What are the riverine fisherfolks thinking about?

When it comes to explaining the poor state of nature-based artisanal and subsistence livelihoods of communities, many conservation and development folks in countries like Bangladesh or India or Nepal have one mantra they think fits all the complexities; the tragedy of the commons. Experts use this doctrine to explain any such challenges — whether in forests or in the wild-caught fisheries.

Generally, this explanation without compelling evidence works as a justification for top-down interventions that come later in the process. Later, comes the conservation interventions embedded with the heavy-handed enforcement by security agencies that disregard the well-being of marginalized communities and mostly focused on securing supply for nature’s goods for the urban consumers with suitable purchasing power.

To my experience, Hilsa fishery in the Bay of Bengal and Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna watershed is such a case, particularly in Bangladesh. About 50-60 percent of global Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) catch is reported from Bangladesh (Rahman, Emran, & Islam, 2010). This is the world’s largest tropical estuarine fishery.

Hilsa Fisher Meghna 2
‘It’s humiliating’, says Nasir Patwari about the economic struggle and uncertainty in Hilsa fishery. From Haimchar, Chandpur District on the Meghna river, he doesn’t see any future for his children in the fishery.

Despite the extreme poverty among the artisanal and subsistence fishing communities, Hilsa conservation in Bangladesh relies on heavy-handed enforcement of laws that oftentimes impose disproportionate punishments. Imagine, a fisher who don’t have anything to feed his family might get one-year imprisonment for fishing during fishing ban seasons. Such disproportionate punishment started at the beginning of this decade.

For instance, only from 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 fiscal year, executive ‘courts’ embedded with law enforcing agencies imposed 2,462 prison sentences and fined 106,509 USD to law-breaking fisherfolks under Jatka (juvenile) and brood Hilsa conservation activities (Islam, Mohammed, & Ali, 2016).

Currently, the annual 22-day long ban season to protect brood Hilsa is underway throughout the country.

Earlier this month, I’ve volunteered to take part in CSO monitoring of this ban season in Meghna river, and currently traveling in Brahmaputra river basin for the same. We are talking to fisherfolks and other river-dependent communities to understand what are their recent experiences with conservation and what are their thoughts about community-stewardship of riverine ecosystems. Before that, earlier this year, I led a study to understand human dimensions of Hilsa conservation in the context of community-stewardship and trans-boundary cooperation among countries sharing Ganges-Meghna-Brahmaputra river system. We collected data mostly through semi-structured and non-structured qualitative interviews, and participant observation.

Hilsa boat meghna 2
Earlier in this month, that was the last of day of the open season for Hilsa fishing.

The results of CSO-led monitoring and the previous study are expected to be published in the due process. Both of the works are part of the Trans-Boundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project’s activities in Bangladesh. I was invited by two local NGOs to take part; Gana Unnayan Kendra and Center for Natural Resources Studies (CNRS) who are partners with TROSA.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a few notes based on my learning and observations. I’ve already shared these following notes with colleagues from India, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and other Asian and European countries at the annual learning forum of TROSA in Kathmandu, Nepal from 24 to 25 July 2018. (See also this web-story on GWP’s site)

NOTES

1. The fisherfolks explain that despite very low income they don’t plan to stop fishing because fishing is their traditional (Chouddo purus) ‘life’ (Jebon), and all other aspects of their lives are interconnected with their fishing identity. In differently worded statements, most of them echoed the attitude that they can’t think about any other livelihood options and lifestyle other than fishing because this is what their ‘jaat’ (inheritance), and this is in their blood; diversely paraphrased Bengali dialects they have used can be translated into ‘this is who we are’.

2. The fisherfolks don’t think ‘the tragedy of the commons’ can explain the process behind the decline of the fishery. Most of the respondents identify ‘problems’ in the supply chain and conservation regime. They think fisheries conservation are reluctant to engage and utilize community’s readiness to conserve the rive- commons including fisheries. A notable number of the fisherfolks indicates that fisheries conservation are not willing to look into complex issues related to the migratory character of Hilsa fish and is not prepared for delivering conservation-benefits to local communities.

3. About all of the fishermen said, by ‘conservation of fisheries’ they understand ‘gun’ (bonduk) meaning police and other law enforcing agencies they encounter. They clearly determine that the ‘slow revival’ of the fishery is not bringing any significant benefits to them as the old supply chain is still in place.

