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When fish is water: Food security and fish in a coastal community in the dominican republic

Richard W. Stoffle
Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona, USA

Abstract: This is an essay about the people of Buen Hombre, a small coastal fishing and farming village of about a thousand people located on the north coast of the Dominican Republic (DR) near the Haitian border. The people of this village deal with the normal and abnormal problems of change. These changes are sometimes global and sometimes local. Changes occur in their climate, economy, and their environment. The people of this village prepare for and accommodate to these changes by (1) promoting a conservation ethic and (2) limiting access to their marine resources. When they are successful, fish-based food security issues are ameliorated.

Time and space are critical for understanding fish-based food security issues. Spatial issues involve the range of culturally organized relationships between people and natural resources associated with fish. These are termed cultural landscapes (Greider and Garkovich 1994; Tuan 1977; Stoffle, Austin, and Halmo 1997). When temporal perspectives are combined with a cultural landscape perspective we have the foundation for looking at how natural and human issues are connected at one time and change through time. According to Adam (1998: 55)

A timescape perspective enables us to integrate scientific and everyday knowledge, and the constitutive cultural Self with the workings of nature.

This diachronic approach for presenting the Buen Hombre case study provides the reader with a sense of discovery and a broader and more complete perspective. The reader thus is introduced to problems being faced by the people of this coastal community and through time like them comes to understand their implications and possible resolution.

This essay discusses food security issues as these were faced by the people of the village of Buen Hombre from 1985 to 1995. While this is a very small segment of time, many changes did occur and these illustrate key temporal and spatial processes. Short-term changes in the economy and climate are common for coastal peoples who must constantly adjust their adaptive strategies to survive.


The people of Buen Hombre generally prefer living here within sight of the ocean to the north and with the forested mountains at their back (Map A). Three distinctive coral reefs, each deeper and farther from shore, are interspersed with sea grass beds producing a rich ecosystem that contains a variety of foods ranging from algae, to lobster, to fish (Map B). The mangrove swamps provide shellfish, medicine plants, and specialized woods that resist termites and bend without breaking in strong winds. The mountain forest contains hundreds of natural plants used for medicine, food, and to make everything from homes to baskets. On the ridges surrounding the village are hundreds of archaeology sites covered with pottery shards that testify to the thousands of years humans have occupied this location. Local oral traditions are full of interpretations of these sites and the persistent spirits of past residents. The rain-fed agricultural fields are located in a valley and goats graze along the lower bajada slopes at the foot of the mountains. Crops are grown in soils that are comparatively fertile. Indeed, the people of Buen Homble exploit a richly diverse topical ecosystem.

The village today is without a potable water source, the coastal mountains are arid but early in the 20th century the community had access to a number of fine springs and intermittent surface creeks. All that is left is one brackish spring due to deforestation. The water of which can be used for washing clothes and people and is consumed in hard times by some stock animals. During wet years The nearest potable water is available from the wells of a village just over the mountains to the south. In the past few generations one child from each family spent a day or two a week riding a donkey or small horse across the mountains for water. In arid years, the water in the neighboring wells is greatly reduced and water must come from small-polluted rivers located many miles inland. This interior water today is hauled in small bottles by young men on small motor bikes and sold at a relatively high price.

The climate is generally moderate, but hurricanes do make their destructive appearances often bringing too much rain and wind. Community-owned cement cisterns and private house cisterns catch the precious rain water. From time to time over the past hundred years since the community was established it has achieved clearly observable balances between their needs and what this place can provide.

The people of Buen Hombre experience natural and human threats, which they can anticipate and to which they have successfully adapted. Perhaps the most common threat is drought. Periodically, the rain falls at the wrong time of the year for growing crops and this can provide short-term stresses on the community. At other times, a regional drought occurs and most crops fail. Hurricanes can devastate crops, homes, and transportation infrastructure. The village is connected east and west via footpaths and the only automobile road goes straight up the mountain to the south connecting to neighboring villages and eventually to the paved highway to urban centers. Even small rains make the mountain portion of the automobile road impassable.

