Early on the night of March 16, 2021, police opened fire on a small fishing boat and killed a young fisherman named Mohammad Masud in the Meghna River. The shots were fired in the river north of Chandpur, the town famous for its well-known trading center of ilish (anglicized as hilsa) – Bangladesh’s most prized fish. Twenty-four-year-old Mr. Masud and his fellow fishermen went fishing during a ban season imposed by the government to protect juvenile ilish. Police said they opened fire in self-defense after the fishermen threw brick chips and attacked the police with sticks (United News of Bangladesh, 2021). When a local journalist went to the home of the deceased Mr. Masud, he found that the family of the poor fisher did not have even a ‘handful of rice’ to feed themselves (Hossain, 2021).
Official estimates tell us that the catch in mixed-species open-water fisheries has been increasing throughout the last decade. Catch in the ilish fishery is also rising; this is the single largest fishery in volume and economic value. Still, fishing families like Mr. Masud’s are either ultra-poor or poor. Fishers go hungry during fishing ban seasons. Armed police, coast guard, and navy patrol the fishing grounds to enforce ban seasons. In recent years, the air force has also conducted aerial surveillance (Ministry of Defence, 2018). During such a ban season in 2020, at least 5533 fishers were jailed (Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, 2020). How did conservation in Bangladesh become so heavy-handed and militarized while the poverty in fishing communities is still proverbial?
Systematic economic and environmental injustices to peasants and fishers date back to the British colonial takeover in Bengal. Exploitation and draining of resources were the main goals of the British colonial authorities. The British East India Company, and later the British monarchy, used a diversity of legal, financial, and trade mechanisms (Mukherjee, 2010) to industrialize England at the expense of the local economy and society in Bengal. To do that, the colonizers uprooted the Indigenous and customary rights to land and environmental commons. The colonial administration took control of water bodies and aquatic commons.
The British East India Company established its new land administration and revenue regime by the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793. It transferred all lands as estates to a newly created small group of Zamindars. Rivers and other open water bodies in or adjacent to such estates were now effectively privatized and part of the estates of these Zamindars. Unlike the previous local revenue collector Zamindars, these new Zamindars had legal proprietorship over the land and virtually no oversight by the civil administration. Without proprietorship and right to public access, the fishers had to pay high rents to the Zamindars and their suzerainty. The absence of tenure rights also diminished the environmental stewardship of fishers.
Later, the colonial administration introduced more legal instruments (Singh & Gupta, 2017), and ultimately there was no public-access fishery in inland and inshore waters. All rivers and open water bodies were divided among Zamindars as their jolmahal (water estate). Only the offshore areas in the Bay of Bengal were an exception. In marine fisheries, the main priority of colonial administration was securing new supply for the urban center of Kolkata (Jenkins, 1911, 1938), the main seat of the British colony in South Asia.
After the colonial empire, we did not see any significant efforts by the independent national government to address distributive and procedural injustice to artisanal fishers. When the British empire was forced out, the newly elected democratic government abolished the colonial Zamindar system and reformed land tenures by enacting a new law, the East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act, 1950. Successive governments have changed land laws to alter provisions related to existing landowners (Jabbar, 1978). But they did not fully implement fundamental and direct tenure reforms to benefit landless people, such as sharecroppers and traditional fishers. To date, there is no process in place to restore the indigenous and customary tenure rights of fishers.
Instead, the national land and revenue administrations took over all jolmahals in rivers and other water bodies previously owned by colonial Zamindars. Officially stated policy of authorities is to lease out jolmahals to fishers. But the government does not invest public funds in fisheries cooperatives, and fishers do not have access to private investment from the formal financial sector. Public agencies responsible for leasing jolmahal lack accountability and transparency. Consequently, in almost all cases, the fishing rights in jolmahals have always been bought by non-fisher investors.
The rent-seeking governance regime in open water fisheries has been continued for decades aggravating distributive injustices to traditional subsistence and artisanal fishers. Sustaining the fisheries and fishing habitats is not a priority of the lessee or the lessor agencies in the government. The fishers have been working as either laborers under lessees who are the owners of small-scale commercial fishing units or earning extraordinarily little as artisanal fishers after paying rents.
In 1986, the national fisheries agency tried to use the New Fisheries Improvement Policy to address access issues of subsistence and artisanal fishers. The fisheries agency started to take control of three hundred jolmahals from the land administration. The officially stated goal was to start leasing those jolmahals out to ‘genuine’ fishers and introduce fishing license for them. But the fisheries agency failed to achieve the goals. Later in 1995, the government abolished all jolmahals in the rivers and streams and effectively introduced riverine open-access fisheries (Thompson & Hossain, 1998). But other jolmahals in floodplains and other wetlands are still in force and still being leased out to date.
