Maverick Citizen

FISHER FOLK AT RISK

Three years of research reveals SA’s small-scale fishing communities are under threat on multiple fronts

Three years of research reveals SA’s small-scale fishing communities are under threat on multiple fronts
After three years of research documenting the struggles of fishing communities in South Africa, the Masifundise Development Trust has undertaken to monitor the implementation of guidelines to ensure that fishing communities have sustained access to their ancestral water resources. (Photo: Gallo Images / Schalk van Zuydam)

The Masifundise Development Trust on Thursday 23 March launched the results of three years of research into the barriers faced by fishing communities who depend on rivers, dams, and the sea for their daily food.

The threat of mining, conservation efforts, and bureaucratic problems were highlighted in the latest report by the Masifundise Development Trust as part of South Africa’s fishing communities’ struggles to survive.

“This is a reflection of three years of hard work,” Masifundise’s director, Naseegh Jaffer, said at the launch of the report on Wednesday. “It is not something that we did quickly. It is substantive and significant. A lot of fieldwork went into this.”

Jaffer said the United Nation’s Committee on Fisheries adopted guidelines for the protection of fishing communities as far back as 2014.

“Our government was present when the guidelines were adopted. They supported it. The content of these guidelines is not new to the South African government. But there is a serious lack of commitment to implement the guidelines. The small-scale fishing policy was adopted at more or less the same time. There is no way that the Department or government can claim a lack of understanding or ignorance. There is a lack of will to implement.”

He said some of the barriers faced by communities are from nature conservation, who are putting tourism first.

“The people who have been there for generations are not included in their programmes. Their priority is not people. It is conservation. But conservation must go with communities,” he said.

“These are not communities that will strip the sea or other resources.”

He said Masifundise would actively monitor the implementation of the guidelines to make sure that these communities are given access to the waters in which they’ve been fishing for years.

“This report won’t be the last word. Fishing is an intrinsic part of how fishing communities provide for themselves. The moment this gets commercialised, this self-provision will fail.

“We cannot allow that to happen. Many of our coastal communities are poor. They can’t go and buy fish at the shop. They harvest from the ocean or the lake, and that is their food. It makes them less dependent on grants and handouts. It protects their dignity,” he said.

“Nothing the small-scale fishing communities does is detrimental to the environment or the fishing stocks. In fact, this is a good example of community-driven food processes,” he added.

Speaking at the launch of the report Paulus Ndlovu from Mazambane near Kosi Bay said through Masifundise’s intervention they were able to get access to the sea where they have been fishing for generations.

“Now we can survive,” he said.

He said they still face harassment some days from nature conservation officials, who block their access at times to the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park.

“At least there is a way now to discuss our difficulties,” he said.

Sanna Riet lives in Kerkies Kloof near South Africa’s second largest dam, the Vanderkloof Dam near Petrusville in the Northern Cape. She said they are often charged R30 to access the dam for fishing. “We don’t really have money. I started fishing there for food but we don’t always get fish to sell or to eat. There is a lot of unemployment here. We have to travel far to get to the dam.”


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Jonathan Julius who is a fieldworker with a small-scale fishing cooperative of 54 members in Port Nolloth in the Northern Cape said the community faces interference from the mines in the area.

“The fishers believe that the ongoing mining and exploration have changed the way the fish travel,” he said. They have a lot of difficulties. They can’t go into the mine areas. Some of the diamond mines have closed down and now there is illegal mining going on there. That also has a huge impact.

“Our fishers also believe that the building of cofferdams are impacting on the species they fish: snoek and West Coast rock lobster,” he said.

Cofferdams are built into the ocean bed using gravel instead of sand because the current is very strong. “The gravel has a huge impact on the fish,” Julius said. “Nothing can live where these gravel walls are.”

“We developed a cofferdam report that we have sent to the [government], but as far as I know, nothing has happened. We also requested some research on the quotas for lobster because each year the total allowable catch is being cut. This has a direct impact on the livelihood of this community,” he said.

The plight of communities living in the Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape was also highlighted in the report.

There are seven communities (Ntubeni, Mpume, Ntlangano, Ngoma, Mendwane, Hobeni, and Cwebe) living in Dwesa-Cwebe, and the majority of the people there, around 500, are traditional fishers and their families.

In the 1930s, when a private hotel was established close to the Mbashe River, the main river which runs through Dwesa and Cwebe, the area became a very popular destination for tourists and recreational fishers.

According to the report, incidents of violence against these communities are still reported and community members have to hand over their harvest to rangers. In one instance young boys were tied up with reeds, and suffocated with their clothes. In December 2022 Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve rangers opened fire on three fishers from the Mpume village who were harvesting mussels in the reserve. One fisher was injured and all were charged with trespassing.

“Such cases are not once-off events, but part of a broader, systematic approach by the management of the nature reserve, which uses violence as the first response,” the report reads.

The report highlights how the Small-scale Fishing Policy introduced a new approach to the management of small-scale fisheries through the introduction of communally-owned rights, moving away from individual rights.

The new policy introduced a model of participation in legal entities where the small-scale fishing communities are recognised, valued, and are able to participate in the management of the fisheries.

But the report states that it was wrongly implemented.

“Many small-scale fishers complained that they had to sign the constitution without sufficient explanation since the constitution was only available in English. The constitution did not allow fishers the autonomy to discuss the formation, and it did not accommodate the customary rights of small-scale fishers with particular reference to the clauses on membership.

“Fishing communities with less than 20 recognised bona fide fishers have been clustered together with fishers from other villages into one cooperative. This is a challenge for internal cooperative communication, as the villages are sometimes far apart, with limited opportunities for transport between them, as well as limited communication coverage. In addition to communication challenges, these villages can have extremely different contexts and traditions, but are expected to work together in harmony,” the report continues. A lack of training was also highlighted as a major problem.

“Although the communities in three provinces (Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, and KZN) have been grouped into cooperatives and received their rights and ‘quota’ allocation, there has been minimal support for the continuity, longevity, and success of these cooperatives. The cooperatives have been set up for failure by the State,” the report further warns.

The report also highlights that inland small-scale fishers are still existing in a “legislative vacuum” with no legislation or policy to guide the management or governance of freshwater resources. DM/MC

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