Human threats to community life are much more difficult to predict. Once Buen Hombre had a large number of Haitians who were welcomed and valued members of the community. During the 1950s, the Dominican Republic government decided that national economic problems were due to the presence of Haitians. Government troops visited communities near the border to ensure that no Haitians remained in them. This experience left what one might characterize as a "social scar" which manifests itself today in a complete lack of racial discrimination even to the point of failing to recognize or respond to obviously differences in color among community members. The same Dominican Republic government decided to produce salt from seawater in the mangroves of Buen Hombre. Government troops cleared the mangroves and made large salt beds. The land alterations and the ecosystem damage were extensive; however, the isolation of the village contributed to the failure of the project and the eventual withdrawal of the government troops. These are the types of threats to community life that the people of Buen Hombre have adapted to and survived, but changes originating in contemporary world systems present new challenges.

Map A: The Dominican Republic, showing the north coast and the location of Buen Hombre.

Map B: Natural color image of the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Monte Cristi can be seen on the left. Buen Hombre is located just right of center, near top of image where there is a break in the reef. (Photo courtesy of Environmental Research Institute of Michigan)

A variety of non-traditional threats have confronted the people of Buen Hombre over the past twenty years. Urban street youth, from cities along the coast miles away, have been hired by venture capitalists to come to the reefs and drag illegal harvesting nets across the sea grass covered sand bottoms and the tops of delicate reefs, killing thousands perhaps millions of undersize fish annually as well as damaging the marine ecology. Implementing policies suggested by the International Monetary Fund, the Dominican Republic government removed traditional price controls on basic foods like sugar and rice and now food insecurity is a way of life for many. Tourists have begun to venture to this remote ecosystem causing direct changes in the price and the distribution of locally produced natural resources like fish and lobster, while indirectly stimulating the removal of mangroves for the construction of vacation cottages and international tourist hotels.

During the period of this case analysis, these externally derived actions of various world systems combined with an extended local drought to threaten the capacity of the people of Buen Hombre to feed their families and protect their ecosystem. After 1995, members of the village increasingly turned to non-sustainable natural resource gathering practices to survive. Especially during hard times when many resources are scarce, fish translate into water and food. Water is life, but the village lacks a potable well or spring. When there is no cash, people must catch fish to sell. With the cash they can purchase water to make rice for dinner. In these times, fish is water. This simple phrase indicates that economies don't exist in isolation and instead thrive or suffer by virtue of their interconnections and ramifications with other aspects of the larger society and indeed that inadvertent effects can be just as influential as direct ones. Thus literally during hard times fish provides income for buying water which is needed for drinking and for preparing food.


The people of Buen Hombre became partners with university researchers to tell the story of their adaptations to this marine coastal environment. This partnership was formed between the three major organizations that structure community activities. These are the fishermen's association, the farmers association, and the women's association. Each of these associations was consulted formally each time the university researchers proposed another study in the village. No study proceeded until full consultation was completed and all participants were satisfied that they had a clearly defined role in the study.

Although the village has a position of community leader or mayor, most normal decision making is conducted in open discussions that are sponsored by one of these three organizations. Each association has its own membership, conducts its own meetings, and represents its members within the community, the region, and the nation.

The community and coastal ecosystem of Buen Hombre became the subject of social (Stoffle 1986) and economic (Rubino, Epler, and Wilson 1985) studies in the summer of 1985. The U.S. Agency for International Development funded a social soundness analysis of a new technology that was being pre-testing in three Caribbean locations. This new technology was being tested by the Marine Systems Lab of the Smithsonian Institution and involved growing algae in the ocean and feeding it to various marine species in underwater cages. The mariculture concept in Buen Hombre involved a Caribbean spider crab (Mithrax spinoissimus). The technology was considered a wonder like the "green revolution" and so was dubbed by international organizations the "blue revolution," a term we later used in our reference to the technology (Rubino and Stoffle 1989, 1990). The coral reefs of Buen Hombre were chosen by the Smithsonian Institution as one of these test sites for the blue revolution technology because these reef were among the best in the Caribbean and one of the last fully-functional coral reefs systems along the entire coast of Hispanola.

