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Ruining the Commons and Responses of the Commoners: Coastal Overfishing and Fishermen's Actions in Kerala State, India

The following paper gives a history of the fishery development process in Kerala state, India. It documents the ruin of the coastal commons caused by the over-intensive fishing techniques which were encouraged by official development plans, and describes the responses of the commoners to the destruction of their resource base. Special emphasis is given to the people's interactions with the state in their efforts to overcome the problems brought by capital-intensive development to the traditional fishing sector.

The paper opens with a discussion of the factors which have led to the over-exploitation of the coastal waters of Kerala since the mid-1960s. Rising international demand meant that the fishing sector became an important contributor to the state's foreign exchange earnings, and government support for investment in this sector was sufficient to overcome the previously prevailing social barriers to entry raised by the caste system. Subsidies also helped to introduce more efficient – and more destructive – fishing technology, with which the traditional, ecologically sound fishing techniques were unable to compete.

By the mid-1970s, the years of over-exploitation had resulted in stagnating or declining harvests. Productivity in the fishing sector was down, with decreased catches and smaller fish caught. Real incomes of fishworkers declined even as rising prices meant a decreased availability of fish for local consumers. In addition, there was a growing income and asset disparity between the traditional fishing population and the newly arrived non-worker owners of large mechanized fishing boats.

The collective and individual responses of the fisherfolk to the resource crisis are analyzed in the second half of the paper. The author emphasizes the evolving socio-economic and techno-ecological forces which shaped the traditional fisherfolk's actions, as well as the diversity and, at times, contradictory nature of the responses. The first step toward collective action was the development of a sense of unity based on class, rather than on caste of community. By the end of the 1970s an independent trade union had been established to articulate the traditional fishing communities' protests over commercial over-exploitation, and to channel the growing unrest. The increased political awareness and organization skills of the fisherfolk meant that the state government could no longer ignore the needs of this community, nor take their votes for granted. By 1989 some of the main demands of the fishing community, including a monsoon-season ban on trawler fishing, had been met, although subsequent events showed how fragile this victory was.

The author concludes by arguing that the traditional fishing community is most affected by the ecological damage done to the coastal resources by commercial fishing fleets. The short-term time horizons of the capitalist trawler owners, and their ability to transfer their resources to other sectors once profits decline, mean that they have a much smaller stake in the survival of the ecosystem than do the artisanal fishworkers who are, through lack of alternative opportunities, tied to the sea. However, it is precisely the mobility of the capitalist class which gives them disproportionate bargaining power over the establishment of resource management regulations.

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  • Pub. Date: 1 May 1991
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD/UN Publications