Globalised Environmentalism vs Livelihood: from the Ocean Perspective

Abstract: As large capital brazenly acquires rights to land and mineral resources, resistance today focuses mainly on the marginalization and dispossession of people to land while very little is known about the privatization of the ocean commons, which is happening on a large scale. No International Conventions are in place to protect the ocean commons. The environmentalists on the other hand have drawn attention to the need to conserve the ocean biodiversity and have succeeded to get global commitments to make twenty percent of the coastal ocean waters conservation areas – marine parks and the like. These for the most part, are the prime food areas or nursery grounds that provide livelihood to the coastal communities. Numerous people’s struggles are taking place in different locations along the Indian coast as they try to protect their customary rights to livelihood in the coastal waters. While large numbers of coastal communities are so being marginalised, the alternatives offered are tourism – which indeed is a money spinner for the business interests rather than genuine conservation mechanisms. On the other hand, there is a massive privatization of the oceans for its non living resources, like oil, natural gas etc. not to mention the thrust for port development along the Indian coast. As the general population continues to focus on the land based issues, the malaise caused by the contradictory environmental and development agendas remain invisible to the public eye.

On the other hand, no degree of environmentalism has been able to offset the permanent destructive effects of the massive oil spills and under water mining even in countries that claim to have stringent environmental norms. This paper highlights these contradictions making a strong case for stringent ecosystem management and the right to livelihood.

Keywords: globalisation, fishworkers’ movement, feminist perspective on development, privatization of water resources, livelihood struggles, questioning the development paradigm

Several communities and people’s movements are up in arms against the state today for the blatant sell out of the land and its natural resources resulting in massive displacement of people and the loss of bio diversity. The concept of the SEZ has led to privatization of prime agricultural land and also deprived people of large tracts of commons, commons that have earlier been appropriated by the State in different categories of land nomenclature. Yet there is a semblance of environmental clearances that are required for land and water front developments although we all know that these are ridden with corruption.

What we are less familiar with is the privatisation of the oceans that is taking place. In the coastal waters this is largely taking place in the name of biodiversity conservation and in the deeper waters it is to fuel the ongoing developments on the land as oil, mineral and chemical resources are in greater demand while they also get denuded or their mining gets resisted by people. Targeting the ocean bed for its non living resources is one of the major foci of the development agenda today. With the melting of the frozen northern seas, the wars already commence with Russia trying to establish hegemony when Norway and Japan also claim rights over those seas.

While I will come to the issue of the ocean commons subsequently, I think it is important for us in the women’s movement to develop our own understanding of the appropriation of the commons. For us in the women’s movements, the availability of the commons is of critical importance. While the commons have been a source of livelihood to the local communities, they have also been the expanses that have provided the breathing lungs for the society at large. Traditional communities have developed their own ways of interacting and sustaining these commons until the State took away these controls by establishing its own hegemony

The customary rights of people to the commons gets increasingly eroded despite the fact that even several modern regulations establish the right of customary access. While we are all certainly against displacement that results in loss of livelihood, the need for women to look beyond the realms of habited space is of utmost importance to sustain life. I am really not aware of much discussion on this subject in the Indian women’s movement where I think we have to be increasingly pro active. We must recall here that in the western world from which we have inherited our modern understanding of the State, voting rights were given only to those who owned private property. Owning land was the basis for citizenship, the right to participate in government. This is so deeply embedded in their cultural DNA that publicly owned land is often seen by the right-wing as a Communist plot. Of course there was the big debate on the ‘Tragedy of the Commons”1 but this again was challenged by those who questioned the precepts of the modern state and focused on customary rights to the commons and the traditional knowledge of communities that understood how to manage the commons in a sustainable manner.

