Back to Main
To Overseas Start Page
The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
April, 1998 Vol. 1 No.4

Fishers in Coastal Resource Management:
Masters Of Their Fate

By Asuncion E. Sia







We have all the good reasons to raise a howl against the recently reported killing of whale sharks in Sorsogon. Our argument is clear and to the point -- it is not about protecting the sea or saving an endangered species, at least not simply for its own sake, but about preventing the potentially irreversible loss of productivity of our coastal and other marine resources, on which depend the lives of millions upon millions of people the world over.

The artisanal fisherman: trapped in the struggle for existence?
Now try telling an artisanal fisher, in his struggle for existence, to give up the all-too-uncommon chance of earning P10,000 in order to save a fish, never mind that it’s the world’s biggest fish. His argument is all the more forceful in its simplicity -- my family needs to eat. Indeed, what future can anyone speak of if he didn’t survive today?

All environmental issues are difficult, but coastal issues are particularly problematical in their complexity. Look at one coastal issue -- resource depletion, for example -- and you’ll find a host of interlocking problems -- use of destructive fishing practices, poverty, poor law enforcement -- that cannot but perpetuate each other. Where did it all begin? Where will it end? Experts tell us there is a root problem, and the term "tragedy of the commons" describes it perfectly.

"If each of these concerns is examined carefully, one underlying factor can be found that is common to all, de facto open access to a common resource," says Frederick J. Vande Vusse in his paper entitled Experiences in Community-Based Coastal Resource Management. "‘De facto open access means that in most places anyone can fish at any time using any method despite the existence of laws declaring many of these practices illegal. The common resource in this case, the coastal fishery, is owned by everyone, but few of the resource users feel any real sense of ownership or responsibility to care for it... Their rationale for overharvesting and using destructive methods is, ‘If I don’t catch that fish today, someone else will catch it tomorrow. Better that it be me, today.’"

Without proper management, this bounty would be lost forever.

When laws are not enforced, when coral reefs are blasted to pieces, when a whale shark is killed, everyone blames the government. And yet, Vande Vusse points out, "much of the responsibility actually rests with the fishermen themselves. They make the day-to-day resource management decisions. They decide if dynamite or cyanide will or will not be used. They decide to purchase more boats or fine mesh nets," often because of poverty and peer pressure.

The question is, if fishers felt a sense of ownership for the sea that they fish, would they make different decisions? Does the concept of tenurial rights have any meaning at all in the highly amorphous environment that governs coastal resources? At sea, fishers have long been the able captains of their ships, making short-term decisions based only on the tide and the seasons -- would they also make wise and prudent stewards of a finite resource, keenly aware and acting on the knowledge that their day-to-day actions have long-term effects on their livelihood, and indeed their children’s future?The answer is ‘yes,’ if we go by the experience of the growing number of coastal communities that have attempted -- and succeeded at -- making resource managers out of fishers through community-based coastal resource management (CRM).

Grassroots Rising
The Philippine experience in CRM spans two decades and is well-documented. It began with the traditional top-down approach, whereby the government established, regulated and controlled marine reserves or parks in an effort to protect coastal resources, often without consulting with or involving the community. The results of those initial efforts were mixed at best, dismal in most places. "Coral reef areas proclaimed as marine parks continued to be ravaged by fishers and users of destructive fishing methods," says Seeds of Hope, a collection of case studies on community-based CRM in the Philippines published by the College of Social Work and Community Development of the University of the Philippines.

Another publication, Collaborative and Community-Based Management of Coral Reefs, puts it this way, "Governments tend to base decisions on a purely economic rationale that it is incapable of accommodating the values and benefits of reef resources. Government decision-making usually occurs in a centralized manner, which rarely includes consultation with and participation of the resource users and other concerned members of the community. This has resulted in failure to incorporate popular knowledge, skills, and energies in management systems; in the marginalization of traditional users; and in the loss of local rights and benefits. Because of the inability of government to respond to local needs, reef management initiatives are often considered irrelevant by the communities that are supposed to benefit from them."

Such discouraging results notwithstanding, the experience offered development workers many valuable lessons. Former Environment and Natural Resources Secretary (now chairman of the Commission on Higher Education) Angel Alcala, acknowledged as a pioneer in the use of marine sanctuaries as a CRM tool, takes exception to the suggestion that the traditional approach was a "failure." He says, "It was not a failure, not when you look at where it has ultimately led us. Today, we have success stories like Apo Island because of the lessons we learned from our past experiences in CRM, whether community-based or not."

