A fisherman’s life from the peephole and what it can teach us about poverty, conservation and life

As some of you might have noticed, this last week I have not been so active on the blog. The reason for that is that as part of the volunteer work, I have been (finally) in the field, doing interviews with fishermen in some rural areas in Costa Rica.

It has been intense and tiresome. But mostly it has been heartbreaking. And illuminating.

As most fieldwork goes, we had good days -when we could talk with various fishermen- and not so good days -when many refused to speak with us. We have spent many hours by the harbor or visiting the fishermen´s houses, inquiring if they could spend some time to talk with us. There were long days and short nights, trying to process all the impressions.

And what we have learned is both, heartbreaking and illuminating.

Why heartbreaking

From the nature conservation side

From a pure conservation perspective, what we have discovered was heartbreaking. On Saturday, we waited at the beach for the boats that had been in the sea for four days to arrive. We saw the catch being unloaded: snappers, corvinas…and sharks. Baby sharks. Juveniles. Probably hammer sharks, although we couldn’t be sure since the head had been removed. Protected species whose capture is illegal. We watched their bodies with a knot in our hearts.

So many. So sad.

I wondered if the fishermen knew how much tourists could pay to see hammer sharks. Alive. And if they did, if it was worth the money that they would get for the animal and of course, for its fins. I didn’t have to wait for too long to get an answer to that.

From the human side

As soon as the boats appeared on the horizon, a truck with a huge container parked by the beach. It was the buyer. An intermediary that buys the weekly catch from the fishermen and further sells the fish in the country and abroad. They are the ones that set the price. And get the gain.

Following the buyer’s arrival, the catch started to be moved from the boat to the scale and to the truck. And when everything was loaded, the captain of the boat received a paper with a summary of what they had delivered and what they would get. I happened to be interviewing the captain of the boat when he got that paper from the intermediary. It indicated how much they would pay him for the 200 kilos of fish that they had brought after 4 days in the sea.

I saw the sadness in his eyes. He didn’t say a word. Just showed the note to me.

He had got net 80 euros for 200 kilos of fish, 4 full days at the sea and about 10 mouths to feed (counting all the family members of the crew).

He did the math out loud. Divided between the 3 crew members: less than 30 euros each.

I got to know that that since the pandemic started, the intermediary had cut the prices by half. Now, with the weekly work, the fishermen didn’t have enough to live.

How can anyone expect that a family can live with 120 euros a month in a country where the living costs are quite high and not resort to other illegal activities to cover expenses?

How can we expect conservation goals to be achieved when people do not have enough to feed their families?

Why illuminating

Insight 1. Generosity in times of hardness

After the buyer’s truck had left, I saw some fishermen distributing fish to some people that came to the beach.

Some paid. Some didn’t.

One of the fishermen told me that the price for some of the fish was paid so low that they had decided to give it for free to the poorest families in the community instead of handing it to the buyer.

A lesson in solidarity, from those that do not have much.

Insight 2. Perspectives

Looking at the hardness of their daily life helps to put things in perspective. Throughout these weeks of confinement, our biggest worry has been whether we would be able to continue with our plans, if we would be able to visit the national parks, dive or volunteer…while our fridge was full and our bills paid. Now, it seems completely irrelevant.

Talking with the fishermen has made me realize, once again how privileged we are. But not because we are enduring the Corona in this beautiful country, enjoying the fantastic wildlife and their wonderful people. But because we do have our basic needs and more covered.

Insights 3. Poverty and conservation

Lastly, talking with the fishermen and being in their homes has reminded me why I ended up taking my major in development economics.

I wanted to fight poverty and inequality. For the human side.

And now, I realize that also for the nature side.

Because conservation cannot be achieved without addressing poverty and guaranteeing decent livelihoods. In this case, by paying a fair price for the fish we eat, particularly when it comes from artisanal fishing.

Just there, by the harbour, I realized why conservation needs to go hand in hand with economics.

3 thoughts on “A fisherman’s life from the peephole and what it can teach us about poverty, conservation and life

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