Pandemic bares extreme vulnerability of Asian fisherfolk | #RuralVoicesMatter

As the world grapples with the continuously unfolding crises in public health, economy, and food security, fishing communities face exacerbated hunger, job insecurity, and uncertainty of survival.

In the webinar “Famine at Shores: A Forum on Fisherfolk and Fishing Communities in Asia,” speakers Herman Kumara of National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO) in Sri Lanka and Fernando Hicap of National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations in the Philippines (PAMALAKAYA) highlighted the extreme vulnerability of the fishing sector especially amid pandemic.

The speakers attribute the current situation of the Asian fisherfolk to long-time state neglect and the misplaced government actions to contain the COVID-19’s spread.

Can’t see the video? Click here to watch the webinar’s livestream.

Impacts of domestic lockdowns

According to both speakers, the lockdowns imposed in many countries across South Asia and Southeast Asia cripplingly hit small-scale fisherfolk. 

Movement restrictions banned fishing activities. In Bangladesh, seven out of 10 coastal fisherfolk in the Bay of Bengal suddenly lost their livelihood. Filipino fisherfolk from the coasts of Cavite, Bulacan, Pampanga, and Bataan provinces were also subjected to the same situation since Manila Bay was declared a “No Sail Zone” in mid-March. 

The ban also caused migrant fishers to be stranded in their boats at harbors, and some of them have died in India. Women fisherfolk engaged in post-harvest and selling activities also lost their jobs. 

Operational expenses added to the discouragement of small-scale fishers to sail. In Indonesia and the Philippines, these included the high fuel prices and boat registration fees. Because of these, fisherfolk in Eastern Java suffered a 70% decline in their incomes – from USD 300 to USD 90 for 15 days of fishing.

Similar to farmers’ experience, lockdowns have prohibited the fisherfolk to sell their produce to the market. Logistical constraints resulted in market closures in Sri Lanka and the storage difficulties in Bangladesh. Because of these, farmgate prices of seafood dropped while their retail price increased due to the scarcity of such fresh food items. This double whammy contributed to food insecurity, especially in many poverty-stricken communities.

With the rising costs of living amid pandemic, fishing families in Asia struggled to survive. For instance, a study found that half of the Bangladeshi fishermen in the coastal districts of Cox’s Bazar, Lakshmipur, Bhola, Patuakhali, Khulna, and Bagerhat can no longer afford three meals a day.

To cope, some women fisherfolk in Sri Lanka and the Philippines resorted to getting loans despite having no capacity to them back. Their children may also end up dropping out of school, as they cannot comply with the technological needs of the online shift in education.

Conditions are worse in coastal areas struck with disasters amid pandemic. In Bangladesh, Cyclone Amphan destroyed 18,000 houses, killed 80, and damaged Sundarbans, the largest littoral mangrove belt in the world. Meanwhile, typhoon Ambo and the Taal volcano eruption in the Philippines devastated fishing communities in Eastern Samar and Southern Tagalog, respectively.

Inadequate government response

Government aid is expected to alleviate the vulnerable situation of marginalized sectors, yet it failed to deliver. Worse, notably in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Philippines, the fisherfolk sector was excluded in financial assistance programs for agriculture.

In some countries, local governments were able to provide food aid to fishing families. However, these were not enough to sustain them throughout the past two to three months of lockdown. In Karachi, Pakistan, villagers of Ibrahim Hyderi once received a few hundred bags of five-kilogram flour. In Cavite province, Philippines, each beneficiary family only received three relief packs that included two to three kilos of rice and canned goods. The worth of each pack is USD 4 to 6. 

Fuel subsidies were also not provided in India. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan fisherfolk have no access to fuel because filling stations were closed, even if they were exempted from the lockdown’s movement restrictions.

Kumara and Hicap criticized how existing fisheries policies have contributed to the poverty and hunger of small-scale fisherfolk since the onset of the pandemic and how these have failed to protect oceans and coasts. They said governments are taking advantage of the crisis to advance neoliberal policies in the fishing sector. The “blue economy” framework, in particular, threatens to displace the communities and livelihood of small-scale fishers.

For instance, fishing communities in Bulacan, Philippines were demolished amid “stay-at-home” orders for the construction of the 3,500-hectare Aerotropolis project. Another is the introduction of cage farming in Punjab, Pakistan, which will compete with the production of local small-scale fisherfolk and affect the diversity of freshwater fish. 

Aside from aquaculture and development aggression projects, Asian fishers also face China’s occupation of the West Philippine Sea. Its military installations and deployment of armed forces to control the area have resulted in restrictions on fishing activities of surrounding countries and the destruction of at least seven reef sites.

Way forward

Both speakers agree that the fisherfolk movement and its advocates should be united in confronting these many issues to reclaim access and control of their waters.

Hicap said the key is in organizing the fisherfolk on common issues and interests. To effectively build alliances with other sectors and gather the widest support, these issues should be raised and linked with other humanity issues. Kumara added that the fundamental rights of fisher communities should be promoted based on human rights protection.

The fisherfolk sector may be facing various challenges – the socio-political divisions in countries, the repression wielded by states, and the need to survive the pandemic – but the rural peoples movement will always persist to demand for just, equitable, and sustainable fisheries that hinge on small fishers’ rights and people’s food sovereignty. ###

The webinar “Famine at Shores: A Forum on Fisherfolk and Fishing Communities in Asia” was held July 14, 2020. It was jointly organized by the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty, Asian Peasant Coalition, and Pan Asia Pacific. Azra Sayeed, member of the PCFS Asia Steering Council, moderated the event.

(Written by Gail Orduña, PCFS Global Secretariat staff)

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