10 / 2011
Colombia, a country with a coastline of 3200 kms is a meat eating country, explained Carlos Vieira, the Regional Director of Communities at Marviva, an NGO that works on marine conservation. And even the fish that is consumed is likely to be fish like the Vietnamese Bass, that comes from Chile, he added. The absence of fish from the food plate of Colombians points to the state of affairs of the Colombian artisanal fisherfolk.
My colleague and I were at their office in Bogota following our visit to two coastal towns, Buenaventura, Colombia’s principal port and Tumaco. These are important towns of Choco, a department dominated by Afro-Colombian communities. Both these coastal landscapes and their spread out network of estuarine tracts were witness to the drama of drug trafficking in the last two decades. Scholars state that the desperate conditions of poverty in these regions forced the communities to engage in illegal activities and criminality. Many coca fields, allegedly owned and farmed by the fisherfolk, were destroyed by fumigation or the aerial spraying of chemicals that destroyed these crops. This only worsened the plight of the communities. The local office of the UNHCR ensures that these families are supported in finding alternative incomes. Alejandro Bernal, the project leader here, put us in touch with Alex, a youngster from one of the fishing villages.
Alex along with Ajenor Salla, our boatman and Wilson and Ignacio guided us to the village Chajal on Rio Chagui. A typical fishing village of 400 to 600 households, 60% of them fish in high tide and about 20% in low tides. Each family usually does fishing for a week at a stretch and then takes a break for a week, to attend to other activities such as farming of plantain, coconut and yucca.
During the walk through the village, it seemed obvious that maintaining public infrastructure such as roads, foot bridges were of little concern to the government. The explanation was that money for repairs had to be scrapped from government schemes that were not regular. Luckily, water was available to the village as an aquaduct had been established a few years ago that brought water from the mountains.
Our guides for the day were members of local village organisations called New Hope and New Horizon. In these villages, 90% of the families were fishing families. We sat in the office of New Horizon, a wooden building on stilts, that served as a collection point where fish was brought in, weighed, cleaned and readied for the market. The 21 members of this group catch about 3 tonnes of shrimp per day but this entire catch is not valued as the fishers cannot access markets. Members pay 5000 pesos (2 Euros) a year for organisational expenses and in turn benefit from the credit facilities.
These groups were organised with the help of the Tumaco chapter of the Chamber of Commerce so that the collective would be able to access subsidies and other resources that the state may provide. Their greatest expense is ice for storing fish, each block is bought for 10,000 pesos (4 Euros) and an average of 40 are needed everyday. Each family also gets a credit of 5 million pesos (2,000 Euros) to buy a motor for their boat. Earlier they rowed manually to the fishing sites.
In Buenaventura, we had been introduced to Don Santos and Maribelle, the treasurer and secretary of a four year old artisanal fishery co-operative. This 100 member group of artisanal fishers jointly ran a fish storage and processing facility close to the local galleria. While the galleria offered the wide range of sea food in raw and cooked form for local consumption, the icing unit prepared the rest of the catch for far away markets.
The regional chapter of the national rural development agency, INCODER is in charge of fisheries and pisciculture. They offer co-financing options but these are not available to those who do not cross the hurdles of complicated paperwork and have a minimum amount of 20 million pesos (8,000 Euros). INCODER and the Ministry of Agriculture had also promised them bigger nets but they never facilitated this. To the fishermen it seems that the government is not interested in subsistence fishing.
The Community Council, the local administrative bodies, are present but are not active. Most fisherfolk do not participate in the functioning of the Councils. Pedro Wilson, an outspoken member of the group said that he cannot participate in the Council because he cannot afford to miss a day’s work. They maintain that the issues of the fishing communities are quite different and they prefer to resolve their problems through these profession based organisations rather than through the Council where they have little voice. We are told clearly that the help they receive is not from the Mayor’s office or from the state government but from the Chamber of Commerce.
We spoke to Zaida Paterson, the Director of the Chamber of Commerce in Tumaco. She has been supportive of the cause of fishermen and has extended several financial and managerial services to them. She was all for upscaling the fisheries sector with investments for improved technologies for its storage and transport. To her, this was the best way to improve the quality of life of the families engaged in fishing. During the conversation, it became evident that her main concern was to keep the fishermen away from coca cultivation and trafficking of narcotics. This was afterall a huge, vexed, international problem that complicated the political and economic life of Colombia as a nation as well as all its people.
