Are fisheries activists and researchers afraid of being seen as Feminists?

“Despite the denigration of feminism, in the popular media and in the jokes casually traded by men, feminism is the “radical notion that women are people”, and so, have equal rights.” Letter from Yemaya editor


In the July 2013 edition of Yemaya, the gender and fisheries newsletter of the International Collective in Support of Small-scale Fishworkers (ICSF), the Editor, Nilanjana Biswas, pointed out that women fisheries activists were frequently afraid of being branded “feminists” because of the pejorative connotations of the term. And yes, she wrote,  “feminism is the ‘radical notion that women are people’, and so, have equal rights“. [See also our glossary explanation of the origins and use of the term feminism –].

This observation about the resistance to being branded a feminist arose partly as an overall reaction to the challenges facing women in small-scale (and other) fisheries, but also directly from the Yemaya report, by Natalia Tavares de Azevedo and Naina Pierri, on the June 2013 International Congress on Women in Artisanal Fisheries. After this South and Central American event, Natalia and Naina wrote:

A striking point in the discussion was…

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1st anniversary of questioning misogyny in fisheries

Today is the 1st anniversary of the first post on womenandfish, and as it is June 8, it is also #worldoceansday .  Yesterday, I successfully made it through my thesis defense and presented my research to a room full of friends, family, and colleagues.  I answered a few great questions- one in particular I am still chewing on.

In response to my results (specifically those in the post Becoming butterflies) my buddy Raz asked, “Is the level of misogyny in Siquijor going to limit the ability of women to participate in fisheries management?”  The short answer is no, because while it may limit it today, it doesn’t have to limit it tomorrow.  Let’s continue with two examples.

1) In the field, I completed an interview with a female Bureau of Fisheries staff who thought it was incomprehensible that women could or should guard marine protected areas from poachers.  After I turned off the recorder, I told her about the women in Maite who approached violators on the beach day and night.  Her eyebrows raised, her eyes went big, and she said, “really?!” I think her opinion on what women can do changed in that moment, and a big window of opportunity flew open.

2) Also in the field, when I ended a presentation of my preliminary results, the group of 30+ was very quiet for a few moments.  And then a hand raised and a man asked, “So, do you think women make better project managers? Because that is also what I am beginning to observe in the mountains with land management.”  I explained that perhaps sometimes they do make better project managers, but I don’t mean to say that we should be excluding men from fisheries management.  Androgyny will not serve us any better than misogyny.  It is very likely that some of the fishermen in attendance were embarrassed by the quotes I had captured from them that were degrading to women.  Fishermen are half the story and I do not support pushing them aside.

These two examples illustrate that misogyny is not the end of the story, but only a moment in time.  Exposure to new things challenges and shapes our worldviews whether we are American or Filipino, highly educated or barely literate, woman or man.  As I have talked and written a lot about what the women in Maite had accomplished, it seemed that around the island, and even around the world, people are interested in the possibilities that women bring to the table of environmental management.  The exchange of information pokes holes in people’s perceptions of women.  I have seen that the consequences of sharing what I’ve learned is real, and it can have a positive impact not only on women’s well being but also on our planet ocean and our global village.  So let’s celebrate #worldoceansday by flinging open the windows of opportunity for women. Please share this story with a friend.


Enforcement of MPAs

In response to my cousin Benny’s questions…my last post could use a little more background information.  Here is how enforcement of the MPA works.

Most people guarding the sanctuary are normal community members; I would say that usually they do not carry weapons unless they are authorized to do so as a deputized Fish Warden and issued one.  If you are guarding and catch a violator, you have options.  As I saw a few times, the women pulled out whistles and yelled at violators who were walking the tide flat and searching for creatures to eat.  These are considered warnings and are often undocumented.

If you catch someone fishing in the MPA and you are not a deputized Fish Warden (Bantay dagat) then you can not arrest them.  You have to contact the police; they have to come directly to the site or get some bantay dagat together in a boat and cruise to the site.  The bantay dagat do not receive many benefits; one of the things that diver’s users fees can go towards is ensuring that a bantay dagat’s family will receive money if he/she dies while on duty.

These are their outfits; only Belyn on the left is a deputized fish warden, the other women are wearing their husband’s gear.

