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PAKISTAN: Fisherfolk Blues…

March 23, 2012
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By Qurat Mirza

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
Martin Luther King, Jr. "I Have a Dream"


Smiling and wide-eyed, seven-month-old Kareem Bux is happy between the arms of his mother, grandmother and father in the courtyard of his home in the Rehri Village of Karachi coastal line. He is blissfully unaware of the fact that he has opened his eyes in one of the unfortunate families who are from the most neglected and unprivileged Fisherfolk community of the society. A society where the narrow stratum of elite families maintains extremely disproportionate control over the nation's wealth, and almost one-third of the people live below the poverty line; where all his basic rights are denied, where he will have to strive even to get his share of food.

Fishermen all around the world are the most marginalized and neglected sect, they face the same problem against the big corporations, against their own governments, against environmental pollution, global warming etc that is causing depletion of fish stocks day by day. There are 4 millions vessels all around the world, out of which only 1% is industrial deep sea trawlers and because of this 1% more than 70% of the fish stocks from the entire world are in decline. The negative impact of bottom trawling has on marine ecology, biodiversity and marine fishery resources are well known and recorded. According to the research carried out by the experts around the globe, if this continues then all the seas of the world will be out of fish by 2048.

The Fisherfolk in Pakistan are the indigenous people living on the 1120 kilometer-long coastline comprised of 26 creeks in Sindh and Balochistan provinces, which shares its sea water territories with India and Iran. The coastline of Sindh province is 350 kilometers and is very fertile and full of natural resources, having many small and big islands, creeks, wetlands, mangroves forests, fertile and agricultural lands and natural habitats for the migratory birds. Indus Delta which is the 6th richest and largest resource in the world is the part of the Sindh Coastline.

In the inland fisheries resources of Pakistan 1209 fresh water bodies are found only in Sindh province and their share in inland fishing is more than 70% in the country.

For fishermen the sea is both livelihood and heritage, the bright lights and prosperity of the city are as distant as another country. The 'fisherfolk', are a community bound together by their livelihood. This pervades their culture, rituals and identity. The songs of valor in face of nature, stories of sea conquests, and shells, driftwood and other 'gifts of the sea' adorn their lives. No matter whether they steer vessels or not, by virtue of being in the community, they are all 'fishermen'.

The fisher people of the coastal and inland areas of Pakistan have been fighting for their survival for many decades. The fishing communities, about five million people living in coastal and inland areas of Pakistan, are among the poorest and the most deprived people.

Since the degradation of water resources including the drying up of River Indus and intrusion of sea water in Indus delta, their life has become miserable. The fishermen, women and children have to face the occupation of fishing waters by sea lords, a feudal paramilitary force, the Rangers, and the powerful fish contractors along with large scale fishing by deep see trawlers, marine pollution, lack of basic civic facilities and un-favorable government policies. Fishing communities are also vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones, floods and droughts.

The state has launched many so-called development projects, which instead of improving the living standards, has degraded the livelihood resources of the indigenous fisher communities.

The contract system is considered to be a curse on fishermen in Pakistan, where contractors deprive the fishermen of the major chunk of their fish catch as the contractors claim 75% share from the fish catch and also compel the fishermen to sell their only 25% fish catch share to contractors on throw away prices in place of selling the same in open market. The contractors also resort to over- fishing and forcing the fishermen and non-fishermen fishing labor to fish indiscriminately so as to extract more and more fish resources from the auctioned fishing grounds. This over-fishing has resulted rapid reduction in the fish resources in the fishing grounds of Sindh and it is feared that the fishing grounds may collapse resulting in the starvation of millions of fisherfolk communities/families.

In their bid to earn more from the auctioned fishing grounds, the contractors even spray poisonous chemicals in the fishing grounds. This kills the fish and brings them to the surface enabling the contractor's people to collect the dead fish to sell the same in the market. This largely degrades the fishing grounds and results in drastic reduction in fish catch in future.

Manchar lake is one of the biggest fresh water lakes across the Asia. Only a couples of decade ago, the Fisherfolk at the Manchar Lake were living on residential boats and the villages were known as floating villages. However the reckless attitude of the authorities has ruined almost everything for the poor fisherfolk. Once well off, the fishermen are now forced to survive in pathetic living conditions.

The diversion of Indus River through construction of mega dams in the upstream and new irrigation canals has caused water shortage at the tail-end areas of Indus, consequently many wetlands and natural habitats for the migratory birds are desiccated.

