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.


Fish for sex

Have you ever heard that saying, A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”? The cartoon that goes with it, of a fish awkwardly peddling a bike, makes me giggle inwardly.  This post is, unfortunately, a lot less silly than that, but I can’t get the quote out of my head. I recently learned that sometimes, a man needs a woman like a woman needs a fish.  This is a well-documented social behavior called “FFS” or Fish For Sex.

A year ago, the only thought I had about the link between conservation and sex was this: we should try to slow down population growth to reduce pressure on the environment.  Maybe simplistic, but that’s as far as a conclusion as I had come to, and I didn’t bother looking into it further.

And then I met Richard Pollnac, Eddie Allison, and Jamie Bechtel.  I can thank them for educating me on this issue, and I’m going to attempt to explain it here.

My studies are interdisciplinary, which is a good thing for someone like me- who asks so many questions.  So we have these four global pieces of the puzzle that we can kind of categorize like this:

1)   Environmental issue: collapsing fish stocks

2)   Development issue: population growth

3)   Economic issue: poverty

4)   Political issue: conflict over natural resources

Now, let’s add in one more:

5)   Public health issue: HIV/AIDS.

When this was first brought to my attention, I thought, huh? But here’s why we have to add HIV/AIDS to the list:

“Fishing communities in developing countries are among the socio-professional groups with the highest levels of HIV/AIDS prevalence” (Béné and Merten 2008).

Ouch.  So we add into this quintuple-whammy of issues the fact that sometimes women trade sex to obtain fish from a fisherman.  This can happen if women lack the resources to catch the fish herself and also lack the cash to purchase the fish.

Widowed, divorced, or single women are most likely to trade sexual favors for fish. They could be trying to get fish for themselves, for their families to eat, or to re-sell. They are often portrayed as either willing participants or portrayed as the alternative-victims (Béné and Merten 2008). But I could imagine that the situation is not always one or the other.  I have been fortunate enough to have never been in the position where I had to make a decision like this, and I cannot place judgment on the choice a woman would make to feed herself or her children.  In fact, it’s incredibly challenging for me to even imagine how difficult this is on a personal level, so I prefer to step back and examine it from a wider lens.

What I can say is, the trading of fish for sex is clearly connected to all these other global issues.  While 97% of the documented cases on FFS were in Africa and only 3% were in Asia, it seems that there is really not enough documentation of these issues to understand the problem.

I would argue that FFS is actually “hiding” the poverty of women in coastal communities.  FFS is an economic transaction that you won’t see on any ledgers, but it is affecting the spread of HIV/AIDS and hiding the real economics of resource-dependent communities.  “Most of these fish-for-sex transactions involve unprotected sex, putting both parties—the fisher and the fish trader—at risk” (Béné and Merten 2008).

When we evaluate the resources of a coastal community, as I have observed in the Philippines, we might ask questions like “what profit do you normally get for one kilo of fish?”  What we are not doing is asking fishermen “how many times a week do you accept sexual favors as payment for fish?” Is anyone asking women “how many sexual acts do you participate in each week to feed your family?”  For example, if a woman is willing and highly valued as a sexual partner, how many partners on average before she contracts HIV?  If she is not valued as a sexual partner, does she send her daughter to the fishermen instead?  If a fisherman can choose one port over another where to take his catch, does this disproportionately affect the spread of HIV?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think we should be looking for them. At the very least, we need to be putting together the puzzle, piece by piece.


If you are inclined to my main source, it’s called “Women and Fish-for-Sex: Transactional Sex, HIV/AIDS and Gender in African Fisheries” (Béné and Merten 2008).

I found them!

Back to my own research…I found my women! I found them! Aged from 23-73, there are 28 women in the management group for the marine sanctuary in Maite, Siquijor.  It’s a humble little reserve right in front of their houses, but it’s a no-fishing zone.  Only non-extractive activities like diving and snorkeling are allowed.

Friends already! Behind is the monthly budget allocations from what they earned from a user fee for diving/snorkeling.

I was lucky enough to have Meeshel (CCE staff) accompany me to Maite on Sunday, and we held a focus group with some of the women who help manage the sanctuary.

One of the questions I asked was why the women were involved in the sanctuary. These were two responses.

1) In my part, I get involved in this project because this is one of the problems of the government.  And being a citizen of the Philippines and the province and the barangay as well, it is one of my duties as a citizen to help, to help protect and preserve the marine animals.  And this is also one way of uplifting the quality of life to the fishermen.


2) We are the pioneers- the barangay officials who opened this sanctuary. Because we have to preserve our sanctuary we have to preserve our resources, the corals and the fish, because mostly we have so many fishing- illegal fishing in our area.  So we have to defend, like this, we have to make our guardhouse, make our schedule of duty- for the illegal fishing. So we have to protect our sanctuary for the future of our children.  Maybe someday we have so many fish.

Aren’t they beautifully said?

You know what I noticed as I listened? How unselfish the answers were to this question.  Whenever I read about MPAs before, it looked like the main reason was to increase the fish available for fishermen to catch, and to effectively increase their income.  So I figured the women’s responses would be somewhat in line with that idea; that they wanted an MPA mainly for an economic incentive.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I wasn’t really planning on holding a focus group with the men in the management group, but now I hope I can ask them the same question.  Considering the men will almost all be fishers who sell their catch, I wonder if their answers are very different, don’t you?