And here’s how it played out in one story Belyn told me:

She and her husband were on patrol one night, probably shining the flashing around the area like usual, when they caught an illegal fisherman.  When they approached him, he dropped his net and ran.  She ran the half mile or so to the police station, but by the time they came back, the man had returned to take his net and disappeared.  Even though she can identify the violator, she can not do anything about it other than write it down in the police logbook.

One of the big challenges is the intrusion of commercial fishing boats within what is legally declared the property of the local government (15 km from the coast).  The boats can come from anywhere in the Philippines, or even Malaysia or China, and what is the local government to do? They are no match against the guns and political power of commercial fishing fleets.


Fighting over fish

This is an excerpt from a group interview with the fishermen who guard their MPA in Caticugan, Siquijor.

Me: Has there been conflict about the sanctuary?

Fisher 1: Hard headed fishermen. That is the conflict.

Fisher 2: Mountain minded fishermen.

Fisher 1: Because some of the hard headed fishermen shot our president and …

Me: Sorry?

Fisher 2: They had a triple 7 gun.

Me: They shot at you?

Fisher 2: Yeah.

Me: Were you guarding or were you…?

Fisher 2: Roaming the road, (I was) walking the road and got shot by those boys.

 And then he describes how he was shot four times in the leg and shows me the scars.

Me: (Were they) fishermen from this community?

Fisher 1: Illegal fishers.

Me: What kind of illegal fishing do they do?

Fisher 1: (They use) triple nets and trammel nets.

Me: Is it dangerous to be a part of the sanctuary?

Fisher 1: Yeah. (It is) dangerous. I am scared but I still watch the marine sanctuary… I believe in God so there is no danger.

These men are husbands, fathers, and children.  They volunteer to guard the local coral reef for 24 hour shifts once a week.  They hope that there will be enough fish someday that their children will be able to earn more than $2 a day.  Hats off to you, guys.  I know few men so brave.

Coastal cleanup

One of the activities I observed during my time in the Philippines was a coastal cleanup.  Turns out that the Philippines had the 2nd highest attendance for International Coastal Cleanup last year, at over 100,000 volunteers! (Thanks for noticing that) That’s really incredible, considering the 3rd highest attendance (Canada) was at most 35,ooo volunteers. I think CCEF’s ( work might have something to do with that- coastal cleanups are one of the activities they really engage people in and encourage them to do frequently.

Just a few weeks ago, on a hot Sunday afternoon, most of the 60 individuals that help manage the marine sanctuary in Maite, Siquijor, were in attendance for their monthly meeting.  As I showed you previously, the recent storms had left a bunch of debris on the beach.  Most of it is from trees, and a little bit of it is plastic and fishing nets and glass bottles.  The group cleans the beach monthly during tourist season, but the president, Evelyn, decided that the beach was “too dirty” and called an impromptu cleanup.  Evelyn told me that they would bury the natural debris instead of burning it.  Though burning garbage (even compostable things) is a common practice here, she is concerned about the hole in the ozone layer and does not want to contribute to that.

First step: dig the hole with anything you can find

2nd: pick out the plastic and push the natural debris in the hole

3rd: cover the hole with sand

I also have to admit that the resourcefulness of the people has no limits! This woman has collected coconut husks from the debris piles on the beach and is chopping them into quarters- they can be sold for 2 pesos/kilo to a processor who turns them into charcoal.  Though it’s not a lot of money, at 11 cents a pound, the coconut husks are free and plentiful.

Debris into dollars

If fishermen can take the time to clean up their beaches, maybe we should too.


Here are the stats on International Coastal Cleanup Day:

Golden ticket

The thing about living in developing nations is that you have to Novocain your heart enough to get through it.   When you stand on the beach at 7 a.m. and ask to see what the fishermen caught as they haul their boats in… it is undeniably tragic when they say “wa la”.  Nothing.  Sometimes they are out there for 6 hours with a big net, and they don’t catch a single thing.

One day, a man showed me his catch held in a plastic grocery bag: a butterfly fish and two wrasse- each no longer than 5 inches.   If you have ever seen these fish in a saltwater aquarium tank, you can easily acknowledge that this is not enough protein for one man for the day.  And it is definitely not enough for his whole family.  That is why he must sell it at 60 pesos/kilo ( or $.70/lb) to buy rice, because I don’t think he can afford canned sardines today.

