Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Story time

So my last few substantive posts have not been exactly all sunshine and puppy dogs.  This one is a bit brighter. At the Maru we are going to start interviewing members of the Malawian fishing industry, from the officials who regulate it all the way through to those who actually do the fishing.  As we have been talking more with the fishing communities on the lakeshore we have heard some interesting life-stories and thought why not share them. Understandings of Africans outside of Africa tend to be quite limited and monochromatic.  This is our little effort to add some color and diversity to them and have some fun along the way.  Our first interview will be with Alex, our good friend and the local government fisheries officer for the Kande area.  Stay tuned.  


Friday, June 22, 2012

Necessary secrets

So this is a bit of a long one.

As I spend more time with Lake Malawi’s fishers and those who manage them I am constantly impressed by the sophistication, prudence, and practicality with which they look after their fisheries and themselves.  Whether they are sustainably exploiting the lake’s resources I do not know, nor do they, nor does anyone.  We are hopeful at the Maru that we have taken the first steps towards answering that question with the development of our community-based fisheries monitoring program, but in the meantime I think it is extremely important to recognize the existing management system that local Malawian fishers and government fishery officers have already put in place with very limited resources and technical expertise. 

Too often Western development projects do not take the time to do this.  When recognized at all, existing local management systems are usually labeled as corrupt, ineffective, or chaotic.  These judgments are usually based more on Western arrogance and ignorance than anything else. Premised on the naïve presumption is that good management principles are universal, they believe that what works in New England will work in Malawi, if only we educate Malawians (insert your favorite developing world country) enough.  Setting aside the issue of whether first-world fisheries management systems work even in the first world, such a mind-set, beyond being demonstrably wrong, also poisons the ability of Westerners and non-Westerners to work together on an equal footing.  Even worse it incentivizes locals to hide from Westerners the real mechanisms by which they manage their activities for fear of being denied the financial and educational benefits that donor programs bring.

We have constantly encountered this problem in our efforts to establish the Maru’s fisheries monitoring program.  Local Malawians tell us what they think we want to hear rather than what they really believe is real or possible.  With patience, and as our relationships with some local Malawians have deepened, we are slowly breaking down this knee-jerk lip service.  Yet ironically, and though I am very thankful for the trust that we have been able to build, we are now in the same difficult position that Malawians encounter. Namely that if I were to on this blog enunciate the mechanisms by which these fishers manage their fishery in too much detail I might expose them to charges of corruption, illegality, and “chaos.”  The fact that I forcefully disagree with these likely allegations, wouldn’t minimize the possible negative fallout.  The Maru is simply not a powerful enough voice to act as the fishers’ defender.  And so as I proceed with this post I must unfortunately do so carefully with pseudonyms, vague generalities, and finally glaring omissions.

The fishing village with which we have been most involved, let’s call it Chamboville, is a collection of wood and mud huts, most very makeshift and shabby looking.  One might think that the owners of these shacks are truly destitute, eking out a precarious living without the time or capability to think about, let alone implement, a fisheries management system.  But this is wrong and only the most obvious of many other mistakes that a cursory assessment of Chamboville might make.   The reason that most of the houses are ramshackle is because they are also temporary and a sign of Chamboville fishers’ thrift rather than their destitution.   Most of them are not permanent residents of the area but rather seasonal migrants.  They are at Chamboville to make and save good cash in order to support their families back home.  Fishing can be a lucrative industry. 

Chamboville also has a political infrastructure. There is a president, vice-president, secretary, and accountant.  The current president is also the founder of Chamboville.  He came to the area 6 or 7 years ago, made a good catch, and decided to stay.  The local chief assented to this for reasons that are unclear but which may be connected to the fact that the president’s older brother is a fairly senior government official.  Since then Chamboville has grown.  Migrants from the founder’s home region have poured in and Chamboville is now home to roughly 70 dugout canoes and enough fishers to operate them.  Anyone who wants to live and work in Chamboville must receive permission from the president. It is usually given.  From time to time when disputes arise between fishers then the president and his representatives will arbitrate and in extreme circumstances can expel a fisher from the village.  This has happen recently.

The local government fisheries officer, who has jurisdiction over Chamboville, lets call him Bob, has been posted to the area for a few years now.  He is intelligent, capable, and hugely overstretched.  Without personal motorized transportation he is supposed to monitor over 30 landing sites and fishing villages along a roughly 80 kilometer strip of lakeshore.  Luckily most of these fishing villages, like Chamboville, have informal political hierarchies, sometimes called “Beach Village Committees.”  In the case of Chamboville, Bob has a good working relationship with the president.

Most recently I accompanied Bob to Chamboville to pilot our monitoring survey.  Bob also needed to speak to the president.  Unfortunately he was ill.  Nevertheless the vice-president was present and business could proceed.    To understand that business however you must know a little context.
Last year the former president instituted what he called a “zero-deficit budget.”  As a result of this permit costs for the fisheries industry rose dramatically.  Amongst Bob’s many other responsibilities, he is charged with issuing these fisheries permits and collecting the appropriate fees for them.  Given the breadth of his jurisdiction, this is an impossible task without the help of local BVCs.