Subsequent social and cultural studies were conducted in 1989, 1990 (two field sessions), and 1991. These studies continued to assess the fit between the people of this village and the new mariculture technology but the analytical frame was expanded to include the entire community (Stoffle, Halmo and Stoffle 1991; Stoffle and Halmo 1992). A study funded by NASA allowed a large interdisciplinary science team to assess the environmental impacts of local and non-local fishing activities using satellite imagery (Luczkovich, Wagner, Michalek, and Stoffle 1993; Michalek, Wagner, Luczkovich, and Stoffle 1993; Stoffle, Halmo, Stoffle, and Burpee 1994, Stoffle, Halmo, Wagner, and Luczkovich 1994). During these studies a total of 284 interviews were conducted and 174 person days of participant observation occurred.

A survey instrument that was slightly expanded guided interviews from study to study in order to explore new issues. Related studies were conducted on agricultural innovation in 1993 - 1994 (Burpee 1995), indigenous conservation ethic in 1993 (Stoffle 1994) and the environmental impacts of structural adjustment policies in 1995 (Greenberg 1997).

These many studies conducted over a 10-year period constitute one of the most extensive iterative social science research projects in the Caribbean. Members of Buen Hombre, individually and formally through the three village associations, played critical roles identifying key social, cultural, and environment variables to be studies and later serving as reviewers and confirmers of findings. These studies have been interdisciplinary involving scientists from fields as diverse as marine ecology, climatology, soil and crop science, cultural anthropology, and ethnohistory. Finally, the studies have addressed increasingly better questions by learning from previous findings and listening to the people who are directly involved in the issues on a day-to-day basis.


Food security is a concept well defined by previous studies, but it is hard to know what it means to any particular person, family, or community. Even though much is known about the lives of the people in Buen Hombre it is hard to represent in words what it means to be insecure regarding food. An incident that stands out in the mind of this researcher is a visit one evening to a fairly large family in the community. During the visit the wife explained that she could not offer food because her husband had been sick and had not been able to fish that day, so he had no fish to sell. Without cash, they could not purchase their daily supply of water. Even though the family had a substantial supply of beans and rice, they lacked the water to cook dinner. Because he was unable to fish, his family went without food in a house having dried beans and rice.

This story underscores the importance of interconnected, ramified, and inadvertent aspects of local economies, which are persistent themes in this essay.

Insecurity about food can derive from longer lasting problems. One year the farmers of Buen Hombre were encouraged by Dominican Republic agricultural extension agents to plant more tobacco. In fact, whole fields were devoted to tobacco, which normally was only one of many cash and subsistence crops grown. After a wet season, and consequently a wonderful harvest, farmers were told by the Dominican government that so much tobacco had been grown it now had no immediate value. Even this price-supporting government could not purchase all of the tobacco that had been grown at its urgings. Almost a year later, the front room of most Buen Hombre farmers was filled to the ceiling with bales of tobacco. Normally grown subsistence crops had not been planted and people were short of cash for purchasing staples. Credit, which normally was in short supply had been extended by the government to encourage the planting of tobacco, but now such credit had transmuted into ever-mounting family and community debts. The entire village was facing months, and for some families years, of food insecurity because of this episode.

Another type of food insecurity arises when people believe they are destroying their livelihoods. This can happen to farmers when they watch their fields erode and the only soil they will ever have races toward the sea. They watch as formerly fertile fields begin to "grow rocks," a local expression that describes the effects of erosion. Such feelings happen to fishermen when they watch their colleagues catch a very large grouper, which they define as the mother fish needed to produce new generations of stock. Fishermen also see their future and that of their children erode when urban fish harvesters used illegal nets and leave a two-foot swath of small fish dead along five miles of beach. Such nets leave measurable damage in the sea grass beds and the coral reefs. When people who know about long-term ecosystem change see it happening they then worry about what will become of themselves, their families, and their village. They worry not about tonight, or even this season, but about forever; because the damage to the fishery and fish habitat, like the erosion of fertile agricultural soils into rocky fields, is irreversible.