The Oceans were considered a global commons and it was only in 1984 that the Exclusive Economic Zone established sovereign rights over 200 miles of ocean expanse to the adjoining waters. Different countries in the world have also national laws which define the rights over the territorial water – from between 5-15 km from the shore. So the oceans are no longer a commons although this is the way fishing communities have related to it. We regularly hear of fishers being jailed in alien countries as their boats strayed into another’s EEZ as the fish do not know the boundaries. Over the years, when fishing was no longer a livelihood occupation with the traditional craft being modernised and became also an industrial venture, there were battles at sea – the famous cod wars. But the fact is that fish resources have been over fished even in countries where very modern scientific management fishing regimes were in place. Such management techniques have over the years moved increasingly towards private rights in the form of quotas that fishers and fishing companies had the right to capture. So essentially there was a privitisation of the fish stocks as only those with licences could fish them. There seem to be numerous examples of failure of these systems that have been monitored by the modern state, while those systems that have been governed by traditional community institutions seem to have been more equitable and sustainable. (The healthy lobster fishery in the Maritime Province of Eastern Canada compared to the collapsed cod fishery in Novo Scotia also in Eastern Canada for example). Nevertheless, there is general agreement that fishing has to be regulated but the tug of war is whether it should be on the individual quota basis or on a community quota basis and whether it should be a species quota or within a framework of the larger ecosystem. In the tropical waters, it is certainly the ecosystem management system with the community focus that has been the demand.

But when we look globally at conservation and environmental law we see that for the most part today that this is predicated on a series of assumptions deeply embedded in the free market doctrine. Conservation measures are a means of making more money through eco tourism and eco sport. The discussions taking place at all the International fora either on conservation or climate change do not come up with any constructive conclusions because of the push and pull of market forces that strive to see which of the players can make the most money out of the deals. The states today are so controlled by Corporations that they play watchdog for the corporations rather than safeguard the long term interests of the public.

Blinded as we are by free market ideology, ideas like “privatization is the best and highest use of all property” or ”government by and for corporations” we do not foresee the impending disaster that such policies are heading towards. Moreover, the total sell out on the energy front that “fossil fuels are essential and their consequent pollution is necessary” is the base for the last big disaster that hit humanity – the explosion of the BP oil well. The regulators at the Mineral Management Service (MMS) in the USA presumed that privatization of the ocean’s oil was in the best interests of BP and therefore the country and so it moved to expedite drilling rather than protect the public. Recent news that the administration is considering opening the Gulf up for more drilling and ending the current moratorium makes clear how pervasive these assumptions really are. But the massive failure of both government to protect public interests and BP to be responsible for its mess didn’t sit well with the public. There was outrage that BP acted as if it owned the ocean. BP refused an EPA order to use less toxic dispersants. It kept scientists and the public away from the site itself and refused to make data public. The good news of the tragedy is that the public responded vociferously that, “BP does not own the ocean”. But do we stop there?

Whereas the BP is a case in point of the fossil fuel mantra, the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a mantra of the conservationists. The Convention on biological diversity has set a target of bringing at least 10% of the oceans under protection by 2012. Marine protected areas are incresingly being used by our government as an instrument for conservation and management of coastal and marine diversity.

The current target driven approach to expanding areas under MPAs, with a primary focus on meeting quantitative goals and the expansion of ‘no- take’areas, is inherently problematic. No-take areas restrict the movement of the fishers who fish for livelihood. No efforts are made to ensuring that processes undertaken are inclusive, recognise and build on existing local and traditional knowledge and governance systems and respect principles of sustainable use. Interestingly, one only has to go to the Gujarat coast, the area of the Gulf of Kutch and witness the destruction of sensitive ecosystems, declared marine parks, where the Reliance oil drilling infrastructure has been installed. Once the fishers– the natural guardians of the coasts, have been excluded, privitisation and destructive industrialsation of all kinds rapidly takes place.

The fishworkers movement has been in revolt against destructive fishing from the late 1970s. It is because of pressure from the movement that a Marine Regulation was put in place. In the 1990s there was must turmoil over the regulation of coastal development. The Coastal Regulation Zone, that was in place for over a decade, and which was more a development than a conservation regulation, bought sufficient time for the industry to establish its hegemony in the coastal regions. After vociferous struggle by the coastal communities and the fisher organisations, the present Minister for Environment seeks to make some recompense, but is it all too late? Today these Gujarat fishers encounter drilling operations in their former fishing zones. They are asked to keep off certain areas without any explanations – little understanding that these areas are now private drilling grounds. In their struggle to survive, the fishers have been struggling for diesel subsidies. The fishery has become highly fuel dependent so even the fishers have to agree that parts of the ocean can be devoted to oil drilling – after all it is all business!