4. Traditional fishing families blame diversion of water for irrigation both in Bangladesh and upstream countries for the poor state of fish habitat, and they also think rising use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticide, and insecticide in agriculture are to blame for dwindling catch.

5. Fisherfolks say they were always willing to be the stewards of fisheries biodiversity (nijeder ta nijeder e rokkha korte hobe), but they also need to feed their families.

6. When it comes to their expected state of community well-being, they place the highest value on spending time with families, ability to afford education for their children, and capacity to continue their generational fishing occupation. When asked what will be the ‘most rewarding outcome’ from a potential revival of the health of the riverine ecosystem and the Hilsa fishery, a large number of them said they ‘will be able to spend more time with their families’ because they will not be needing to go for fishing trips throughout day and night. Most of them said they can ‘die in peace’ by knowing that ‘the future of their children is secured.

The heavy-handed and disproportionate law enforcement neither take into account this strong environmental ethic that defines these traditional fishing communities nor care about their well-being.

Now it’s the responsibility of local CSOs, NGOs to explore more about human dimensions of such fisheries conservation, to gather more insights into the river basin communities’ readiness for the stewardship of environmental commons.

Photos: All photos taken by me

References:

Rahman, M. A., Emran, M., & Islam, M. S. (2010). Hilsa fisheries management in Bangladesh. Regional Consultation on Preparation of Management Plan for Hilsa Fisheries. Chittagong.

Islam, M. M., Mohammed, E. Y., & Ali, L. (2016). Economic incentives for sustainable hilsa fishing in Bangladesh: An analysis of the legal and institutional framework. Marine Policy, 68, 8–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2016.02.005

Thoughts from Pathways 2017 conference, the future of human dimensions

As a journalist, when I started inquiring about ‘community-based conservation’ projects in 2010, I anticipated that we will be dealing with works which are empowering and enabling people into conservation, but that was not to be. We have found out that, in many cases, communities are less likely to be planning or implementing the conservation projects and more likely to be silent ‘poster child’ for the NGOs who are. Not only CBCs, to my experience back in Bangladesh, other approaches to conservation are also built on the gross dehumanization of people who are suffering the most from ecological degradation. And oftentimes, the ‘best’ leverage to trigger conservation interventions turns out to be very costly for the people who are the least negative actors in the system.

In this context, I am happy that I got the opportunity to attend the Pathways 2017 Conference in Colorado last year. It was very positive to listen to the first-hand account of professionals from many countries that, things are changing in many places. Most particularly, considering ‘human dimensions of wildlife conservation’ is being gradually popular among managers, slowly, but it’s happening.

YMCY Estes Center Fireplace
‘What an awful fireplace’, a friend commented after seeing this photo on my Facebook wall. Except fireplaces decorated with animal trophies like this at YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center (located between Rocky Mountain National Park and the town of Estes Park), the Pathways 2017 Conference venue was a very quiet and scenic place. I was not surprised to see herd of Elks outside my window in the morning. ‘Ample opportunities to see wildlife’ is well advertised on YMCA’s website. Elks in flocks still frequent the 860-acre mountain resort where ‘wholesome Christian environment’ ensure that they are not being disturbed.

More than three hundred professionals involved in social science aspects of fisheries and wildlife management took part in the conference from September 17 through 20, 2017; mostly academics, and there were other scientists, NGO professionals, and students. Partnered with The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the conference theme was; ‘Futures: Integrating Human Dimensions into Fish and Wildlife Management.’ With a poster session, a number of panels and workshops, and at least 142 (not official count) contributions as oral presentations, it was very tightly scheduled.

Organized by the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at the Colorado State University, to my knowledge, it is THE largest knowledge forum to know about HWC works and meet the related people. Pathways is also a training platform focused on ‘increasing professionalism and effectiveness’ in the human dimensions of fisheries and wildlife management.

Elks a YMCA Estes Park
The wild mountain elks on the campus worked as ‘energizer’ during the breaks throughout the conference. And, seasonal warning signs of ‘bear activity’ brought hope to some participants, though the conference ended without any reported encounter. I remember a conversation during an Elk-watch. One of my colleagues exclaimed that ‘now that’s something that we call human-wildlife conflict!’ I added that, how about ‘human encroachment into wildlife habitat?’ The reply was intriguing; ‘I don’t think so. Maybe something worse could have happened if we were not here.’ Now, that’s something. What could have been happened if ‘humans were not the dominant species.’

