Monday, April 1, 2013

Beach Scouts?

So I was thinking about the conversation I had with Alex in our first installment of "Voices from Lake Malawi" as I tried in vain to fall asleep last night.  Outside a drummer on the beach was pounding away. The rythmn of his beating was intended to help beach seine fishermen pull their nets shorewards in unison.  Then this morning I read this article by Zhang WeiWei on why the Chinese don't find liberal democracy particularly appealing.

Alex said a lot of interesting things all of which I will try and talk about in later blog posts.  In this one, in light of WeiWei's article, Alex's words on the limited capacity of the Malawian fisheries department led me to wonder what an effective fisheries monitoring and enforcement program suited to Malawi's particular cultural, economic and political conditions might look like.  First let me acknowledge the immediate inherent dissonance of a foreigner trying to imagine what a uniquely Malawian fisheries monitoring and enforcement system might look like.  Still, one of the many virtues of Malawian people is their willingness, indeed their eagerness, to listen to the ideas of others.

With that proviso made, another still needs acknowledgement.  Rather than wondering what a uniquely Malawian fisheries monitoring and enforcement system might look like we first must recognize that such a system already exists. Malawians are already managing their fisheries resources.  And in imagining what a more effective system might look like it would be unwise to believe that starting from scratch is possible or even preferable.  Still, as Malawians are keenly aware of, the current systems are not doing a particularly good job at either ensuring the environmental or economic sustainability of the Lake Malawi.  And yes Malawian's do care about these things.  Poverty has not ground away their abilities or desires to use current resources in ways that will not destroy their children's abilities to benefit equally from them.

So then lets imagine.

First it seems to me unrealistic to believe that there will be any near-term increases in the number of on-the-ground government fisheries extension workers.  And yet Alex states that more and better information on fishing activities is crucial.  I believe him.  So what is an alternative?  What about training monitors, known locally as "beach scouts," to assist the already existing extension workers?  Certainly these beach scouts, working on a part time basis, and recruited from already existing Beach Village Commitees would be more cost effective than deploying new cadres of fully-fledged extension workers and yet still be capable of providing some basic data.

Second, and in line with the first point it we need to have an attitudinal shift about what kind of data we expect such monitoring efforts to be credibly capable of producing.  Certainly pinpoint accuracy will not be achieved.  However instead of being disappointed with the results, or worse, being discouraged from even beginning such a scheme I think we should rather focus on the usefulness of the type of data that such monitoring could credibly provide.  First it would give us a broad official understanding of by who and where most fishing activity occurs.  Simple surveys recording how many nets and boats are present at each landing site would be a great first step towards formulating an official general assessment of fishing activities in Lake Malawi.  The Malawian Fisheries Department already possesses this information but only transiently in the heads of the many extension workers with boots on the ground.  Official surveying reports only contain official data which, as Alex admits, is based on surveys that cannot adequately capture the status quo.

Even in an ideal world where the Malawian Fisheries Department had enough resources to put more extension workers on the ground I doubt that doing so would be the best use of such resources.  Malawian fisheries are so widely dispersed along the lakeshore that stationing extension workers in such a way that all could be monitored would be extremely costly for comparatively little information gain. 

Not only would beach scouts be more cost effective, they would also enroll local community members into active and formal management activities.  Such local participatory action would help build a sense of resource-user ownership over the lake's resources that stationing foreign extension workers could never achieve.  And as Alex said in his interview, such a sense of resource-user ownership is key.