Located off the southeast coast of Negros Island in central Philippines, Apo is a small (72 ha.) volcanic island with five white sand beaches and topographically rich and biologically diverse fringing coral reefs. Its singular claim to fame rests on its successful application of the community-based marine sanctuary concept as a CRM tool.

Apo’s story began in the late 1970s when extension workers from Silliman University first started introducing the marine sanctuary concept to the island’s 500 or so residents. The initial response was lukewarm at best. In fact, when the barangay (village) council voted in 1985 to establish the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary, they did so with the support of only a weak majority of their constituents.

"The community organizer told me, ‘We won’t get anywhere if we waited for the entire island to be convinced, so let’s just move on,’" Liberty Pascobello Rhodes, the village chief at the time, recalls. "I called a general assembly and told everybody, ‘We can sign a two-year contract with Silliman, and if you all still object to the marine sanctuary after two years, we can dismantle it.’ In two years, nearly everyone on the island had become a staunch supporter of the sanctuary."

Apo’s success came at the right time, when people were needing some kind of validation for the then growing acceptance of community-based marine sanctuaries as an effective approach to ensuring the sustainable management of coastal resources. Today, Apo has become a favorite destination for development workers looking for a model of sound marine protection. "The community still faces some issues that need to be resolved with the help of national agencies," Mercy Teves, head of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the provincial government of Negros Oriental, observes. "But in terms of management of the sanctuary itself, they’re quite self-reliant. It’s a real community effort, so much so that even the children are involved."

Rupert Sievert of the Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP), a technical assistance project implemented by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), says Apo’s experience is not universally replicable, however. "Each site or community has its own unique circumstances which determine the extent of local participation," he points out. "But Apo Island can show the benefits, to both the natural ecosystems and the community that depends on them, of consistent and sustained protection. Also, it shows how a strong-willed local executive, a highly conscious citizenry, supportive national agencies and the active involvement of research institutions contribute to the success of an environment protection program."

Not all communities have been as fortunate as Apo to have all the right ingredients in place, but many have attempted their own CRM projects, often through the initiative and community organizing and education efforts of cause-oriented groups or their local governments. From as far north as Bolinao in Pangasinan to as far south as Panguil Bay in Mindanao, the term "coastal resource management" has necessarily come to infer the involvement of the community. As early as 1992, Roger Ricafort of Helvetas observed that community-based CRM has "come of age," has become "mainstreamed", and has "permeated different levels of development interventions among the fisherfolk and coastal communities." He noted, "The amount of money pouring into projects labelled as [community-based] CRM, especially from bilateral and multi-lateral aid sources, has grown significantly in the last few years."

Says CRM expert Alan White, who was involved in the establishment of the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary, "A highly successful and sustainable fisheries management project may be characterized by the establishment of, first, a viable organization or organizations in the community; second, a working marine reserve protected by the community; third, sources of livelihood, usually based on coastal resources; fourth, networking arrangements with local, national or international organizations and agencies; and, fifth, a capacity-building program. Based on these criteria, it is estimated that about 50% of the 20-odd community-based coastal or fishery projects in the Philippines can be considered successful."

Protection On Their Own Terms
There are problems to be sure; indeed, one might look around and say there are more problems than there are success stories in CRM. Getting the community’s support is a painstaking process to begin with; sustaining the people’s involvement in and commitment to CRM is an even tougher job.

"The people must benefit directly from resource management," says Nida Calumpong, head of the Marine Laboratory of Silliman University. Fishers can’t be expected to give up a portion of their fishing ground to a marine sanctuary, for example, unless they see some payoff for their sacrifice.

