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Hooking the bigger fish

Coastal communities in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka have a rough time. People whose livelihoods depend on fishing inshore waters in simple, traditional craft are vulnerable not only to the many natural hazards of their environment but also to policies that often penalize the poorest sectors of society. How can policymakers learn what effect their policies are actually having? And how can the people affected by those policies get their message back to the policymakers? Work funded by the UK Government's Department for International Development is attempting to find some answers.

Conflicts over resources are common on the coast and the poor are least able to secure and defend their claims. Policies that promote new technologies {short description of image}may leave the poor, who are usually unable to take advantage of them, even more disadvantaged than they were before. For example, as the use of ice in the fish processing sector has increased, the livelihoods of those who depend on drying and salting fish for keeping their families fed and educated has melted away. Another problem is that the policies of different sectors do not always mesh well with each other. Policies to increase agricultural production may lead, for example, to leaching of agrochemicals into coastal fishing grounds. It is often the poor who suffer most from the effects of such policies.

A study of coastal communities in the three countries is the starting point for the Sustainable Coastal Livelihoods Project. Its purpose is to understand the problems faced by poor people who live in coastal communities and to identify ways of overcoming those problems. It is a collaborative project which involves government, NGOs, the private sector and village people. Most of the field research is being carried out in Andhra Pradesh in India. It is an area of particular interest because, once isolated, it is becoming increasingly connected to urban areas, modern marketing systems and the effects of policies made elsewhere.

Small consultative groups have been formed, initially at the level of local government fisheries and other staff, and with NGOs representing fishing people, to identify some of the features of poverty in the region. Subsequently groups have been formed at a more local level, with representatives of community based organizations, to identify the people that are regarded as most vulnerable to poverty. Often these have been identified by their trade, for example those who provide labour on artisanal fishing craft. The project research teams have then held meetings with these 'poor stakeholder groups'. Rather than discuss policies per se, people talk about the changes they have experienced and how they have responded. This information is discussed at the local community level and then at the regional level. In effect, this provides a two-way flow of information between different levels of society that would normally have no contact. Ultimately the project expects to produce recommendations at the highest policy making level about how to understand better the effects that policies may have on different people. Perhaps even more important is the understanding of the processes which policymakers could use in order to make ensure that their policies achieve the desired effect. More important still is that an opportunity has been created for highly marginalized people to talk about their problems and get their views communicated to higher levels.

The government of Andhra Pradesh is open to the need for better awareness by decision makers of the impact of their policies at local level. The Sustainable Coastal Livelihoods Project will, it is hoped, help poorer communities to express their concerns more effectively not least because the work has resulted in the setting up of a network of associations representing like minded groups along the coast. There is no guarantee that life will be any easier, and all the natural hazards remain but, with a stronger, collective voice, coastal communities may find themselves less vulnerable in future to the hazards of poorly formed new policies.

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