The Mangroves, Coral reef, and Sea Grass are the nurseries and shelters for fish, and the coastline of Sindh province has only one type of nurseries that are the Mangrove Forest. Mangroves, the breeding grounds of the shrimps and natural protection from calamities like cyclone and tsunami depends on fresh water, and the only source of fresh water in Sindh province is the Indus River. The massive construction of dams and barrages has stopped the down streaming of the Indus that shattered the mangrove forests, destroying the entire life of the deltaic inhabitants.

Not only this, the reduction of fresh water flow in downstream has caused degradation of the fertile agricultural lands and more than two million acres land has been intruded upon by the sea. On the other hand the land grabbers are cutting the precious mangrove forest massively to reclaim the land. The fishermen in Pakistan have to pay the price for their being; they are killed by the land grabbers who are aboveboard, enjoying impunity with the full support of feudal and political influence.

Moreover, the construction of the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) has destroyed the rest of the livelihood sources of the people of district Badin in Sindh province, while the faulty and poor design of the project caused the deaths of more than 400 people during the cyclone A-2 in 1999 that ruined all the assets of the poor fisher and agriculture communities.

Overall the Government seems to care only about the feudal power and money, they are not doing much about the Fisherfolk; in fact nobody from the state is doing much for the betterment of the disadvantaged ones. The state has not only failed to protect the rights of the unprivileged Fisherfolk, but is supporting the criminal activities for their larger interests particularly in Sindh and Pakistan in general.

The lack of proper fisher friendly policies and laws and their implementation is a dilemma that pushed the fishermen back into deep rooted poverty and hunger. Almost all the water bodies of Sindh province are occupied by influential people. They use destructive, banned and illegal gear for fishing that causes depletion in fish stocks.

The fishermen are the sons of the sea, they own the sea and it is quite painful for them that 500 million gallon of sewerage, garbage and waste is dumped on top of their livelihood every day.

It is the plight of Pakistani fishermen--the producers of food for people around the world that they themselves deprived of it and forced to live a miserable life due to immense poverty. They are the group that exist at the fringes of the society and are increasingly pushed back further that their existence is now threatened, neither getting any support from the state nor the exporters who are earning huge profit on their catch.

Now the indigenous Fisherfolk are going through a fight for their survival. The children cannot enjoy their basic rights even safe drinking water, food and education. Contaminated water causes a lot of water-borne diseases and other health issues. In fact, the entire coast belt has almost no basic medical facilities. The four million Fisherfolk souls in Pakistan are solely dependent on marine and inland fisheries resources for their livelihood. But the majority of them are denied of their civic and fundamental rights, ensured under various national and international frameworks. The community is also denied of participation in political decision-making process that is the main reason they are sidelined by the authorities.

It is obligatory for the government of Pakistan to provide and protect fundamental human rights but these rights are denied for the Fisherfolk community which is guaranteed under constitution and international laws like Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Convention of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Convention of Social, Economical and Cultural Rights (ICSECR). Also the fishing community and civil society have to come up and voice to protect the rights of the fishers and conserve their natural resources.

The poor fishermen demand the government to ensure a strict action against the use of prohibited nets in Sindh marine water and to phase out bottom trawling from territorial waters which has put juvenile fish stock at the verge of extinct. They demand the immediate release of about 900 fishermen languishing in Indian and Pakistani jails and urge the two governments to stop indiscriminate arrests of poor fishermen in future.

They demand that the Contract system should be eradicated from the country in order to impede the injustice with fishing community and to ensure their sustainable livelihood. Fishermen should be issued licenses so that they can catch fish freely and earn livelihood for their families in an honorable manner.

Fishermens' century-old settlements are still without a proper water supply system and people depend on rainy water they should be provided with the basic amenities and those indigenous fishermen who are displaced, must be rehabilitated to their original places with the provision of all basic facilities of their livelihood.

Fisherfolk--The most neglected, marginalized and disadvantaged community is beset by the polluters, land-grabbers, deep sea trawlers, by the city itself where 20 million people and their waste is being dumped into their backyard. They are beset by the security agencies across the border who treat them as the prisoners of war and the government to turn its back from their rights but still they are mobilized and organized, struggling hard for their rights and fighting back to get their existence recognized because they know "We be many and they be few, they need us more than we need them." (Arundhati Roy, War Talk)

Qurat Mirza is a researcher from Pakistan Fisherfolk, she can be reached at qurat.mirza@ahrc.asia

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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