It’s not my purpose here to inventory all the sessions and presentations I attended, but just a few notes are in order. And, of course, nothing preoccupies me during looking at a conservation intervention as much as the stake of the community who is being affected or expected to participate. So, I was mostly focused on that type of presentations and sessions.

Getting mainstream: Research related to human dimensions of wildlife conservation can be traced back to as early as the 1930s in North America (Stevens & Organ., 2017). But still, in the particular case presented by Stevens and Organ, the funding ratio for HWC research has not significantly increased. But interestingly, diversity of HWC research projects has been increased involving diverse stakeholder communities, and ‘society began to demand greater input into decision-making regarding wildlife and fisheries management’.

Rocky Mountain National Park
At 8000 feet, the temperature was fluctuating between 2 and 8-degree Celsius. The sudden change in altitude and temperature was little difficult for me. But after our presentation (Self-funded Model for Community-led In-situ Conservation of Sea Turtles), one day I went for a hike to more higher altitude into the national park on a 7-mile out-and-back trail. I was alone, and throughout the hike, while I was, of course, enjoying the well-conserved landscape I could not stop thinking about the indigenous people who were massacred and almost wiped out from this region. The massacres continued, even in many cases ‘accelerated’ after the independence from Britain. Probably later in November last year, I came across a news story on the Denver Post that, ‘Rocky Mountain National Park is going back to its roots, expanding its representation of Native Americans.’ Now, it should make us hopeful of the future.

Another thing I would like to note that, at least half the presentations I have attended was about working with something ‘first of its kind’ or ‘one of the first’. Social Suitability Index (SSI) for predator conservation that ‘measures the cultural context for conservation in a region’ (Kraftee et al., 2017), for instance. Given the history of big cat conservation, one can think that this could have been done long ago if there were enough attention and resources. And, that is a possibility if it is mainstreamed into conservation narrative. I remember, President and CEO of Association of Zoos and Aquarium, Dan Asher’s main argument during his keynote, that is, ‘there are no human dimensions of conservation, conservation is all about humans.’ It is an very effective rhetoric to show the way forward; we need HWC to be mainstreamed into conservation.

The challenge to transform ‘human dimensions’ into the ‘new normal’ of conservation: And, how do we do that? There are many critical opinions out there. And, with my little experience as a practitioner, it does not seem like a disciplinary case. For instance, mainstreaming social sciences (Bennett et al., 2017) in conservation will not do the job as such. Of course, it might help HWC to be broadly accepted; we will be seeing more works of this kind. But I can’t see that will necessarily transform HWC into the new normal of conservation. To me, the challenge is, whether HWC will enable us to intervene in core political and policy premises of traditional nature conservation narrative that still see ‘human dimensions’ as just another ‘tool’ to do the old job more effectively, that is, continuing the ambivalence towards ecological justice while celebrating only the presumed success of species-level conservation.

 

References:

Stevens, S., & Organ, J. (2017). The Evolution of Human Dimensions Research through the Lens of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program Grants in the Northeast United States. Presentation, Pathways 2017 Conference, YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, Colorado.

Kraftee, K., Larson, L., Powell, R., Allen, L., Hallo, J., & Jachowski, D. (2017). Assessing Cultural Context for Predator Conservation. Presentation, Pathways 2017 Conference, YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, Colorado.

Bennett, N. J., Roth, R., Klain, S. C., Chan, K. M. A., Clark, D. A., Cullman, G., Epstein, G., Nelson, M. P., Stedman, R., Teel, T. L., Thomas, R. E. W., Wyborn, C., Curran, D., Greenberg, A., Sandlos, J. and Veríssimo, D. (2017), Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation. Conservation Biology, 31: 56–66.

Gellately, Robert. 2006. The specter of genocide: mass murder in historical perspective. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Conservation in former colonies, how to stop dehumanizing people

The more I was attending those meetings, the more I was getting this feeling that as if I am sitting among a group of colonists who are making plans to set up new reserve in an occupied country; in the countryside, ‘protected’ from access by the colonized people; where the white settlers will be enjoying the utilitarian and intrinsic values of the ‘nature’, and the natives will be living on the edge to serve the whites.

Problem with this feeling is, first of all, I am not recounting memories from past centuries (I am not that old, you know), those meeting happened between 2013 and 2016. And, there were very few white people attending those meetings. Those meetings were not taking place in India under East India Company’s brutal rule, or in colonized Zimbabwe, those meetings were held in present-day Bangladesh. And most importantly, no one was talking about the violent business of colonization; cleansing, slavery, or dislocation of native communities, in old or new form, neither.