Abolishing private-access fisheries in the rivers could have been an opportunity to start working for equity and justice in artisanal fisheries. Newly introduced open access fisheries in the rivers partially improved access for riverine fishers. But there have been no legal reforms to recognize customary tenures of traditional artisanal fishers. The government does not invest in artisanal fishing communities to enable them to secure a fair share of the income from fisheries. As a result, the fishers have been unable to fully use that window of opportunity. Like marine areas – where fishing was open access from the beginning; structural barriers to equity and justice rooted in tenures, local political-economy, and the state’s economic programs also remained the same in riverine fisheries. So, the rural poor have benefitted little from riverine open-access fisheries.
The peasants and fishing communities did not stand a chance against regional and national policy priorities (such as World Bank led Structural Adjustment Programs, and Flood Action Plans) that resulted in degraded and reduced habitats of open water fisheries. For decades, open water fisheries were shrinking due to a wide range of pressures. Reduced water flow in transboundary rivers due to dams, barrages, and diversion of water in the upstream countries also significantly impacted the aquatic ecosystems in Bangladesh. Industrial and agricultural runoffs have polluted the water and impacted water quality. Changes in land use including intensive farming, flood control measures, water infrastructure, draining for agriculture and land development, and encroachment drastically reduced and degraded the habitats of open water fisheries (Ali, 1997). Especially, water engineering including embankments impacted fish biodiversity, population, and unit value of the catch (Halls, 1997).
No efforts have been made to-date to restore and conserve fisheries’ habitats, to stop or mitigate impacts of those external threats to fisheries. Rather, in the wake of shrinking open water fisheries, the government prioritized expanding aquaculture. Wealthy landowners in the rural areas have benefitted from profitable aquaculture expansion that is often responsible for reducing and degrading habitats of open water fisheries in Bangladesh. When in the late nineties, Bangladesh was experiencing a decline in a total estimated catch in open water fisheries including the single largest contributor among the species – ilish – none of these factors were prioritized to address in fisheries management plans. For instance, the Hilsa Fisheries Management Action Plan (HFMAP) in 2003 was mostly used to establish seasonal no-take zones and ban seasons.
The management plan started with a target to protect jatka (juvenile ilish less than 23 CM in size). Several top-down interventions have been gradually placed since 2003 to increase the ilish catch. These interventions include spatial and temporal restrictions on fishing, limitations on the use of fishing gears and size of ilish at the catch, regulations for fishing vessels, and distributing food-grains as rations among an extremely limited number of fishers during the fishing-ban season.
For the implementation of the conservation measures under the HFMAP, the most notable temporal interventions for the conservation of ilish is two different fishing ban-seasons; one to protect the brood ilish and another to protect the jatka. To protect the brood (mature and about to spawn), there is a 22-days long ban on catching, carrying, transporting, offering, selling, exporting, or possessing ilish fishes in the country; days of this ban period is evenly divided before and after the first full moon of Bengali month of Aswin (usually in October). And the second ban is to protect jatka; the ban is for seven months from November 1 to May 31 every year, during this time, catching, carrying, and selling of jatka (juvenile ilish less than 25 cm in size) is prohibited.
The government relies on heavy-handed enforcement to force subsistence and artisanal fishers to comply with these interventions. The government do not compensate fishers during the fishing ban seasons. Although, in 2004, the authorities have started to distribute limited amount of rice as ration through the Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) (Haldar & Ali, 2014). In the absence of any compensation, the authorities implement strict enforcement to force the fishers to comply with fishing ban seasons. For instance, from 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 fiscal year, the mobile courts imposed 2,462 prison sentences and fined 106,509 USD to law-breaking fisherfolks under jatka and brood ilish conservation activities (Md Monirul Islam, Mohammed, & Ali, 2016). The mobile courts are in fact non-judicial summary courts run by ‘executive magistrates’ embedded with law enforcing agencies
All seasonal no-take zones of ilish, aka, sanctuaries are in Ganges and Meghna River systems, and coastal near-shore waters of the Bay of Bengal. There are two declared Marine Protected Areas in offshore waters to protect megafauna species of conservation interest. Planning and designation of these riverine and marine protected areas were done in a way that did not adequately consider social outcomes. Consequently, these protected areas underperforming in ‘effectiveness and social equity’ (M. Mahmudul Islam, 2021). Most of the factors (M. Mahmudul Islam, 2011) behind endemic and proverbial poverty of fishers in Bangladesh can be traced back to the absence of distributive and procedural justice for fishers. Yet, from the beginning of state interventions to govern and manage open water fisheries, the erratic efforts were hardly participatory (Ali, 1997). More than two decades later, that ‘hardly participatory’ approach in fisheries governance has morphed into heavy-handed top-down enforcement-based and increasingly militarized conservation.
