Let’s do it differently: How to support the SSF movement to achieve sustainable use and marine conservation

By Vivienne Solis Rivera, Founder, CoopeSoliDar R.L., Costa Rica and edited by Kate Bevitt, Communications Specialist, WorldFish

Many environmental NGOs, including RISE UP members, express a deep and clear concern for small-scale fisheries (SSF) livelihoods, culture, and way of life. But what is the best way to support the SSF movement and their needs, concerns, and solutions? And how can we build a bridge between the SSF movement and RISE UP?

In this article, I share some of the feelings that CoopeSoliDar R.L., which has worked with SSF communities in Mesoamerica for more than 20 years since its creation in 1999, has heard from fisherfolk. Of course, this should NEVER substitute the possibility of fisherfolk expressing what they think and feel about how NGOs, especially environmental NGOs, relate to them.

History and successes of the SSF movement

We all know we need to work together. First, we must understand and acknowledge the journey and progress of the SSF movement.

A long history of fights

The SSF movement (encompassing SSF organizations worldwide, along with the World Forum of Fisher Harvesters and Fish Workers and the World Forum of Fisher Peoples) has had a long and strong history of rights and human rights discussions and struggles. These SSF fights have been strongly accompanied by FAO and other allies like the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF).

The underlying strength of these discussions has been a bottom-up process of more than a decade of consultations in all coastal and marine territories of the world, resulting in the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (SSF Guidelines). CoopeSoliDar R.L and ICSF supported the SSF movement in Central America for example in this process, facilitating discussions in every country of the region, one regional meeting and promoting the participation of fishers from the region in the different meetings related to the guidelines in the Latina American region that also were organized.  Considering the importance of small-scale fishing in food security and poverty eradication, marine and biodiversity conservation is one—but not the only—concern of the guidelines, policy discussions and the SSF movement.

Active in COFI but absent in other spaces

The SSF movement has always had a space in the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) for the participation of fishers and their movements , through the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty Working Group on Fisheries. This has not been the case in other spaces, where SSF and communities have generally been absent from decision making spaces. These include, for instance, many of the environmental discussions and fora, related to the Convention on Biological Diversity, climate change, desertification, ocean, and marine conservation. Meanwhile, most of the environmental organizations and governments have had exclusive discussions, which have sometimes affected the coastal and marine communities where SSF are found as a form of life. 

Need to link sustainable resource use and marine conservation

No bridges have (yet) been established between the SSF and marine conservation movements. Both focus on the same concerning issues but see them in different ways and perspectives. Such issues include sustainable use, governance, tenure rights, access rights, traditional knowledge, gender considerations and, fisheries co-management, and marine protected areas (and other effective area-based conservation measures and ecologically or biologically significant marine areas).  

Several times during the Convention on Biological Diversity meetings and particularly in 2015, the Sustainable Ocean Initiative tried to support state efforts to share information between the ministers of fisheries and ministers of environment. This had limited success, but previous experiences show what needs to be done. States love preservation but not management of the marine ecosystems where most of the SSF communities live. After the UN Ocean Conference (UNOC) in Lisbon, Portugal, in July 2022, CoopeSoliDar R.L has strongly encouraged local fishing networks to speak to both sides of the government to find national links and learnings to inform this approach.

Human rights approach critical for conservation

At the national level, there is no marine conservation and no sustainable use if there is no capacity strengthening, trust, and a human rights-based approach to conservation. This sounds very easy and commonplace because everyone now uses the right discourse. But realistically, it is not happening in the marine and coastal territories.

Fisher organizations know that, until now, there has not been an interinstitutional and holistic approach to address the key issues. So, we might end with all our oceans preserved and SSF livelihoods destroyed, which has already happened in many places and can lead to a tense environment where vulnerable groups are negatively impacted.

Truth will always come to light at the end

This is as my mom said!  

4 ways to build trust and support SSF movement

Considering the historical context of the SSF movement, here are ways to build trust with the SSF movement to amplify their needs and solutions.

1. Acknowledge and respect SSF in decision making spaces

Reflecting on COFI, it is a very different space than the ocean conferences. FAO, through the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty Working Group on Fisheries, has had a long relationship with fishers and fisher organizations. SSF are not there to ask for space for participation; SSF have participated with dignity and strength in COFI for more than a decade. In the recent COFI meeting, on 5–9 September 2022, SSF heard and reminded governments of their commitment to implement the SSF Guidelines, recognize SSF as an important asset for countries, and provide stronger protection to confront the destructive view of blue economy being announced by most of them as the route to the future. In COFI, SSF and fishers generally feel comfortable and strong and have a voice and had a history.

2. Be humble and listen

It is important to be humble and listen. Look at best practices for considering fishers’ needs and reaching sustainable use. In spaces where SSF already have a voice, contribute softly and not in a loud way, as was done at the UN Ocean Conference. We need to strengthen SSF organizations, thoughts, and ways of providing input. Avoid buying SSF participation and trying to change their inputs in a way that is believed is THE correct one. 

3. Continue supporting fishers to join high-level meetings

SSF organizations have more than a decade of strengthening their capacities to have a strong voice concerning their needs.  Trust takes many years of field work and knowledge. Support to fishers’ presence in high-level meetings should continue. Conservation will come from their voice, but only when governance and other rights have been respected by governments. Respect when that issue is coming. For instance, SSF will not speak about coral reefs on the first day nor in the first week of an event, as SSF are more worried about feeding their families to survive. But indeed, conservation issues will be raised at an appropriate time.

4. Share learnings in other spaces

Fishers and fisher organizations prepared themselves for COFI for several months (since UNOC). Supporting organizations, such as environmental NGOs, listened to SSF needs, concerns and solutions at several pre-summit meetings. These learnings and takeaway messages should be shared in other discussions, which will support efforts to build trust between the SSF and conservation movements.

‘No more business as usual’

We need to be there for SSF from now on. Inclusivity needs to happen, and more and more fishers and fisher organization representatives need to express their concerns and perspectives. It is not an issue of money, as SSF and the SSF movement have worked (and continue to work) in many instances with no money. It is an alternative movement based on the values and concerns about the intrinsic linkages between cultural and environmental resilience.

I trust the humanity behind RISE UP and believe there is truth and goodwill from most of its constituency to support what the SSF movement is doing and want. So, let’s do it, but let’s do it differently. We must keep sharing and discussing how we, from RISE UP, can adopt processes that are transparent, unified, efficient and effective for the conservation and sustainable use of our oceans. It’s time for NO MORE business-as-usual processes.

About the author: Vivienne Solis Rivera is a biologist and founder of CoopeSoliDar R.L. Costa Rica, which has worked with communities in Mesoamerica for 30 years. Vivienne has worked closely with several international movements, including International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) and ICCA Consortium.

This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health

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Date Published: 21st September 2022