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Marine Stewardship Council

A Perspective from the Third World

Chandrika SHARMA

12 / 1997

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), formed by a collaboration between Unilever and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), throws up several causes for concern. The initiative appears to place all its faith on the magic of the market. The statement quoted at the head of the MSC document, that "the market is replacing our democratic institutions as the key determinant in out society", is disturbing. In democratic institutions, the initial endowments of the participants are the same. Everybody has one vote. Markets function on votes which are expressed only in money terms (effective purchasing power), which, as we all know, is hardly distributed equally. In the Third World, where assets, income and purchasing power are so unequally distributed, this blind faith in the almighty market’s ability to correct all economic and environmental ills, is questionable. The history of unsustainable fishing in Third World tropical waters is closely related to the expansion of the markets in the First World for fish from these waters. Fishing techniques like bottom trawling and purse-seining were imposed in preference to the more seasonal, selective and passive techniques used by artisanal fishworkers. The struggle of fishworkers in Asian countries to ensure a future both for the fish and for themselves, has meant a unilateral opposition to destructive fishing techniques. On the face of it, the MSC initiative to promote sustainable fishing need not initially be against their interests. Contradictions, however, are likely to arise, since those who buy the fish from these fishworkers will be able to exercise control, `from the outside’, in dictating terms of harvesting and levels of prices. This could create a complete loss of autonomy for small fishers, with respect to the pattern of harvest and disposal of the produce of their labour. Even assuming that their harvest may be covered by MSC ecolabels, the consumer price premiums for this may not translate into higher incomes for dispersed producers since ecolabelling of marine fish is likely to be controlled through the lower-level functionaries of the international marketing chain, and not through organisations which represent the interests of fishworkers.The influence (invisible control)of Unilever over the MSC initiative, by virtue of the fact that it is initiated and funded by it, will give it a new channel of access to the producers over whom it has had no control until now. This possibility to make the crucial connection between the realm of production and the realm of sales can also lead to the wiping out of all small-scale commerce which does not fall in line with the product differentiation process sought to be achieved by Unilever in the name of ecolabels for `sustainable fishing.’ With this achieved, Unilever can then set the environmental standards it likes and dictate the prices it wants, both at the consumer and the producer end. Additionally, through the MSC initiative, Unilever can influence enormously the minds of First World consumers- they would believe that buying Unilever brands is the sure way to save the fish and oceans. In such a market context dominated by one multinational merchant wielding such enormous influence on economic and non-economic factors, prices will be set to achieve a high rate of profit. They can not be treated as revealing the `true’ economic significance of goods or reflect the preferences of `end consumers.’ Moreover, Third World governments are likely to be cautious about the MSC initiative. The recent efforts by the US to unilaterally restrict import of trawl-caught shrimp on environmental grounds were protested by the government and industry in India, as being in violation of WTO provisions. Clearly, efforts to impose environmental standards of the First World using `non-market’ methods, which then provide obvious advantages to the interest of trade and consumers of the First World alone, will be resisted, however strong and sensible the environmental logic of the initiative may be.

Palabras claves

pescado, transnacional, ONG internacional



A global initiative to achieve sustainable fishing needs to be far more broadbased, with the participatory support of fish producers, the processing industry, governments and the consumers. Such initiatives cannot be "left to the market" nor do they "just happen." They have to be carefully crafted. To the extent that the MSC attempts to make a beginning in this direction, it merits the careful attention of all the stakeholders not involved in it. However, fishworker organisations need to ensure that such initiatives are of benefit to them. They need to link with consumer movements in the major consumption countries to foster greater direct trade between organised groups of fishworkers from the Third World and consumer-based institutions in the First World which are not merely concerned with consumption per se but also with reassessing lifestyles as well as their own patterns of consumption. Pressure must be exerted to ensure governmental involvement in fostering this nexus, on the premise that sustainable harvesting and sustainable consumption are necessary prerequisites for sustainable trade in which all governments have a high stake. Making the MSC initiative recognise this would be an important criteria for fishworkers’ organisations to extend support to it. All these issues need to be addressed to ensure that such ecolabelling initiative are influenced by, and are accountable to, fishworkers.


Artículos y dossiers

KURIEN, John, A view from the Third World in. Samudra Report, 1996/07, 15

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