Policies of conservation and sustainable development: Fishing communities in the gulf of California, Mexico

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Since the late 1990s, Mexico's marine fisheries and coastal resources, like much of Mexico's rural sector, have been undergoing deep structural transformations as the country insists on rigorously implementing the neoliberal model. As in much of Latin America, neoliberal reforms have involved macroeconomic, agrarian, and environmental policies. These policies include the privatization of key economic sectors and state-owned industries, the liberalization of markets and establishment of international free trade agreements, major changes to banking and credit systems, the elimination of subsidies, and decentralization of state control. Even though the declared objectives of the neoliberal model are to sustain economic growth, improve life, and combat poverty, its impacts have been rather contradictory, as indicated by the numerous studies produced on the subject (e.g., Harvey 2005; Taylor 2002). The case of marine fisheries and coastal resources in the Gulf of California offers an interesting example of how the neoliberal model has subordinated local economic development efforts and generated a model of intensive and extensive exploitation of natural resources. Parallel to the privatization of ejidos (communally owned properties) in the Mexican agricultural sector (see Haenn 2006), marine fisheries also went through a process of privatization and commoditization. This process contradicts decades of state intervention in which fishers organized in cooperatives that held exclusive rights to capture such commercially valuable species as shrimp, lobster, and abalone. Starting in the 1930s the interests of local fishing cooperatives were represented at the national level by regional federations that formed part of a complex national organizational structure headed by the National Confederation of Cooperatives. Arguing corruption and inefficiency in the cooperative sector, the Carlos Salinas de Gortari administration officially dismantled the cooperative system in 1992. The first sally into the privatization process began in the late 1980s with the closure of the Banco Nacional Pesquero y Portuario (BANPESCA), the statecontrolled fisheries bank. Set up in the 1970s to develop the fishing industry, BANPESCA provided loans to fishing cooperatives for the purchase of boats and equipment at relatively benign rates. Through the 1970s and 1980s loans from BANPESCA led to a sharp increase in the number of shrimp boats, Mexico's most important commercial fishery. As the number of shrimp boats increased, catch per boat and total catch generally declined (see figures 8.1 and 8.2). By the end of the decade most cooperatives found themselves unable to repay their loans. This provided the justification to close the bank in the midst of allegations of corruption within the bank itself. The closure of BANPESCA crippled the fishing cooperatives, forcing many into bankruptcy and preparing the stage for privatization of the sector.1 In 1992, fishing rights to reserved species were transferred to private investors. The implementation of neoliberal reforms led to a considerable loss of local control over resources as small-scale and offshore fishers lost political representation and negotiating power with financial institutions, the private sector, and the state (Alcala 2003; Vasquez-Leon and McGuire 1994). At the same time, a strong trend toward conservation was set in motion in 1993 with the approval of the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation, an environmental side accord that addressed the lack of environmental provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Under the arguments of resource overexploitation and an increase in the number of endangered species, a number of highly productive marine regions have been declared protected areas (Arbuto-Oropeza and Lopez-Sagastegui 2006), changing the legal status of fishing communities that in some cases are excluded from traditional fishing grounds (McGuire and Greenberg 1993). Today, as Daniel Lluch-Cota and colleagues (2007:2) point out, the Gulf of California is "one of the marine systems most closely watched by the worldwide conservation sector." By contrast, despite general concern over resource decline, the passage of NAFTA-a key piece in engineering neoliberal goals of free trade-made it easier for private investors, both Mexican and foreign, to invest in such capital-intensive enterprises as shrimp aquaculture and tourism infrastructure. As projected by the Mexican government, 30 percent of the once remote Gulf coastline would be under intensive economic use by 2010 (Diario Oficial 2006); this, in fact, did happen. These developments, as I shall discuss, increase pressures on marine and coastal resources and displace fishing communities, and they are unlikely to contribute in any substantial way to the economic well-being of local fishing households and communities. Instead, since the early 1990s, disputes among strong economic interests have led to conflicting views as to who should benefit from the region's resources. In this chapter I focus on the impact of neoliberal reform policies on the Gulf of California's small-scale fishers. These policies include privatization of marine and coastal resources, "sustainable development" strategies promoted by the state and private capital, changes in the structure of markets, and loss of credit and basic social services for small-scale producers. Socioeconomic studies in the Gulf of California since the early 1990s (Aubert 1997; Fernandez 2003; Greenberg 2006 [1998]; Lozano-Montes, Pitcher, and Haggan 2008; McGuire and Greenberg 1993; Vasquez-Leon 1995) have identified a progressive deterioration of the economies of marine-dependent communities and a decline in the productivity of a variety of commercial fisheries. After more than a decade of neoliberal reforms, poverty and resource scarcity have worsened, and today small-scale fishing households are being pressured to the point where marine-dependent livelihoods are becoming unviable. Even though neoliberal reforms-including environmental policies-have been undertaken in the name of efficiency and sustainability, fishers find themselves increasingly vulnerable as the state withdraws support for this sector in favor of industrial producers in offshore fisheries and shrimp aquaculture, tourism development, and conservationist concerns. I begin by examining the major problems impacting fishing communities in the Gulf of California. I then analyze the solutions proposed by the state, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and local communities to revive economies and conserve resources. Finally, I focus on traditional small-scale fishers and their communities to show how they perceive and are impacted by the problems and the proposed solutions. The problems discussed in this chapter are not unique to small-scale fishers in the Gulf of California; in Mexico, small-scale producers in other rural sectors are facing similar challenges (Haenn 2006; Vasquez-Leon and Liverman 2004; in this volume see Greenberg on coffee, Carter and Alexander on grapes, Weaver on forestry, and Emmanuel on ranching).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNeoliberalism and Commodity Production in Mexico
PublisherUniversity Press of Colorado
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9781607321712
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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