These fishermen become insecure about food in ways that even small scale returns to better weather, more crops, and bigger marine catches cannot diminish. They are concerned about being able to predict their future because they see its essential foundations undermined.


Studies of the role of fish in food security argue that a measure of importance is the percent that fish contributes to the total animal protein consumed by people in an area (usually a nation). Another measure of significance is the extent that fish contributes as a supplier of energy in the total diet of a people in an area. Fish also contributes to the economy of a people in an area. When one regards the Dominican Republic in these terms fish represent a rather small contribution, relative to other countries, in terms of the first two of these measures (FAO, Committee on Fisheries 1995: Annex 1a). Using these measures, the Dominican Republic falls between Israel and the United Kingdom. Although economic contribution figures are not available, fish would probably rank even lower in this country that produces sugar, tobacco, and baseball players for export. Taken together these indicators suggest a minor role for fish in the food security of people in the Dominican Republic.

4.1 Specially impacted populations

In the Dominican Republic two groups of people, however, are not well represented by these national statistics. The people who live in fishing and farming villages are one type of people for whom fish are important. The urban poor who live in nearby coastal cities are also dependent on cheap fish and this is not evident in national statistics.

The fishermen of Buen Hombre change how they fish, where they fish, and what they fish for depending on the seasons of the year. In the winter and spring they target 1st class fish because they need cash for food and medicine. During this season the crops are growing in the fields and people tend to be sick more often. During this season fishermen watch out for color changes and swollen abdomen which are indications of spawning behavior in the fish. This is a time when they go to lobster sites, but they do not take the pregnant lobsters. In the summer and fall the fishermen target 2nd class and 3rd class fish, with very little 1st class fish. During this time crops provide cash and they want to preserve the 1st class fish. The three classes of fish are defined by the Dominican Republic government and basically represent levels of economic value to the national and international fish markets.

The Fishermens Association keeps records of fish sold, and with the help of individual fishermen's diaries, our studies were able to assess that during the middle of the drought fishermen kept 20 to 25 percent of their catch for subsistence. Table 1 documents, based on survey responses by 31 members of the Buen Hombre community, how the subsistence fish were distributed on a daily basis during the month of August in 1989. This was a time in the middle of the four year long drought, so there were fewer land animals than in 1985 but many more than there would be two years later at the end of the drought. This table demonstrates that both fishermen and farmers were fishing at this time and both were feeding their families and fellow community members. Farmers had about one-third the catch as fishermen, and were consuming half of these in the immediate home. Farmers did share with other kin, but had very little for other members of the community. Fishermen, on the other hand, caught about 8.30 kilograms of fish a day and shared these about equally among members of their family, other kin, and members of the village.

Both fishermen and farmers sold a portion of their catch. Overall all among the 31 interviews 42% sold some of their daily catch. About half of the fishermen (53%) sold some of their daily catch and about one third (29%) of the farmers sold some of their daily catch.

Due to the growing effects of the drought fishermen were increasing their catch efforts. Our studies demonstrate that despite increased fishing effort, fishermen did not violate their traditional patterns of fishing, thereby continuing to protect fish. At this time they were relying more and more on fish because the crops were failing. Farmers were swimming out from the shore and pressuring the first reef ecosystem.

Some of the fish that was sold between 1985 and 1989 went to the urban poor. The Fishermens Association records demonstrate that approximately 20% of all the fish sold was 3rd class (see Figure 12.5, Stoffle, Halmo, Stoffle, William's, and Burpee 1993: 278). Most of the 3rd class fish was loaded on the backs of small motor bikes and taken to urban markets. Some fish were distributed to people living in nearby farming villages, but most were taken to urban centers where people work for cash or barter rather than grow their own food. Market interviews and observational data show that the poorest of the poor eat these fish. One reason is because urban poor people have no other source of animal protein due to the price of other sources of protein. Another reason is because after the long ride from the fishing village to the urban market on the back of a motor bike sitting only on a small block of ice in an old rice sack there is a serious deterioration in the physical condition of what was already the lowest class of fish. It is a protein sold cheaply and consumed readily despite its condition.