The government does not see the well-being of fishing communities as an integral part of sustainability in fisheries. Instead, the authorities are focused on increasing the volume of catch (or ‘production’ as the government says) at any price. Equity and justice for fishers is not a priority of the government as per the existing fisheries policies and plans such as National Fisheries Policy 1988, The Marine Fisheries Act 2020, The Eighth Five Year Plan, and the Workplan for Marine Fisheries Resources Management. The threats to open water fisheries as described by Ali, 1997 are largely unmitigated and still exacerbating the problems in artisanal fisheries. On the other hand, the old pattern of ownership over the means of fishing operations; capital, boats and gears, and other support equipment and infrastructure continues today both in inland and marine fisheries. And now new uses of inland and marine waters in Bangladesh are creating new threats to artisanal fishers. These new uses include unregulated navigation and shipping, sand dredging, rapidly increasing unsustainable economic activity in coastal and marine areas, coastal roads and other mega-infrastructures, military installments, ports, and power plants.
Fishery improvement and enhancement projects failed to remove structural barriers to procedural and distributive justice in the backdrop of such external threats, and systematic deprivation of land rights and tenures of artisanal fishers. For more than a decade, I have been closely observing politics and natural resources governance in Bangladesh. To me, it is clear that, the rural poor whose lives and livelihoods are most intricately related to open water fisheries have very few meaningful democratic ways to change the state’s economic programs and development priorities to change this course. But still, justice in artisanal fisheries is not widely discussed on the national level. For instance, civil society groups are not concerned that fishers are being arrested and jailed after summary trials during fishing ban seasons (Siddique, 2018).
Recently we had a series of conversations on the national level about the need and urgency of environmental justice for artisanal fishers. Late in 2020, I facilitated a series of dialogues about equity and justice in Bangladesh’s fisheries. OXFAM in Bangladesh organized the events as part of the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) program. A significant number of stakeholders – fishers, fisheries managers, fisheries practitioners in NGOs, leaders of civil society organizations, leaders of environmental NGOs, members of the academia, journalists, and other communicators took part in the events.
Although due to public health concerns amid the ongoing COVID19 pandemic, we hosted the events online. And the number of participants was not enough to adequately representing all stakeholders in fisheries. Fisheries are only sustainable when the wellbeing of fishing communities is guaranteed; small-scale fisheries stakeholders are now aware of that. Stakeholders are yet to determine how they can influence related policies to deliver environmental justice for artisanal fishers. In line with those discussions, I am sharing my observations about scenarios in Bangladesh’s small-scale fisheries. I hope these observations will help stakeholders who are willing to engage in policy advocacy for equity and justice for artisanal fishers.
- The main strength of fisheries in Bangladesh is small-scale artisanal fishing. Annually, the artisanal fishers bring most of the catch. And these artisanal fishers in Bangladesh are very clear-eyed about what needs to be changed to remove structural barriers to equity and justice in fisheries. The colonial British administration de-commonized open water fishery habitats. And the process of decolonizing water and fisheries governance is yet to run its’ course. The land reform that started with the East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act 1950 largely excluded restoring customary tenures of traditional artisanal fishers. Abolishing riverine jolmahals in 1995 did not protect the exclusive rights of traditional artisanal fishers. Consequently, the existing water and fisheries governance regime in Bangladesh does not recognize the customary tenure rights of traditional artisanal fishers, or it does not accommodate customary fisheries governance practices.
- Influential actors in the development and conservation sectors of Bangladesh consider small-scale fisheries as a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. The fundamental problems with colonial water and fisheries governance and tenure rights are generally not acknowledged. Instead, the dominant narrative is centered on the assumption that SSF is difficult to manage because of data limitations. This narrative also uses wicked problems of SSF as justifications for prioritizing intensive aquaculture (often by encroaching open water fishery habitats) as an alternative to open water fisheries. This is surprising that, in this age and time, many small-scale fisheries researchers and practitioners in Bangladesh still believe in the debunked myth of the ‘tragedy of the commons.’ Many often use this narrative to undermine any discussion about the necessity of equity and justice in fisheries. Discussing the futility, irrelevance, and racist roots of the tragedy of the commons myth is something we should do more.
