the necessary steps to reactive "mo." The national government can create required legislation to allow for reactivation of "mo," as well as to delineate roles and responsibilities among the three governing systems. The local governments, having immediate jurisdiction over these sites, would need to be involved, especially for the administration of regulations and ordinances. It is equally important to ensure that the "iroij" and "alap," who are the traditional owners and caretakers of "mo," to have the responsibility to ensure that these areas are protected and that traditional rules and controls are maintained, with support from national and local governments.