Table 1: Subsistence Distribution of Daily Fish Catch in Kilograms, Buen Hombre, August 1989 (N = 31)

Subsistence Distribution



Std. Deviation

Fishing Households

Household consumption




Amount shared with kin




Amount shared with community




Total catch




Farming Households

Household consumption




Amount shared with kin




Amount shared with community




Total catch




Source: Author's Fieldwork, 1989.
These observations document that national measures of the contribution of fish to food security do not necessarily reflect the condition particular populations such as people living in coastal villages, as well as the urban poor.

4.2 Role of climate change

Attempts to model the human dimensions of ecosystem change revealed that many human and natural variables influence fishing behavior in Buen Hombre. Important among these are short-term and long-term episodes of climatic change (see McGoodwin 1992). When the weather is dry and droughts occur, people along the coast and the urban poor develop an increased dependency on fish. In other words, during major droughts the consequence for the coastal people, who are food producers (both agriculturists and fishers) and the urban poor, who are marginal wage earners, are essentially the same.

Let's look at the impact of 1987-1991 drought on animal protein production in Buen Hombre as this is indexed by the presence of goats. During the first year's study in 1985 the village of Buen Hombre was overrun with goats. People complained all the time that the goats were out of control getting into fields and kitchen gardens. People ate goat willingly and perhaps out of self-defense at that time. Fish was one of many available proteins and contributed at moderate levels to total food energy and village economy. By 1991 the village lacked goats, and most other kinds of animals including dogs and chickens. People primarily ate fish caught by the village fishermen, or the occasional fishing farmer. There were practically no other accessible source of animal protein. Farmers especially became dependent on fish for protein in family meals. Fishermen were pressured by farming relatives to provide fish protein, while at the same time the drought made it essential that the fishermen sell some fish for cash in order to purchase water to make their own family dinner. Very little 3rd class fish was sold by 1991.

There are no systematic data available for the urban poor during this period of drought. Participant observations were conducted during regular visits to the market for supplies. Towards the end of the drought the Buen Hombre fishermen were selling high value fish for cash and eating or distributing most of the rest within the community. During droughts the numbers of all types of animals in the region decline dramatically, so the supply of animal protein in the urban centers was consequently reduced and the cost of animal protein rose. Our research teams' best guess is that many urban poor became vegetarians during the later stages of this drought period, thus they relied solely on vegetable proteins out of necessity. Consequently, for the urban poor, fish may actually have fallen as a percent of both food energy and animal protein during the latter stages of this drought.

4.3 The path to conservation

The people of Buen Hombre have a conservation ethic. This ethic derives from three factors (1) they have lived here for a long period during which time they learned about the environment and learned lessons from their own mistakes, (2) they perceive that the land and ocean near their village belongs to them, and (3) they believe their children and grandchildren will live here in the future.

Before we discuss the conservation ethic of the people of Buen Hombre it is important to contextualize this discussion with reference to a worldwide debate on the origins of conservation. This international debate is conducted by social scientists and natural resource scientists who focus their research on natural resource conservation. It is also important in the natural resource policy debates as these are conducted by resource managers and governments. At the center of this debate are the dual questions of whether or not people really conserve the natural resources they use and if they would continue to conserve if new harvesting technologies were available to them (Hardin 1968). Some argue that people are basically willing to exploit resources to the limits of their ability; so when they pressure a resource to its limits the only solution is to limit their access to the resource and the natural habitat it needs to survive. Wilderness areas and special marine preserves are often recommended in these situations.

Others argue that people learn and adapt, and so through time they will adjust to their mistakes and develop sustainable natural resource use practices (McCay and Acheson 1987). It is a basic observation of human culture that human groups adapt through time. In fact, culture is defined as the way in which a human group adapts to its environment. For most scholars of human culture, to adapt is to be human. In general, the longer a people live in an area the more adapted they are to its natural resources. So some argue that natural resource preservation should be "community-based conservation," that is centered on local people who live near and use the resource (West and Brechin 1991; Western and Wright 1994).

This is not to say that all human adaptations are good for the biotic and abiotic components of the ecosystem. In fact, human societies fail all the time to fully understand the implications of their natural resource uses of the environment. However, no society consciously and willingly destroys its essential natural resource base so that future generations are left to starve.