And so Bob spoke to the vice-president in this regard.  And now I must be very careful and vague in how I proceed.  But imagine for yourself what might be happening between Bob and the BVCs given the circumstances:

1.      Bob and the Fisheries Department are overstretched.
2.       He is dependent on the BVCs to help manage the fisheries
3.       The BVCs are informal organizations with no legal status.
4.       The cost of fisheries permits has gone up drastically.
5.       The prices for fish have not gone up as drastically.
6.       The national currency has recently been devalued by over 40%.

And before you think that I am hinting at corruption and illegality, rather think in terms of how Bob, the fishers, the BVCs, and even the government Fisheries Department, might be engaging in creative, flexible, and practical, accommodations to each other so that they all can survive.  For that is what is really happening.  Community-based management is a reality in Malawi but it is happening along Malawian rather Western principles.

And it is such a shame that I can’t talk about it.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cool photos

These are from a photo competition at "The Lake Malawi Forum,"  a great UK-based online forum focusing on the cichlids of Lake Malawi. 


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Who is this?

I was looking through some of our photos and found this fella?  Anyone know what he is besides gorgeous?

The data is not enough

As the Maru builds an ever increasing database of information on the cichlids and environmental aspects of Lake Malawi I keep thinking back to Bruno Latour’s book “Science in Action.” In it he talks about the distinction between mere information and science and the process by which the former is translated into the later.  A couple of years ago when I first read the book I found it pretty theoretically compelling but my personal experience doing “hard” science was fairly limited.  For a “soft” social scientist like me much of what Latour argued for didn’t seem too radical.  But for “hard” scientists, the arguments of Science and Technology Studies (STS) proponents like Latour have always been a much tougher sell.  Hard scientists have been uncomfortable with how STS researchers, to their minds, have been cluttering the science-making process with too much social and historical context and contingency. A scientist’s job, they argue, is to discover universal truths, not ones tied to particular social and historical contexts and so paying attention to such things is unnecessary and even dangerous to the extent that it may render suspect the objectivity of scientific findings amongst non-experts.  Think about the controversies over climate change or evolution. 
However the more hard science we do at the Maru the more I think that those STS guys have been on to something for awhile now and that the stories of the social and historical contexts within which scientific work is being done do indeed deserve to be told.  On this blog I have with varying levels of enthusiasm been trying to do just that by talking about our journey at the Maru as a young Research Center trying to gain knowledge and credibility on the shores of Lake Malawi. 

For about the past eight months we have been engaged primarily in two research projects, Weather and Water Quality Monitoring and Underwater Population and Biodiversity Surveys.  We’ve collected a lot of data points, some of which I have shared on this blog.  It’s been a lot of interesting fun and I believe in the integrity of the methods we have used to collect the data.  However in many ways I am learning that data collection is the easiest part of the whole science-making process.  Getting our data recognized as actual science internationally and as something important locally is going to be a much longer and harder slog; one that is full of social networking, credibility-proving, shameless self-promotion, and institutional partnership building.  We will also have to be attune to the current cultural and political events occurring in various social networks both in Malawi and abroad such as cichlid ichthyologists, cichlid hobbyist forums, Malawian fisheries department civil servants, academics, fishers, and NGOs.   

And so far I fear that the Maru is having a harder time in this “Stage 2” of the science-making process.  Certainly it isn’t from a lack of trying.  We have sent out dozens of “cold-call” emails to prominent cichlid ichthyologists, Lake Malawi limnologists, and others who have worked on Lake Malawi, but have received very little response.  To those who have responded I thank.      

We have also applied for a grant to train up some students from Mzuzu University in underwater observation techniques and cichlid fish identification.  It was an interesting process but I’m not optimistic.  We will know in July.

We have also signed a formal MOU with the fisheries department at Mzuzu University and are hoping to receive a few of their students as interns to do some field research.

We are also working with another NGO called Ripple Africa on starting up a Fisheries Conservation Project.  In conjunction with the Malawian Fisheries Department and local Beach Village Committees (BVCs) we are trying to implement a more effective management system in Nkhata Bay District.  Ripple is handling the community organizing and legal aspects of the project and the Maru is setting up the monitoring and evaluation system meant to see what impact, if any, the new community-based regulatory regime is having.

And finally we are inviting international volunteers and interns to research with us.  Currently we have one student from Amsterdam University doing research on soil erosion.  Hopefully many more students come and through them the Maru will be able to build institutional relationships with their respective universities.

But frankly right now these efforts seem rather tenuous and even a little tedious.  The naïve side of me wants to cry out “Isn’t the data enough?” while the STS side of me knows that nothing lives in a vacuum, not even science.  If a tree falls in a scientific forest without anyone to hear it, it falls very silently.             


Monday, June 11, 2012

What do you call a physician?

Good article on how and why us humans might benefit from paying attention to diseases that affect both man and beast from the New York Times.