The world’s fisherpeople are mobilising to protect their livelihood and commons, which are increasingly under threat from over-production and encroachment.
Twenty years to the date it was founded in Delhi, the Seventh General Assembly of the World Forum of Fisher People (WFFP GA-7) is being held in New Delhi again this week. Delegates have come from almost 50 countries across every continent. The assembly will conclude with a rally and public meeting on November 21, World Fisheries Day. Now, as then, the forum is being hosted by India’s National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) – a federation of fishworkers’ unions and associations from all the coastal states. A central focus of the WFFP GA-7 will be the linked issues of ‘ocean grabbing’ and food sovereignty.
According to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) statistics, almost 60 million people across the world are employed directly in capture fisheries and aquaculture; by adding those working in processing and other related activities and attendant households, one may estimate that some 300 million people are dependent on the sector for their livelihood and food security. The vast majority of these workers come from communities that have derived their living from fishing for generations. Access to the resources has traditionally been regulated through various customary community arrangements. In recent decades, this access is being threatened in multiple ways. Coastal land is now increasingly in demand for port development, aquaculture, urbanisation, industry and tourism, all of which displaces fishers from living space and customary fishing grounds. Many of these uses of coastal land also destroy or pollute fish habitats, putting pressure on catches that are already drastically depleted due to overfishing by industrial fishing fleets.
Crisis of food security made a pretext for commercialisation
Ocean grabbing also takes place in less direct ways, through the mobilisation of the language of crisis. A crisis of food security is invoked to justify an increase in production by whatever means necessary. Aquaculture, which now supplies over half of global fish production (from only 7% 40 years ago) is increasingly industrial in nature, resulting in the conversion and privatisation of vast tracts of coastal agricultural land, including vital but fragile ecosystems such as mangroves, and further destroying fish breeding grounds due to chemical and biological pollution. The crisis of declining stocks has invited solutions in the form of private property rights in fishing under the assumption that this will avert a ‘tragedy of the commons,’ where producers without a private right in a resource have no economic interest in harvesting it sustainably. This ignores well-documented evidence of a variety of community-based regimes of sustainable regulation of access and use (as well as the equally well-documented rapacious resource extraction and pollution carried out by private corporate actors). The threat to biodiversity, or to specific species like turtles, has led to the establishment of marine protected areas, from which again, fishermen have been excluded. The latest solution to ecological crisis, also likely to displace inshore fishing, is the ‘Blue Carbon Initiative’ – the demarcation and financialisation of coastal ecosystems such as saltmarshes, mangroves and seagrass meadows as carbon sinks.
Need to promote a sustainable blue economy
A newly-released report by the Programme for Social Action on the Blue Economy (industrial growth tied to the fisheries and coastal zones) details how ocean grabbing is being enacted in India. Various amendments to the coastal zone regulations over the years have made it easier to build SEZs, ports, tourists resorts and industries in this fragile zone; meanwhile, the National Policy on Marine Fisheries of 2017 directs investment toward deep sea fishing despite the fact that the majority of communities rely on the small-scale inshore fisheries. Another paper in the report describes the central government’s 2015 Sagarmala policy under which the coast will be rimmed with ports and industries aimed at international trade; a study of Gujarat fisheries documents the deadly levels of sea pollution such an industrial policy can cause. Other papers highlight land and ocean grabbing for marine protected areas such as in the Gulf of Mannar, for tourism in Goa and for the purposes of militarisation and security in the Andamans. The report offers compelling evidence that corporate actors and the upper middle classes will be the primary beneficiaries of the ‘blue economy,’ while fishing communities will lose even basic living space and livelihoods.
Processes of land and ocean grabbing have severe consequences for food security. Like peasants, with whom the WFFP has joined hands in the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, small-scale fishers are often net consumers of food. Fish has also traditionally served as a cheap source of protein. The increased value of fish and seafood in global markets – it is now one of the most highly traded food commodities – has effectively put it out of reach of poorer consumers. Meanwhile, as private property rights in fishing and the shift to aquaculture are being implemented to address a food crisis, understood primarily as a failure of production rather than distribution, traditional producers are losing control of food production. Food sovereignty is the assertion that small-scale food producers should set the terms of food production, thereby ensuring that nutritious food is available to everyone, rather than only to wealthier consumers. Protecting and promoting women’s work in the fisheries, another focus of the GA-7, is also important for ensuring food security.
New frameworks governing the fisheries and coastal zone tend to rely on market-based solutions and vest management rights either in corporate hands or in the higher reaches of government, rather than in local or community-based governance structures. An instance of this is the Global Partnership for Oceans, which brings together national development agencies, large philanthropic foundations, international environmental NGOs and the corporate seafood sector. Conspicuous by their absence are fisher organisations and movements, many of which have long and acknowledged histories of participation in global forums like the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and have made an important contribution to frameworks like the FAO’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, and its other guidelines aimed at food security and poverty alleviation.
The WFFP GA-7 signals fisher people’s intent to resist such political marginalisation, making visible the presence of powerful organisations representing large and vibrant fishing communities. Fishers have never seen themselves solely as victims. The four decades-long history of the NFF, for instance, is a history not only of resistance to dispossession and loss of livelihood, but of creative and farsighted alternatives addressing women’s role in fishing and food security, technology and energy, equitable ownership and access and questions of sustainability. Those gathered at the WFFP GA-7 are clear about one thing: fishing communities must be involved in decision-making around any policies that affect them – not only because they are most likely to be displaced, but because, as people who rely on the oceans, coastal zones and inland water bodies day after day for a living, they have a deep knowledge of them. If we are concerned about sustainable resource management, livelihoods and food security, it is imperative that we take seriously the solutions being discussed at the assembly, by those with a direct stake in these issues and a great deal of expertise about them.
Aparna Sundar is a political scientist with long-term research interests in fishing communities.