Given time and adequate protection, a fishery resource will recover its natural productivity, resulting in better fish catch and generating other enterprise opportunities. Several studies have estimated the economic values of tropical marine ecosystems, some of which Alcala has cited in his paper Economic Benefits of Protective Management of Coral Reefs in Central Philippines: "Managed mangroves in Thailand (Khao Yai National Park) attract tourist, earning about US$20 per hectare per year (Dixon and Sherman 1991), but in Malaysia managed mangroves earn US$1,100 per hectare per year in terms of fish and forest products (Turner 1991). The seagrass bed, another marine community, provides fishermen an income of US$80 per hectare per year in terms of fish catch of one species alone (Siganus fuscescens), according to the report of del Norte and Pauly (1990). Our own work on coral reefs shows that 100 hectares of good coral reef produce at least 25 tons of fish annually; this comes up to about US$500 per hectare per year (Alcala 1981, Alcala and Russ 1990)." Also, according to another study, Apo Island has generated an annual net financial benefit of US$94,103, or US$941 per hectare of reef, as a result of increased tourist arrivals at its marine sanctuary.

These benefits may be sufficient to convince fishers of the advantages of good resource management, but often they are not enough to ensure their continued commitment to CRM. Like everyone else, fishers need to feel a sense of security about their livelihood. They need to be assured that they wouldn’t be giving up their fishing ground to a marine sanctuary, for instance, and then find others fishing it.

"The more effective the protection and management of a fishery resource is, the more tempting the resource becomes to poachers," notes Sievert. According to Alcala, years of protection of the Sumilon Marine Reserve in Cebu resulted in a steady rise in annual fish yields, from 9.7 in 1976 to 14.0 in 1977, 15.0 in 1978, 16.8 in 1978, 14.4 in 1980, and 16.8 in 1983/84. But it took only a few days of intensive destructive fishing to reverse this uptrend in fish catch. "In 1984," relates Alcala, "the reserve lost its protection (largely as a result of the intervention of the mayor of Oslob) and was fished heavily, resulting in declines in catch rate of 57% for hooks and lines, 58% for gill nets, and 33% for traps for 1985/86; the total catch from all fish gear declined by 54%, from 36.9 in 1983/84 to 19.87 in 1985/86."

On hindsight, development experts say the Sumilon Marine Reserve was so easily violated because there was no community to manage and protect it (Sumilon Island is uninhabited). Explains White, "The creation of the reserve did not adequately involve the community. The motivation of Silliman University (the reserve's main implementor) was therefore misinterpreted as antagonistic to the needs of the local residents of Cebu: the benefits of the marine reserve were not clear, and research activities were often misunderstood."

In addition, notes White, "traditional rivalry or territoriality may also be a source of conflict. It is uncommon in the Philippines for organizations to have jurisdiction over land in a neighboring province (as Silliman had over Sumilon, which belonged to Cebu), particularly in marine areas. This political problem was overlooked by both the mayor of Oslob and Silliman University at the creation of the [Sumilon] reserve in 1974. When a new mayor was elected in 1980, he tried to exercise his power over 'Cebu's territory', using irrational arguments and possibly having selfish motives. Lack of community rapport and the vagaries of politics have both contributed to this overzealous territoriality."

"The relative success of community-based fisheries management projects may be traced to the organized communities whose stakeholder-members had developed a sense of being proprietors and claimants of the resources," says Alcala in his paper Roles of Community-Based Fisheries Management and Marine Reserves in Coastal Fisheries. Government's role, he adds, is "support the development of effective community-based fishery management regimes by stakeholders of fishery resources."

In an interview with Fortune Magazine last year, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto put forward this thought-provoking analysis about poverty: "The poor do not have their property documented the same way the rich do: as tangible market-worthy entities. They do not participate within the legal framework that underpins any market and democratic system. They’re outside it. And until they’re integrated there is obviously an imbalance that will continue to hit us over the long term. We need to start asking ourselves what the government must do to make people feel they are part of the system again. My answer: It needs to give people legally what they already have, property. When that’s done, they will have something of value, something legitimate that they can then circulate in the market."

About 80% of the country's 40 million or so coastal residents live below the official poverty threshold.

It’s a long way from community-based CRM to making real property owners out of fishers, many of whom have little or no tangible assets to speak of (about 80% of our country’s 40 million coastal residents live below the official poverty line). Still, if -- by empowering fishers as able day-to-day managers of marine resources -- CRM were to even just bring to a peaceful end the de facto open access regime that now prevails in our coastal areas, it would have done much to help reverse the vicious cycle of poverty and environmental destruction that now plagues our coastal communities.



            To Over Seas Start Page
Back To Main

Copyright 1998 by All Rights Reserved