Let us consider two cases where conservation mechanisms juggle with human lives. One is on the east coast in Orissa when the Gahirmatha Marine Wild Life Sanctuary was designated in 1997. This was to protect the turtle nesting grounds. The protection frame work was undertaken

within the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA) and the Orissa State Marine Forest Regulation Act ( OMFRA) 1982. The WLPA prohibits all activity, while the OMFRA adopts a fisheries development focus by restricting, regulating or prohibiting certain activities. Although the WLPA permits innocent passage, the fishers have difficulty in proving their innocent passage and are therefore forced to stay at home. The rise in prohibitions has affected both traditional and small scale fishing as well as the women who depend on the fish for sale. The actual fishing area has been reduced, fishing days have been reduced and access to certain fishing grounds have been banned.

Turtle conservation has therefore alienated fishing communities who feel targeted and excluded. While there is no data on how effective these measures have been in regard to the conservation of the turtle population, in recent years the Orissa fishing communities report higher levels of indebtedness, incidents of suicide and mental illness. Focus on the ‘exclusionary protectionist mode’ rather than an ‘inclusive conservationist mode’ pitches the turtles against the fishers rather than enhancing the coexistence and a win win for both.

The other example is from the west coast in Gujarat. The Machikar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan has been opposing the destruction of a sensitive mangrove ecosystem for the past decade and more. This was also the area of a very specific shrimp fishery in which both men and women were engaged – actually called pagadia fishing (manually gleaning nets in the sea). Initially the Adanis commenced with the construction of a port and later the Mundra Ports and Special Economic Zone was declared. Kutch underwent rapid industrialisation post the earthquake as there were tax incentives provided to rebuild the area– an environmental disaster turned into an economic opportunity for the rich. The large scale destruction of a very sensitive ecosystem has rapidly proceeded. Over the years there have been some gains for the movement where there has been no let up with the struggle, and have been able to establish the traditional access rights of the small scale fishers to the fishing grounds. But with the rapid destruction of the ecosystem, the fishery is in jeopardy. With the present activist Environmental Minister some interaction with the authorities is possible but a larger bogey hangs over their heads – policy change. This is the new buzz word that we do not always understand the implications of. The MOEF created in November 2010 the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that has automatically replaced the National Environmental Appellate Authority (NEAA). With no details of the mechanism yet in place, the investors are rapidly proceeding with their development activity while the protesters have no appellate body in place.

If development is all about business then is there any room at all for honest work and livelihood? I think this is what we feminists have to reflect on. The point is that even we feminists have fallen well into the trap of these market mechanisms. In the effort to mainstream ‘gender’ we have begun to take everything in the mainstream for granted. There is no denying that the feminist presence in the mainstream is important but for a large part women seem to be accomplices in the overarching tentacles of capitalism as we do not pursue the analysis between violence and the development model. We prefer to see violence on women in isolation and hundreds of us have found our hands full handling cases of individual violence. While we do actively participate in struggles of displacement, there are not enough of us in the arena’s of developing alternatives that challenge the patriarchal development paradigm. There are not enough of us in the labour movement that can challenge the kind of industrialisation that is taking place and the development of joblessness. There are not enough of us applying our minds to food cultivation and the ongoing food policy. Our presence in these realms is crucial to see that the state does not absolve itself of the responsibility to its citizens. Of course we all know that the focus on ‘gender’ and distancing from ‘patriarchy’ has led to this lack of analysis of the material base of sexual discrimination and unfortunately the ‘gender’ focus has become so popular that even courses in women’s studies do not include a critique of development in several cases. How do we re-vision gender politics and challenge the hegemonies unless we resist the malestream? I feel strongly that a critique of patriarchal development should be the basis of women’s studies from which young feminists would then draw inspiration while developing their individual skills, theoretical positions and involvements.


1. Hardin, Garrel (1968)

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