Development through Conservation
When we were visiting, there was news in the papers that a Canadian Company had plans for oil drilling off the coast of Choco and that it had all the necessary clearances. Don Santos too had mentioned an oil drilling project that was only in the exploratory stage and had already caused damage to the local marine environment and affected the fish catch in the area. The Colombian President’s plan to project Colombia as a safe and beautiful place befitting commercial tourism also targeted the coasts. These plans for the coasts and marine areas are ostensibly for the economic growth of the nation and for the progress of the people of Choco through new opportunities. However, neither the fishermen think so nor several groups that work on human rights and environmental issues.
The necessity for an appropriate coastal development plan was emphasised by Marviva, the NGO dedicated to the conservation of marine areas and marine life that works along the coasts of Costa Rica and Panama. They had started work in Colombia three years ago. Their main themes of work are information and data generation for marine spatial planning, awareness building on marine and coastal conservation and supporting the community’s role in conserving marine resources.
They have chosen a site in Northern Choco on a three year trial basis to develop their work on marine conservation and sustainable development of the coastal fishing communities. This is a coastal area of 12 miles, with 1200 artisanal fishers living among a population of 10,500 people. The scenic beauty of the region can be gauged by the fact that 52 private hotels have been set up for tourism. A proposal for a port project is doing the rounds. The presence of such infrastructure has a negative impact on the Marine National Park in the Golfo de Tribuga.
In an effort to develop a plan that takes care of the conservation needs of the marine park as well as the economic needs of the fishing community, Marviva has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the four Community Councils of the area. They conduct awareness programmes for the Council members so that conservation and development goals can be achieved. They have also proposed an eco tourism project for marine life enthusiasts that is centred around the activity of whale-watching, a seasonal pleasure.
They are of the view that if development is planned well, it will go a long way in conserving and improving the condition of the coastal communities. Colombia does not yet face a dwindling fish catch unlike many other parts of the world. It is a critical time to build conservation ideas into the plan for the development of fisheries as a resource that can support the legitimate income needs of fishing and coastal communities. The period between December and March is maintained as the no fishing period. This is uniformly practised all across the coast. It is important that the fishers are covered during this period and alternative arrangements for earning income are identified.
A law for fisheries and aquaculture development exists and during the time of our visit it was being reviewed. However, the members of Marviva were not very happy with it as the new law emphasised the commercial aspects of fisheries rather than its conservation, despite their efforts. However, they were relieved that a separate institution will be set up for management of fisheries and this may resolve the problems of having to work within the biases of a land based management institution. Ironically, the consulta privea, a process of participatory decision making, is not extended to discussions of new laws and policies. The State’s plans for the large scale commercialisation of fisheries is evident from the efforts of Corporation Colombia International (CCI) to collect data across the coast and develop a detailed baseline of fish catch per day.
Marviva hopes to demonstrate that the sustainability of fisheries and incomes for fisher communities is possible through the creation of ethical markets. They have already found willing buyers in the restaurant chain, The Wok, for the fish landed by artisanal fishers. With a demand of two tonnes per month (and 15 tonnes annually), only fish more than a certain size are accepted. The Wok alone buys about 30% of the daily catch from the fishermen attached to Marviva’s program. Their motto for the fishermen has been to fish less and earn more by paying attention and catering to the demands for specific fish in just the right quantities.
The efforts of Marviva and of the fisher cooperatives are commendable for their vision and their willingness to experiment and learn. Between commercialising fisheries for international markets and selling off coastal and marine areas to investors, a whole range of possibilities are waiting to be created by collaborative projects between local authorities, NGOs and fisher communities. The manner in which fisheries in Colombia will unravel in the days to come will depend on whether the State is willing to be creative partners in these local processes.
This article is available in French: Gestion halieutique dans les terres basses de la côte pacifique colombienne
Manju Menon is a researcher who has been investigating and writing on the conflicts between environment and development in India. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: manjumenon1975(@)gmail.com