Teaching the taught

Eighty lakhsmaliscalefishworkers went on a strike allover India in January 1996, to protest against the government issuing licenses to largefishing vehicles. The Food and Agricultural Organization is insisting that states and stakeholders follow a Codefor sustainablefisheries. But who should the Code befor? Traditionalficherfolk have always practised sustainablefishing. But with continued political patronage that thefishing sharks enjoy, the Code seems doomed

By John Kurien
Published: Thursday 15 February 1996

Teaching the taught

Is the Code of Conduct a searc THIS struggle is for the future: that of ours and the fish," the late Joyachen Antony, leader of traditional fisherfolk of Kerala, had said way back in 1981, on the fifth day of his nirahara satyagraha (hunger strike) demanding that monsoon trawling be banned in the state, Uncontrolled trawling for prawns - the 'pink gold' - had led to extensive damage to the coastal ecosystem. Trawlers were introduced and encouraged by the government. Therefore, it was for the government to ensure their proper conduct.

Eight years of such persistent and militant demands by smallscale fishworkers and four expert committees later, monsoon trawling was finally banned in Kerala in 1989. Meanwhile, in July 1984, Joyachen and some of his colleagues had travelled to Rome to participate in the International Conference of Fishworkers and their Supporters (ICFWS), held parallel to the Food and Agricultural Organization's (FAO) World Conference on Fisheries Management and Development. There they met their peers from maritime states as widely separated as Chile, Canada, Norway, Senegal, Indonesia and the Philippines. And they realised that the world over, the problems fisherfolk face were similar: trawler intrusions, destructive overfishing, coastal pollution, exploitation by merchants and middlemen and a poor living standard. ICFWS demanded a greater recognition of fishworkers' rights to a secure and just livelihood; the possibility of participating in policymaking which affected their lives; and better resource allocation regimes to protect their access to fishing grounds. It challenged world fishery ministers gathered at the FAO Conference to evolve strategies for fisheries which were just, participatory, self-reliant and sustainable, giving centrality to the role of fishworkers. Today, the I AO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries can be taken as a late but important first step to answer this challenge.

All about norms
The Code arises out of the Declaration of Cancun, made at the Conference on Responsible Fishing, sponsored by the Government of Mexico in 1992. The Code has been formulated to be consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas of 1982, and taking into account the strategy endorsed by the 1984 FAO World Conference on Fisheries Management and Development, the 1992 Rio Declaration and the Agenda 21 of United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. It has also taken into careful account the just concluded UN Conference on Straddling Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks.

The Code sets out voluntary international standards of behaviour for responsible practices in fisheries based on the general principle that the right to fish carried with it the obligation to do so in a responsible manner. Only this can ensure effective conservation and management of aquatic life. The Code recognises the interests of all those concerned with fisheries, as well as the interests of the consumers and other users.

The signatory states and all the various interest groups have been entreated to apply the Code. It is composed of general principles and thematic and management articles. The management articles are very closely in line with the treaty on straddling fish stocks, but are devoid of the dimensions of equitable allocation and participatory management, so essential for conservation of the coastal marine resources. The articles on fishing operations are fairly comprehensive, covering fishing practices, gear selectivity, energy optimisation, marine environment, atmosphere protection and artificial reefs and fish aggregation devices.

The articles on aquaculture urge states to ensure that aquaculture will not negatively affect the livelihood of local communities and their access to fishing grounds. It also suggests promotion of active participation of fishfarmers and their communities in the development of responsible aquaculture practices.

The articles on integration of fisheries into coastal area management permit the evolution of a holistic ecosystem management. The articles on post-harvest practices and trade stress upon fairness, equity and environmental concerns top priority and calls for laws and regulations governing fish trade.

The article on fisheries research stresses upon integrated and multi-disciplinary research and the setting up of appropriate institutional frameworks to promote this. It emphasises that the role of traditional knowledge and technologies needs to be investigated and strengthened.

But the Code does not deal with issues specific to women in the fisheries. Neither does it specifically highlight the role of fisherfolks' organisations, nor envisage any special role for non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It is claimed that the Code is addressed to all these sectors and that they should actively ensure that it is implemented.

But whose code? Whose conduct is it meant to influence? The Code was drawn up during a series of technical sessions attended by government representatives and then submitted for necessary finalisation to relevant FAO committees, the Council and the Conference. International NGOS, like Greenpeace, World Wide Fund for Nature and International Transportworkers Federation, participated actively at every stage of drawing up the Code. The interests of smallscale fishworkers were represented directly by their national organisations during some sessions, but largely through the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers - a network which was a fallout of the ICFWS of 1984. Consequently, though the Code is a document largely from above, the direct and indirect involvement of smalIscale fishworkers in influencing its formulation makes a role for them in its implementation, which is both important and possible.

FAO is also planning some meaningful follow-up to monitor the Code's implementation. Measures are afoot to ensure that, as a first step, the Code is translated into as many languages as possible and widely disseminated, generating greater awareness among fisherfolks' organisations. This will also lead to international-level fishworker- NGO-government exchange programmes to learn about successful examples of responsible fisheries management and development.

Blind alley
But in the final analysis, what is the Code all about? Joyachen is history. Many others like him the world over, too, are dead - some sacrificing their lives for the cause. Who, then, will assess the implication of this first decades of international response to struggle and carry it forward?

While the nation state is the custodian of the living resources within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), its careful stewardship can only be undertaken by those who have a certain genuine 'connectedness' to the resource. Only smalIscale fishworkers like Joyachen qualify for this. They see the 'connectedness' between their future and that of the fish.

But they hardly need a code for their conduct. They have been responsible for generations, and they had demanded the code for protection against other stakeholders/ claimants to marine resource. in that sense, the Code is a good placard to be raised in the struggle for more responsible fishing, in which the mighty are accountable for their actions and the weak not ruined.

Moving towards responsible fisheries in the 21st century will depend largely on the manner in which coastal smallscale fishing communities and other fishworkers can push for a 'globalisation' of their concerns - dealing simultaneously with the global and the local.

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