Our Burning Planet


Local small-scale fishers suffer due to the extractivism of big corporates

Local small-scale fishers suffer due to the extractivism of big corporates
A boat and a jetty on the Berg River on 20 September 2019 in Velddrif, South Africa.(Photo: Gallo Images / Misha Jordaan)

The large-scale removal of natural resources from South Africa’s seas for sale on global markets may be profitable, but often comes at the expense of small-scale fishers. Members of affected coastal communities gathered in Cape Town on Monday to discuss the challenges and threats they face from extractivism.

There is a huge disparity between the wealth of oil and gas companies and that of small-scale fishing communities. These extraction companies, with their massive income-generating capacity, are often prioritised when it comes to government decision-making. Small-scale fishers, meanwhile, are continually pushed aside for the sake of development.

The state creates frameworks for development that promote extractivism – the removal of large amounts of natural resources for sale on world markets – at the cost of local fishers, according to Prof Moenieba Isaacs, academic coordinator for the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.

“Small-scale fishers … are marginalised, they are overlooked; their positionality within the ocean is becoming smaller and their space, their access to livelihoods, is being threatened on a daily basis,” she said.

Isaacs was speaking at a gathering of small-scale fishers from coastal areas across the country on 9 May. The “Fishers Speak Out” meeting in Salt River, Cape Town, was intended to highlight the challenges and threats facing coastal and fishing communities due to extractive practices and industries. 

Members of mining-affected communities were also present, with attendees drawing parallels between the injustices caused by extraction companies both on land and in the ocean.

The gathering coincided with the 2022 Mining Indaba, running from 9 to 12 May. The Mining Indaba, focused as it is on just transitions and sustainable mining solutions, did not provide space for discussions around the broader extractivism sector, according to Maxine Bezuidenhout, programme officer for the Right to Say No movement, as well as the Southern African Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power.

“Extractivism is something that’s much broader than just mining. It includes… fishers, it includes small-scale farmers, it includes mining-affected communities. So, for us, it was important to bring through the voices of the fishers and their struggles with seismic blasting … and the exploration for oil and gas,” she said.

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Double standards

Isaacs questioned the rationale of government in creating marine-protected areas, while at the same time giving oil and gas companies the go-ahead to destroy the environment through the extraction of resources. In the creation of these protected areas, it is the small-scale fishers who stand to lose the most.

“[The marine-protected areas] promote adventure tourism, they promote high-end tourism… and if a fisher’s net is in the way of those tourist activities, [the fishers] are extracted, they are fined, their gear is confiscated,” said Isaacs.

“The marine-protected areas create adventure tourism … for people to come and play at the expense of small-scale fishers.”

Most small-scale fishers, argued Isaacs, are kind to the environment. It is in their best interests to protect it, as its destruction would mean losing their source of food and work. Moreover, the small size of their fishing vessels means there are only so many fish they can extract from an area.

Isaacs contrasted this with the activities of industrial fishing companies, which receive about 60% to 70% of the rights allocated for fishing. Their methods not only extract far more fish, but also cause serious damage to the sea bed.

“Even quota systems that exist, which would say one household – not an individual, one household – can only fish like 28kg of crayfish in a year… if you look at a company like Sea Harvest or I&J, they can collect megatonnes of crayfish and all types of fish for export and for industrial production,” said Alex Hotz, lead organiser of WoMin African Alliance.

“Then they’ll say that local fishers can’t be doing that type of fishing because it’s not sustainable – it’s a complete double standard.”

Some small-scale fishers do resort to practices such as poaching West Coast rock lobster or abalone, said Isaacs. However, she described this as a form of protest against a system that fails to uphold fishers’ rights.

Need for change 

When it comes to local food systems, there is a need for short value and supply chains, according to Isaacs. She gave the example of Struisbaai, where very few of the fish extracted from local waters are consumed by local people. Rather, it is transported to the high-end restaurants in Cape Town or exported.

Within these long value chains, the demand is for high quality fish, said Isaacs, adding that this results in a lot of the fish going to waste.

“If I go back to Ocean View, where I come from, you will eat a snoek for a week because you eat everything of that snoek,” she said. “And if there are bones and whatever left, you make a soup from it… 

“But nowadays, the restaurants want the prime-cut fillets, and they only want the nice, thick meat of it – what happens to the rest? Discarded. It goes to waste.”

The longer the value chain, the less food remains in the community from which it is sourced, continued Isaacs. It is important for government to prioritise food security and sovereignty within these communities.

On the avenues small-scale fishing communities can take to defend their rights, the courts are often a “first resort”, according to Isaacs. Given that the conflicts around marine-protected areas tend to occur at a local level, between municipalities and communities, she advocates the building of strong, locally based organisations that can challenge local government.

“It is important that you start thinking about the roles of community leaders. What is the role of your activism, what strategies of activism do you want to have in terms of fighting for your space, for your livelihood, for your culture?” said Isaacs.

Isaacs advocated an alignment between small-scale fishers, mining-affected communities and climate activists. An “elastic approach” to struggles needs to be taken, she said, with alliances being built between those groups that face similar challenges.

 The “Fishers Speak Out” gathering was valuable in building this form of unity, said Hotz, as it allowed communities to share their stories. 

“People are drawing their own parallels and seeing the similarities between their experiences – and they are the ones who are calling for unity.” DM/MC


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