Exploring Coastal Realities of Small-Scale Fishers in Mesoamerica

Fisher houses Almirante – Flora McMorrin

Flora McMorrin joined RISE UP as Campaigns Director in January 2023 and recently took part in a small-scale fisher congress and field trip in Costa Rica and the Gulf of Panama. In this blog post, she shares her insights from the journey.

The trip began on the shores of Talamanca Canton, in the Limón province of Costa Rica. The first week was dedicated to the III Congress of Artisanal Small-Scale Fisherfolks and Mollusk Gatherers: Intertwining Life, Knowledge and Culture , and in the second week I joined colleagues on a field trip to Panama as we delved deeper into the challenges facing small-scale fishers.

Week 1: The Congress

The Congress of small-scale fishers from Mesoamerica brought together a vibrant mix of experience and knowledge, led by the dedicated and inspirational team at CoopeSolidar. Representatives from youth, women and elders came together from Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica. This Congress was a bridge between generations and countries, between traditional knowledge and innovative solutions. The themes ranged from the formalization of fishing activities and the inclusion of women’s organizations, governance, and the collective pursuit of sustainable, equitable fisheries.

The discussion on rights, during the Congress, was not framed around abstract concepts but the legal foundations that these communities need to survive. Granting them the rights to their lands and resources and upholding their fundamental human rights are essential. It’s a reminder that when their rights are protected, the delicate balance between humanity and nature is also safeguarded.

The participants left the Congress more united than ever, having found great value in the chance to connect and network, and learning about the practical steps to protect their rights and safeguard their fisheries. As Maria Carrillo. Co-coordinator of the Marine Responsible Fishing Areas and Marine Territories of Life Network expressed, “Many times we have believed we are alone, but that is not true. There are many communities going through the same problems sharing knowledge and ideas to help support us.”  

Capacity building session – Flora McMorrin

UPESABO boat at Caya de Agua. – Flora McMorrin

Cacique Alfredo Howard from the Ngabe Bugle Marine Territory of Life – Flora McMorrin

Week 2: A Dive into Reality

The second week was an immersion into the lives of small-scale fisher, Indigenous People and local communities, and for me it was very much a learning journey. Led by CoopeSoliDar R.L team, the Union of Artisanal Fishermen of Almirante and Bocas del Toro (UPESABO) and the Ngäbe-Buglé small-scale fishers (SSF) Union, and together with colleagues from the SSF Hub, Swedbio, and the Marine Tenure Initiative, we visited the Ngäbe-Buglé Marine Territory of Life in the Gulf of Panama, and met with representatives from Afro-Caribbean, indigenous, and local communities, affiliated with UPESABO as well as the TICCA (Territories of Life) representatives. For generations the Ngäbe-Buglé have been reliant on natural resources to sustain them. But as Cacique Alfredo Howard from the Ngäbe Buglé Marine Territory of Life stated, although they have carefully conserved the island and its waters for over a hundred years, fisheries management and conservation decisions are now concerningly being made without their consultation. 

Cayuco canoes near the water – Escudo de Veragua island – Flora McMorrin

 Discovering Shared Challenges: The Path to International Solutions

During the journey we viewed first hand the challenges shared by coastal communities in Mesoamerica, revealing interconnected struggles regarding rights and access to land and marine resources within small-scale fisher communities. This theme resonates throughout RISE UP’s global network of SSF organizations and allies.

The solutions are not groundbreaking; they are rooted in pre-existing international UN agreements that Governments must now implement. The Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainability Sustainable Small-scale fisheries, with its provisions to protect the livelihoods of small-scale fishers, provide the necessary actions for improving conditions for SSF communities. There is also Sustainable Development Goal 14, and particularly target 14.b, along with specific targets in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (targets 1, 2, 3, 5, and 23), that underscore the importance of recognizing and respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, especially in relation to their traditional territories. And we must not overlook the essential implementation of the  UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What is needed is designated spaces for the active engagement of well-informed SSF network leaders and community decision-makers in regional and global events and forums. This is about giving them the rightful voice, representation, and empowerment. This collective strength is crucial for the effective implementation of these international agreements, ensuring it aligns with the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent of coastal communities and people, and for achieving our shared objectives.

  At RISE UP we aim to collaborate and support our member organizations where our objectives align. Both our  Blue Call to Action and the Call to Action from Small-Scale Fishers launched in Lisbon at the UN Ocean Conference in July 2022 share this crucial vision for not only a healthy ocean but also an equitable ocean

Following this trip, what is clearly evident is that the defense of small-scale fisher rights and their participation in national, regional and international decisions about the use of ocean resources is essential if we are to safeguard a sustainable and equitable future.

Crossing the border to Panama – Flora McMorrin

On boat with UPESABO at the port – Flora McMorrin

Congress trip to Cahuita National Park – Flora McMorrin


If you are and SSF related organization and interested in joining the RISE UP SSF Cluster please contact us at info@riseupfortheocean.org

About the author

Flora McMorrin is the RISE UP Campaigns Director, since January 2023

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Date Published: 18th October 2023