Significant natural resource use errors occur when people do not understand what they are doing and when they are pressured to survive on a daily basis in ways that eliminate their future. Recently scholars have suggested that modern advances in technology have been adopted by people who use natural resources but they do not see the very long-term implications of their actions. This problem refers to what has been termed "timescapes" (Adam 1998), which may require from generations to thousands of years before the impacts on the ecology are fully apparent. Other researches have shown that people go to the natural environment in order to survive due to rapid economic policy shifts (such as those associated with structural-adjustment policies) that remove food subsidies and can provide financially insurmountable challenges for the poorer members of society (see Greenberg 1997 for a review of this issue).

If all societies are adapting to their environment and basically desire not to undercut the ability of future generations to live, then what kind of societies do this better. It is argued that people in native (or folk) societies use and protect the environment better than people from urban industrial societies (Beckerman and Valentine 1996; Nabhan 1997). Others say that native societies just protect the environment because they lack the numbers and technology to destroy it (Martin 1967). McGoodwin (1990:42), for example, echoes this perspective when he notes that "...some fishing peoples may never over fish important marine resources because they are simply unable to, not because of any conservationist wisdom." He concludes that "...most of the earliest human societies were 'enlightened' only because they had neither the numbers nor the technology that would have enabled them to deplete all their food resources. So these people's harmonious coexistence with nature seems to have been essentially a consequence of their simple inability to overtax their important ecosystems..." (1990:57-58).

Others argue that people who live for long periods in the same location will develop ways to protect those aspects of the natural environment that they can adversely impact. If the weight of the argument is that native societies do effectively protect portions of the environment, we are still left with why they are good at conserving. It is argued here that the three components involved in the development of a conservation ethic for Buen Hombre reflect basic principals for the development of a conservation ethic for any human group. Conversely, anything that serves to reverse these processes and thus leaves people desperate and vulnerable to environmental errors constitutes a threat to the environment.

4.4 Long time residence - knowledge

The most important factor associated with the development of a conservation ethic is the time a human group has lived in an environment. If we trace the process of adapting from arrival to conservation, then natural resource use errors should occur more frequently in the beginning. Big errors should though time stand out as negative examples used to convince new generations to behave in certain ways. Over many generations, such as among American Indians in North America, such lessons may become embedded in the culture of the people as spiritual punishments for mistreating a portion of the environment.

The environment of Buen Hombre has changed in various ways since the Genoese sailor Cristobal Colon arrived in 1492. As he passed along the north coast he observed white beaches with few patches of mangroves, valleys filled with rancheria-style housing, covered docks for large sea-going boats, and the grasslands where the forest had been pushed back up the mountain sides. There is no mention of deep arroyos or of dead portions of the coral reefs. Within fifty years the complex nation states that supported these large fishing and farming communities along the coast were gone and within a 100 years the native population was eliminated. Given that the Spanish did not intend to fully repopulate Hispanola, most former native villages were abandoned to be reclaimed by nature.

In the late 1890's, when a small group of Cuban people left their island seeking refuge and a new start they founded the present site of Buen Hombre which had been abandoned for more than 300 years. In the late 1890s the north coast of the Dominican Republic was an isolated and largely unpopulated place. Oral history accounts by elder residents of Buen Hombre describe a lush paradise where the crops grew to great heights and the lobsters were half the length of a man's body. During the first 50 years, the rain forest was continuously cut back until it became apparent that the springs were drying up, erosion was eliminating the agricultural fields, and deepening arroyos were lowering the water table. People say the climate of Buen Hombre dried up because they cut down the trees. Similar but less dramatic changes were occurring in the sea. During the first fifty years most people were comfortably occupied as farmers. When farming techniques began to fail, more and more men went to the sea for food. For various reasons, such as soils eroding into the sea grass beds and settling on the coral reefs, the sea soon began to lower its yield. Life became much harder fifty years ago.

