The Mesoamerican reef presents not only a great deal of biodiversity but also a lifeline of fish stock to villagers along its 1,000 km stretch of coastline. The GlobalGiving-sponsored MAR Fund has been very busy over the last 5 years helping community development organizations in Mexico, Belize, and Honduras participate in the management of these fish populations, but it is now looking to the slither of Guatemalan coastline around the Caribbean town of Livingston to do the same.
This summer, I traveled to Livingston and one of these Guatemalan fishing communities, San Juan, with MAR Fund’s technical coordinator, Claudio Gonzalez. The second I stepped foot on Livingston’s dock, I found myself thrown into an animated debate between trawling boat captains and traditional artesanales fisherman about the future of the waters off their coast. When I think back on all the conversations I had there, I realize just how complicated this debate has become and how vital MAR Fund’s assistance is in its efforts to establish fishing reserves before it’s too late for everyone.
We stumbled upon one such conversation the night before the boat ride out to San Juan as we ran into Claudio’s old friend on one of Livingston’s streets on the way to dinner. The man was very outgoing, and after noticing his Real Madrid hat, I decided that I really liked him from the get-go. Then I found out that he was one of the trawling boat captains whose fishing nets scrape up pieces of reef and wildlife from the waters destroying this beautiful aquatic ecosystem. Trying to put those feelings aside, however, I saw his genuine happiness when explaining that the community had improved so much since he last saw Claudio. I began to feel his frustrations when he complained that he could not support his family because his fishing nets were ripped up by wooden sticks placed in the water by artesanales to mark off fishing zones. When his employers pay his wages conditionally on the fulfillment of strong daily quotas, these nets are really his only choice. And, when this region of Guatemala lacks the credit and banking systems needed to provide loans for him to purchase his own boat, these employers are also his only choice.
The next day, Claudio and I met members of the local community development organization, FUNDAECO, that MAR Fund hopes to work with in the coming years. Their leader, Cleopatra, took us to the fishing community of San Juan to introduce us to some of the artesanales fisherman that she has been working with recently. When asked about conditions in their waters, the community leader, Norberto, claimed that 25 years ago when he arrived there were plenty of fish, but now there are none. He also claimed that, because the trawling boats only come out in the cover of night when monitoring is impossible, they have been able cross over into his territory without consequence. But when asked what he thinks the solution could be, his statement that “all we are asking for is for them to leave the whole bay to us” demonstrates that the MAR Fund needs to be there to help reign in expectations on both sides.
As I thought about possible solutions to this apparent trade-off between social values and economic progress, the economics major in me bounced around ideas that the artesanales should try to move on to another more viable trade. There was even some evidence that they have been trying to do so. But, then on the way back to our boat, I asked some of the villagers more or less my own age what they did in their free time when they weren’t fishing, and after ten seconds of awkward pause, they said “fishing”. I realized that fishing is not just an income for them but a way of life.
When I was speaking with these trawling and artesanales fisherman face to face, I could see very clearly just how essential MAR Fund’s technical and best practices assistance will be for FUNDAECO and the entire community in the coming years. Most donors will never be able to visit this wonderful community, but GlobalGiving hopes to connect you directly to projects like this around the world in unique ways so that you can see the impact your donations are making on communities in need.