Now, let me use the vocabulary of a good-hearted politically-correct liberal naturalist; those meetings were about nature ‘conservation’, where conservationists (experts, practitioners, government officials, local representatives of international NGOs) were discussing ‘spatial management’ or ‘protected area’, and so on; they were discussing strategies, management plans for ‘protected areas’, to create ‘alternative livelihoods’ for the ‘local communities’.

Probably, you can make a guess, this type of meetings are generally workshops, consultations, seminars, conferences and so on, mostly organized by INGOs, NGOs, UN agencies, and universities. Unfortunately, I have found myself among the organizers, sometimes. It’s been almost one year since I am not attending any such meetings, but all these thoughts recently came back to me while I was talking to one of our colleagues; we were on a very long-distance call about something else, but he was seemingly uncomfortable about a discussion recently took place in Dhaka which he was a part of.

It was a discussion about conservation of Hilsa, and one of the talking points was, riverine communities engaged in wild Hilsa fisheries are ignorant people, ‘beyond amending’, and we should think about pulling them out of this largely subsistence and artisanal fishery and re-employ them as workers in export-oriented ready-made garment factories. Maybe it is a noteworthy fact that most of the experts who attended the meeting are aquaculturists.

Children at Saint Martins
”The question is, if the best leverage for a conservation intervention is harmful for the people who provide the least negative trend in the system, then is the leverage really well-thought?”

It is not just something being discussed here and there by some groups, it is happening. Rather than focusing on addressing major stressors in social-ecological systems, conservation projects are going after the most vulnerable communities. Because simply it is ‘doable’ to mislead about the ‘indicator’ of success. For instance, when in a fishery hundreds of mega-trawlers are dredging without Turtle Excluder Devices, a conservation project can just declare success by forcing out some subsistence-oriented fishing families from the coastal waters to urban slums and name it as ‘alternative income generation’.

If you do not have the historical experience as formerly colonized people, the experience of being dehumanized in this way, you will find it very difficult to get the idea, why these discussions are reminiscent of the brutal colonial era; how in 21st-century conservation is still rationalizing violence on people.

So, while protecting or conserving the nature always sounds unquestionably innocent when we live in our liberal bubbles, it is not that rosy for the people who are suffering most from ecological degradation without contributing much in the process of degradation, and again they become ‘victim’ of nature conservation efforts. When it comes to ‘conservation’ efforts by a specific government or inter-governmental agencies or international or national NGOs; things are not very black and white for the people living on the edge.

The question is, if the ‘best’ leverage for a conservation intervention is harmful to the people who provide the least negative trend in the system, then is the leverage really well-thought? Was it chosen because it was deemed as the best possible leverage to start creating a positive trend? Or it was just hand-picked based on the ease-ness of delivering the project? If you are a conservation partner of government in the global south, in countries where oftentimes political participation is restricted, you know it better, there’s no other easy things to do, than motivating such a government to go after the marginalized communities.

But we can’t allow it to be continued. Because in this time when the unsustainable global economy is at its peak with all the consequences in the forms of global warming and extinction threat and so on, we can’t afford any more false hope in conservation.

If any ‘conservation’ efforts exclude the ‘nature’ from social system, if they consider nature as ‘resources’, if they deny the indigenous relationship, knowledge, and practices of communities, if they consider communities as ‘means’ to achieve ‘conservation’ ends, we should call those efforts out, those projects are not conservation, something else.

Conservationists should certainly stop excluding nature from societal spheres. In this way, we will be able to see that, we are not the messiah saving the ‘pure’ nature from the ‘people’. We need to be conscious of this savior complex of ours and avoid it.
And, when working with the communities to empower them against internal and external stressors within the social-ecological system, we should certainly stop stereotyping about communities because as a people no community is a homogeneous group. Individuals in a community need to be recognized for their unique vulnerabilities as resilience.

Conservation needs to empower people who are the worst victims of ecological degradation; in countries like Bangladesh where political participation is very limited, that is a very difficult thing to do, and the job of conservation is to start addressing it no matter how much difficult it is. Of course, there is the sectoral limitation, we can’t just start talking partisan politics, we should not. But working with communities for ecological justice is a good way to start, it will help flourish clusters of locally-led conservation efforts.

The development agencies who fund conservation efforts run by the governments in the global north need to understand that, if they want to serve interests of their taxpayers, which they are supposed to do, the interests should be mitigating the biggest global ecological crisis in human history, not aggravating it.