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Lifting Fishers Out of Poverty

During her address to the 7th General Assembly of World Forum of Fisher People in New Delhi,  J Mercykutty Amma, Minister for Fisheries, Cashew Industry & Harbour Engineering, Government of Kerala lays emphasis on empowering the fishers through collective action and cooperativization.

Fisheries are important sources of food, nutrition, income and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Moreover, fish is one of the most-traded food commodities worldwide with more than half of fish exports by value originating in developing countries.

Recent reports highlight the tremendous potential of the oceans to contribute significantly to food security and adequate nutrition for a global population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. It is in this context and with this high expectation that the 7th General Assembly of World Forum of Fisher People is being organized.

Small-scale fisheries contribute about half of global fish catches and represent a diverse and dynamic subsector. It employs more than 90 percent of the world’s capture fishers and fish workers, about half of whom are women. Despite their importance, fishing communities in general continue to be marginalized, and their contribution to food security and nutrition, poverty eradication, equitable development and sustainable resource utilization are neither fully recognized nor realized.

Securing and increasing the contribution of fisheries face many challenges and constraints. The development of the fisheries sector over the past three to four decades has in many cases, around the world, led to over exploitation of resources threatening the habitats and ecosystems. Customary practices for the allocation and sharing of resource have been changed as a result of non-participatory and often centralized fisheries management systems, rapid technology developments and demographic changes.

Small-scale fishing communities very often suffer from this unequal power relations. In many places, conflicts with large-scale fishing operations are an issue, and there is increasingly high interdependence or competition between small-scale fisheries and other sectors.

In most developing countries, fishing communities are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The root causes of poverty in small-scale fishing communities are associated with a number of factors. All these factors contribute significantly to small-scale fishers’ dependence on intermediaries. These intermediaries are in a position to take advantage of fishers throughout the whole food chain – buying their fish; providing them with credit; offering them land on which to build their homes; and extending consumption loans. This dependence traps fishing communities in a web of exploitative relationships.

Poverty existing in fishing communities is of a multidimensional nature and is not only caused by low incomes but also due to factors that impede full enjoyment of human rights including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Fishing communities are commonly located in remote areas and tend to have limited or disadvantaged access to markets, and may have poor access to health, education and other social services. Other characteristics include low levels of formal education, existence of ill health and inadequate organizational structures.

The opportunities available are limited, as fishing communities face a lack of alternative livelihoods, youth unemployment, unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, forced labour, and child labour. Pollution, environmental degradation, climate change impacts and natural and human-induced disasters add to the threats facing small-scale fishing communities. At risk are hundreds of millions of proletarian people who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods, food security and nutrition. All these factors make it difficult for fishers and fish workers to make their voices heard, defend their human rights and tenure rights, and secure the sustainable use of the fishery resources on which they depend.

Empowering fishing communities through strengthened fisher folk organizations and collective action is one strategy that may be pursued to address challenges and to enable poor communities to gain access to resources, services and markets as well as to have their voice heard in the decision-making process. This strategy is aligned to specific actions for improving opportunities for the rural poor to access decent employment and social protection.

In this context, the role of National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) and the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP) assumes great significance. Indeed there is a diversity of organizational forums in the fisheries sector, and new organizational designs are being created that are responsive to the specific social, cultural, historical and economic context of fisher folk.

Experience shows that policies to enable fisherfolk organizations to flourish and become equal partners in development have to catch up with these organizational forums, including through the provision of appropriate technical advice and support from NGOs, academic institutions, and fisherfolk’s own network of organizations. Activities should also be there to build organizational capacity among fishing communities.

Fishers’ organizations, both formal and informal, provide a platform through which fishers and fish workers exercise their right to organize, participate in development and decision-making processes, and influence fisheries management outcomes. However, many obstacles to collective action exist, and action to overcome difficulties in building organizational development is key to changing the path of rural development in smallscale fisheries.

The need to address these challenges is one reason for collective action to empower fish workers to pursue their shared objectives more effectively. The wide diversity in typology of organizational development shows the need for creativity and local adaptation, confirming that solutions are context-specific.

A combination of state intervention, public welfare programmes, intervention by social activists and collective action by the fishers themselves can improve the situation of fishing communities, creating opportunities for these communities to cope with the adverse risks and other sources of vulnerabilities that constrain fishers’ empowerment.

Organizations have the potential to address the power imbalance within the fisheries sector and vis-à-vis other sectors. Indeed the act of organizing is a challenge, but an even greater challenge is sustaining the organization, keeping the members active and committed, and adapting to new challenges.

Policies to enable fisherfolk to engage in collective action and form associations are essential, but so too are organizational development and strengthening. Mainstreaming gender is a key challenge for many organizations. Women often play significant roles both in the fisheries value chain and in supporting and sustaining organizational activities, but they often have less say in the organizations.

The Government of Kerala is committed to a shift in governance of small scale fisheries to a broader approach that recognizes fishermen participation, local stewardship and shared decision making in the management of fisheries. Through this process, fishers will be empowered to become active members of the fisheries management team, balancing the rights and responsibilities and working in partnership rather than antagonistically with government.

Local communities may be encouraged to take more responsibilities for solving local problems. There will also be institutional arrangements that bring together all stakeholders. A revival of customary institutions is also emerging, including an appreciation of their role in conflict resolution and fisheries management.

The state Government also held consultation with international bodies like Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) through the aegis of Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India on sustainable management of fisheries resources with the fishermen at focal position. As a prelude to it I attended the 2nd Indian Ocean Rim Association Ministerial Blue Economy International Conference in Jakarta on May 8-10, 2017 where the 21—nation grouping discussed ways to strengthen maritime cooperation. I had wide-ranging consultations with international experts in the field there.

The Government of Kerala is also committed to attaining the targets set by the United Nations under the SDG 2030 programme of the UNDP, of which Goal 14 is Life Under Water. This is primarily aimed at reducing marine pollution, curbing overfishing, managing the marine and coastal ecosystem in a sustainable manner and providing access for even small scale fishers to the marine resources and markets.

With a view to ensure sustainability of resources and the safety of fishermen at sea, the State of Kerala has taken many initiatives in the recent past. It has banned juvenile fishing and imposed Legal Minimum Size in the case of 58 species of fishes. It is also in the process of implementing vessel tracking system with a view to regulate fishing effort and the safety of fishermen at sea.

It has initiated a new programme to get rid of plastic wastes in the sea (Suchithwa Sagaram scheme). The state has also submitted an ambitious project for availing assistance to the tune of Rs 12,757 crores from Green Climate Fund (GCF) for improving the resilience of vulnerable communities and coastal stretches to heightened climate change induced impacts.

Further the state has also entered into an MOU for implementing a scheme on disseminating information on Potential Fishing Zones (PFZ) to sea going fishermen with Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Hyderabad, India.

It is also in the process formulating an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan (ICZMP). The governance model proposed for Integrated Coastal Zone Management is based on shared information, in consultation with stake holders.

Government of Kerala also intends to embrace the idea of co-operativisation in deep sea fishing with the objective of making the small scale fishermen capable of extending their area of operation and in further expanding beach auctioning of fishes which are expected to shift the balance of power in favour of fishers leading to the empowerment of fishers and lifting them out of poverty.

Incidentally I may mention here that with a view to have wider, meaningful consultation on sustainable fisheries management, the State has initiated actions to convene a meeting of the fisheries ministers of South India in December, 2017.

(Views expressed are author’s personal.)

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