In the Philippines, it is a shameful thing to be a bad fisherman.  Even though the lack of fish in the surrounding seas is not his fault, he is not proud of his catch, and it is obvious by his lack of eye contact and shuffling feet.  Though I would have loved to show you a photo of a catch like this, I find myself unable to pull my camera out of my pocket.  I usually smile and say something like this-“That is beautiful fish.  Thanks for showing me. Have a nice day.”

But what I really want to say is that I am sorry.  I am always well fed and I don’t worry about my inability to feed a family. And at the end of the day, I have my golden ticket out of there.  My passport grants me opportunities far beyond his reach, but it’s also a golden ticket of guilt.   I am so fortunate, and I am so sorry.

My work is not all that difficult, but it has been near impossible for me to write a word for the last two weeks.  I’m back home, but not done here yet, so stay tuned.  The Novocain has worn off.


While washing

Tomorrow my two week vacation begins. It’s been a long and tiring 8 weeks- usually by dinner I am so exhausted from writing notes and asking questions and listening all day long I have to collapse. Some days after transcribing interviews my right arm blocks up and I can’t type anymore.

Last night was my last night in Maite, and it was a perfect one. The weather was calm, the water flat enough for a sunset snorkel in the sanctuary. A quiet dinner after a raucous fiesta with Evelyn (the president of the association managing the sanctuary) and her husband Susano, my hosts for the last month. It was bittersweet.

Truth be told, I have had a hard time getting perspective on this all some days. I have been so wrapped up in the daily life- wake up at 3 am to the rooster’s cock-a-doodling competition, put in ear plugs and roll over, wake up ‘late’- at 6:30 everyone else seems to have been up for an hour or two. They have already bathed for the day and begun their work.

I have a coffee and breakfast. Maybe write some notes that had percolated while I was sleeping. I sit on a small stool next to the fire with Evelyn as she makes yet another treat, or continues the one she was working on until midnight the previous day. Wiping the dripping sweat from her forehead, she stirs a pot of rice and coconut milk to make a treat to sell at the local school. As the morning progresses, the other women she employs bustle about around her, and she hops from one task to the next all morning long. Cooking, cleaning, making business transactions, making phone calls, receiving visitors.

Back in the yard in the afternoon, we sit on the stools. The wash tubs are full of dirty laundry. Evelyn bleaches the whites and soaps the rest. She alternates dunking them in the soapy water and rubbing them between her hands. No wash board here, just a stiff bristled brush if you need it. And here is where she tells me stories. Here is where I learn about her life.

My eyes follow where she dumps the water underfoot on the concrete to where the drainage ditch around her house goes. It empties right under the sanctuary guardhouse, and the soapy water is dribbling from a bright orange pipe. The words are turning over in my head- I’ve spent more time inside the English speaking school systems than out, so it is a challenge sometimes to communicate complex ideas with non-native speakers. I have to think it through. Evelyn has a degree in aquaculture, and is intensely observant about the world around her. But can I have this conversation without being offensive? Without being judgmental? How do I find out what she knows and then communicate what I know?

“Do you have biodegradable soaps here?” I ask.
She looks up at me from her washing and her hands stop. “What?”
“Biodegradable soap… or washing powder. Are those available here?”
“Biodegradable- I do not know what is that.” She begins washing again as she listens.
“Um… because most soaps are chemicals.” (How do I find the easiest words for this?) And they don’t… um, they could damage the corals because they are not natural. Biodegradable soaps are made from… natural things so they do not hurt the marine animals.”
“No, we do not have.” Her face scrunches up a bit in a look of dissatisfaction. She lives on a small island that doesn’t have a proper supermarket.
“Oh. I was just wondering.”
“Maybe- they are expensive?”
“Yeah. Maybe.”

And that’s where it ends sometimes. Another note for the notebook- lack of education about how to conserve the environment and lack of access to biodegradable products can degrade the very reef the community depends on. The reef starts here at just the edge of low tide.  The entire community here is dependent on fishing as their primary source of protein, and the other primary source of livelihood is farming. Even though this is the island’s biggest spot for tourism, it’s not enough to employ everyone. So, what to do? For now, it’s just another concern to go on the list. For the future, it’s something that will float in the back of my mind when I approve a project proposal or run a workshop… or wherever life takes me. It’s one more piece of the puzzle.