The Crisis of Small-Scale Fishing in Latin America

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

Fishing is a risky activity per se. Hurricanes, storms, and rough waters are a constant hazard for thousands of men and women whose livelihoods depend on the water. Yet political and economic forces on different levels currently present a more dramatic and far-reaching threat to small-scale fishing in the Global South. These forces constantly provoke territorial conflicts that make fishing water a politically and ecologically turbulent terrain upon which multiple interests and actors collide.

On January 27, 2004, artisanal fishers and residents of the Chilean city of Arica waved black flags and marched throughout the city. They were “mourning the sea” after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague redrew the Chile-Peru maritime border. After six years of dispute between these two countries over their maritime boundaries, the ICJ ruled in favor of Peru and granted it about 21,000 square kilometers of ocean territory formerly claimed by Chile. The ICJ’s decision, however, was followed by political turmoil that made visible other problems artisanal fishers face today such as the monopoly of fishing companies, the scarcity of fish, and the precariousness of the labor conditions. As a result, the situation of Arica’s fishers has become illustrative of a broader crisis that also impairs artisanal fishing throughout Latin America.

For the fishers of Arica, the ICJ’s decision meant what many are referring to as the “death” of the sea, given that part of the maritime territory where hundreds of men and women subsisted for decades will no longer be available to them. Yet this geopolitical dispute was not the only cause of the general discontent in Arica. In an interview for Radio Universidad de Chile, Nelson Estrada, a member of Consejo Nacional de Defensa de la Pesca, pointed out that the real concern beyond the loss of maritime territory is the so called Ley Longueira—a recently approved law that favors the monopoly of large-scale fishing companies. According to Estrada, the fishing communities of Arica are subordinated to the monopoly and control of prices established by the Angelini Group—a very powerful company that also invests largely in mining, timber, and natural gas.

This type of conflict between artisanal fishers and large-scale fishing companies has provoked multiple protests well beyond Chile. In February 2014, artisanal fishers of Bahía Blanca, Argentina, denounced the critical effects of fishing trawlers—large commercial fishing vessels that drag nets through the water, known for disrupting the ecosystems on the ocean floor—on small-scale fisheries and the sustainability of fish fauna. The Argentinian state ruled in favor of artisanal fishers by revoking the license of two major fishing trawlers. Yet in doing so, the state unleashed a new strike on the part of local workers and unions whose livelihoods rely on the resource extraction of fishing trawlers.


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