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.