- The supposed lack of data should not be a massive challenge. Western science is not the only system of knowing. Despite external adversity and the absence of the policy-support, a small number of traditional artisanal fishing communities still uses local ecological knowledge and wisdom for effective and ecologically sustainable fishing. A few cooperatives of traditional fishers are still functioning even if limited in scopes. But fishers’ knowledge and customary governance practices are not well documented and not reflected in fisheries governance. Facilitating inter-generational learning among fishing communities is also not happening. Positive changes in policy framework and tenures will enable many other fishing communities to revive their indigenous and local fisheries governance system.
- At least half of the people in small-scale fisheries are women. Particularly women are leading shore-support in fishing, post-harvest, and processing activities. In the post-harvest sector, particularly in fish-drying yards and shrimp processing plants, women fish-workers work in hazardous conditions with slave-wages risking their health. There is a significant number of women fishers too. But women are not acknowledged as a part of small-scale fisheries in the national public sphere. The government, NGOs, CSOs, and the media exclude women fishers from conversations on fisheries.
- Fishers think they are not getting a fair share of income from the river fisheries. The lions’ share of the income in the fisheries sector is going to the traders because they own the capital, and the fisherfolks need to borrow from them to finance fishing operations. Traditional artisanal fishers say that they have valid grievances about corruption in the distribution of food-grain rations for fishers during fishing ban seasons. But in final consideration, they prefer public investment so that they can build and own boats and gears and can self-finance fishing operations. Traditional fishers want abolishing of private-access fishing and reform of open-access fisheries to secure exclusive fishing rights of artisanal fishing communities. On the other hand, fishers who work as laborers in small-scale commercial fisheries want good job opportunities. Because to begin with, they are not formally recognized as laborers and not employed as per the labor laws. But these opinions of fishers are rarely heard in relevant forums. Because almost all the time, people who are not genuine traditional and artisanal fishers get invited to participate in such forums related to fisheries.
- There is virtually no representation of traditional artisanal fishers in fisheries governance and management. Small-scale commercial fishers and fish-workers are not represented in the SSF associations. SSF associations are led by and consist of owners of fishing boats and businesses. It is nearly structurally impossible for artisanal fishers in the existing fisheries governance regime. Inclusion of fishers in policy advocacy run by non-government actors for more just and equitable governance is also difficult. Because programs by both government and non-government organizations are designed in a way that in the long-term only suitable for local political leaders, informal moneylenders, fish traders, and owners of commercial fishing units to participate. Both traditional and small-scale commercial fishers lack organizing capacity due to poor economic situations and political powerlessness. Fishers are not enabled to organize at a minimum level that is necessary for the representation.
- The public agencies responsible for water, fisheries, and wildlife management are yet to take equity and justice for small-scale fishers seriously. For instance, the fisheries agency – Department of Fisheries does not have any policy framework, capacity, or resources to ensure the participation of artisanal fishers in fisheries policymaking. The volume of ‘production’ is the only success indicator for the Department of Fisheries. Environmental justice is not a mandate for the department, and it has no activity designed to ensure equity and inclusion in fisheries. The fisheries agency is heavily focused on aquaculture expansion. Most of the activities with conservation components are concentrated on the ilish fishery and constrained by project-based time and limited resources.
- Fishers say the stories of increased income of artisanal fishers due to ilish conservation is not evidence-based. Because of inflation and the rising cost of fishing trips associated with fuel, engine, boat building, and fishing gears; the net income of fishing families is still decreasing or stagnant in the best-case scenario. The existing temporal measures for ilish conservation did not consider the diversity of fishing gears and indiscriminately ban all fishing gears during ban season even if those gears are not harmful to juvenile ilish. Even after rising catch-effort, if individual fishing units can catch more fish (ilish, for instance) than before, that does not mean more income for them. The distribution of income in fisheries has not changed, and in many cases, is skewed against the artisanal fishers.
These are my observations as a practitioner, but of course, I believe, is helpful to start thinking about environmental justice in Bangladesh’s small-scale fisheries. A better understanding of the current scenario in Bangladesh’s small-scale fisheries is a prerequisite for finding the most suitable leverages for stakeholders to push for changes.
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