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Introduction: Rights of coastal communities

For most people living on land, the ocean is largely unknown and uncharted. We know that it is water and it is salty and it covers 70% of our planet. Coastal communities, however, have quite a different relationship with the seas. They have fished these waters for generations. They know the rich diversity of aquatic life -- from seaweed and grasses to crustaceans, cephalopods and varieties of fish.  

The coasts, a very specific zone between the land and the sea, are a living ecosystem with intricate dynamics sustaining vegetation and both animal and human populations. In this dossier we look at coasts as a source of natural resources on which particular communities have depended for centuries, and the rights of these coastal communities or groups to the resources of the oceans.

The FAO estimates that fisheries and aquaculture provided direct employment and revenue to around 39 million people worldwide in 2002. The highest number of fishers and aquaculture workers was in Asia (87%), followed by Africa (7%). Worldwide, some 12 million people were fulltime fishers while over 120 million people were estimated to depend on fish, the largest wild food harvest, for all or part of their incomes.

The FAO says: “In many developing countries, which have the largest number of fishers, the spouses and families of fishers are occupied in coastal artisanal fisheries and associated activities. Reliable estimates of the number of people engaging in fishing on a part-time or occasional basis, or undertaking rural aquaculture as unpaid family workers, are difficult to obtain. As a consequence, the socio-economic importance of these activities is more difficult to measure, although their contribution to production and income, and to food security for coastal and rural communities, is substantial.”

It is in this context that we elaborate on the rights of coastal communities in general and the fish workers in particular, in India.

With a coastline of around 8,129 sq km, an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching 2.02 million sq km, and a continental shelf of 468,000 sq km, India’s traditional fisher people number some 13 million (with millions more dependent on them), spread across nine coastal states and six union territories. Our coastline is dotted with 3,937 marine fishing villages whose inhabitants live below the poverty line and are mostly illiterate.

As Thomas Kocherry, a priest and social activist who has been working with fisher people and their movements since 1971, points out in an interview in this issue: “The lives of these fisher people have been organically linked to the coast for centuries... (but) …the aim of multinationals, and some rich local inhabitants, is to transform the coast into a money-making haven. In the name of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and tourism development, more and more people are being displaced from the coast. And, in the midst of it all, there are natural disasters like tsunamis, cyclones, floods, etc.”

Most of India’s fisher people have no skills other than catching, processing or distributing fish. In the past, fishing was more a food-gathering activity involving only mature fish. It did not impact the regeneration of resources that were plentiful compared with the small demands of the population. But as human populations increased, fishing graduated from gathering to hunting and from navigational skills and experiential knowledge of hydrology and astronomy to more efficient technologies like mechanised trawlers and GPS systems. Today, fishing in Indian waters has grown beyond what can be supported by the finite resources of the Indian Ocean.

Fish is a renewable resource that is freely harvested. In India, access to fishery resources is free and often referred to as ‘open access fishery’. The ocean waters in which this resource exists are therefore treated as ‘commons’, a term derived from shared grazing systems on the village greens of feudal England. As in the case of common grazing, the absence of a local regulatory authority poses a special problem in the oceans. The natural resource, instead of serving the public good, could be subject to degradation or even destruction from overuse, leading to an impact on the quality of the commons for all -- well-known as ‘the tragedy of the commons’.

It is difficult to stop such a tragedy with a regulatory structure that is rendered ineffective, argues Kannan Kasturi in his article which traces the origins of coastal regulations in India to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in June 1972, and details the undermining and violations of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification of 1991. The article also throws light on an abortive bid by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 2008 to change the coastal regulations, with a brief to “promote development without hampering the environment”. The move was opposed by fish workers, environmental groups, governments of coastal states and even a parliamentary committee, and the government was compelled to let the draft Coastal Management Zone (CMZ) notification lapse as of July 2009.

In the past, India’s coastal areas and resources were managed within a framework of traditional knowledge accumulated over the centuries. Community groups such as fishers and other coastal populations enjoyed customary or traditional rights to exploit resources and to fish in adjacent coastal areas, including lagoons and coral reefs. How the modern state has impacted the customary practices of these communities, and how, without communitarian controls, access to coastal resources is now open to all, giving it a whole new meaning, is illustrated in N P Chekkutty’s detailed study on social and communal tensions due to mounting pressures on marine resources along the southwestern coast of India, consisting mainly of Kerala and south Konkan.

Years of ‘development’, while benefiting a few, have marginalised several others and, as Rahul Goswami argues in his article ‘Ocean pollution’, the overall burden of economic growth on coastal India is poorly understood. The waste generated by India’s coastal cities flows into our seas, endangering the health of millions and threatening the livelihoods of those living in thousands of fishing villages. The attitude of governments -- that the sea is a convenient dumping site for the wastes of modern society -- has to be changed.

‘Coastal refugees’ by Richard Mahapatra draws attention to the need for government to acknowledge the threat of rising sea levels. The sea is reportedly rising at the rate of 2.4 millimetres per year; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that a rise of between 15 and 38 cm could displace tens of thousands of people and threaten drinking water sources on the country’s main coastline.

In ‘The hungry tide’, Santadas Ghosh describes the real impact of Cyclone Aila that struck the Sunderbans on May 25, 2009. In a sudden, unforeseen event, almost the entire sweet water ecosystem was washed away, along with sustainable stocks of fish, snakes, rats, earthworms, grass and cattle. “Scientific research has already established that the greatest threat to the future of the Sunderbans is posed by continued global warming and the resultant increases in sea level… Cyclone Aila has shown what this means for the delta,” Ghosh writes.

‘Perceived conflicts and real solutions’, by Sanjiv Gopal looks at the turtle conservation-fisher livelihoods conflict in Orissa. On the one hand, ongoing and large-scale mortalities of Olive Ridley turtles point at poor implementation of conservation and management strategies and laws, while on the other, fishermen still argue against regulations, and traditional fishermen, in particular, face severe economic hardships. “Making things worse is the fact that any approach to resolving this perceived conflict has largely been uni-dimensional, restricted to turtle conservation or, alternatively, to the issue of livelihoods from the fishermen’s perspective alone. No serious thought has been given to the larger ecosystem on which both turtles and fishermen depend,” says Gopal.

Awareness on the environmental front has meant in the broadest sense that all fishing is environmentally damaging to a greater or lesser degree. The freedom to catch fish, or to use the marine environment without regulation, is no longer absolute. Fisheries have therefore to be managed if they have to be sustained. And some freedoms must be sacrificed to allow continuing use of the marine environment and its resources by present and future generations.

Infochange News & Features, April 2010