Today, the people of Buen Hombre take responsibility for what they did to their coastal marine environment. They do not blame fate or gods, but instead credit themselves with the damage. Their response is to tell their children to protect what soil they have left in the fields, not overly harvest the trees on the mountains, selectively cut from the mangroves, and to protect the marine resources. They recognize their grandparents' mistakes, have adapted their natural resource patterns, and are teaching their children the lessons.

Is a hundred years an optional time for learning about the environment? This is an issue for study, because length of residence could become one objective measure (or index) of whether or not a local community has the foundation for developing a conservation ethic. In this case there is no question that the fisherman of this community are knowledgeable about the marine ecosystem. Tests were administered at various times during the NASA study to measure fishermen's knowledge. Senior fishermen always scored very high regarding knowledge of marine animals, marine plants, and the abiotic aspects of the marine environment. For weeks at a time our research team's marine biologist SCUBA dove with local fishermen, most of whom can free dive and remain with a SCUBA diver on the bottom. The marine biologist later discussed the marine environment they had observed together with a number of senior fishermen. Based on these experiences he concluded the senior fishermen all have the equivalent of a PhD in marine biology. Indeed, the fishermen of this community are self described students of the marine environment and have become experts in marine biology and ecological processes. A hundred years was sufficient for accomplishing this feat -- and they are still learning.

4.5 Perceived ownership

Conservation is linked with ownership, even traditional or unofficial ownership. There seems to be a common-sense explanation for this relationship rather than any systematic body of research. People take care of what is theirs. People invest extra energy in learning about and protecting their own ecosystems.

At the turn of the century in isolated portions of the north coast, people could acquire unused land simply by occupying it and making productive use of it. So was established the right to own the rectangular-shaped coastal marine territory of Buen Hombre. The village territory extends south to the ridge of the mountains, to the east and west to points generally agreed to by neighboring villages, and into the sea to beyond the third reef. The marine portion of this territory is defined by customary use and is understood, and under some circumstances recognized, by the government of the Dominican Republic, which nonetheless claims ultimate nation-state domain over all its land and sea resources.

The people of Buen Hombre express strong sentiments about others coming into their territory. This was manifested in two instances that occurred or were in process during the university studies. A neighboring village to the south whose members had clear cut the forest on their side of the mountain, brought their timber harvesting over the ridge into Buen Hombre territory and removed a section of forest. Urban fish harvesters from a city to the west began fishing farther into Buen Hombre waters. In both instances, leaders from the Buen Hombre community appealed to regional government officials and asked that they recognize the territory of Buen Hombre and their right to exclude these intrusions. In both cases, the response was an agreement to look into the matter, as well as to threaten the people of Buen Hombre with the reality that they do not actually own most of their land under a strictly legal definition. Few people on the north coast do own land under such a definition. The Dominican Republic government does not recognize de facto ownership or use rights after living in an area for long periods. Whole villages elsewhere along the coast have recently been displaced without compensation by commercial hotels and other non-local commercial facilities.

Lacking official support, the response of the leaders was to try to intimidate the intruders. The villages to the south have certain mutually beneficial relationships with members of Buen Hombre so some general resolution of the forest encroachment was achieved. The trees were already cut, but no further forest was removed. The case of the illegal fish harvesters was somewhat more complex. They were well funded and had the support of a political figure from the city. Even though their nets and harvesting style had been outlawed the Dominican Republic government, threats of exposure had little effect until they were combined with threats of violence. Violence would do two things. First, it might bring the matter before a high regional authority and thus beyond the political influence of the harvester company. Violence could also be immediately effective by physically driving the intruding harvesting crew from local waters. On the other hand, because violence is illegal the Buen Hombre fishermen could be punished for their actions.

One could argue that the members of the Buen Hombre community were simply protecting their self-interest. Someone was taking their trees and fish and thus precluding their opportunities to profit from them. This argument was not raised when villagers discussed these issues with our research team members. Instead, issues of conservation were raised. One evening a fisherman came running and shouting for people to go to the beach and observe what had happened. Many of the villagers went to the beach and found it lined for miles by a two-foot wide strip of small dead fish. "They are killing our future!" was a sentiment expressed by many. A piece of illegal net was found and the researchers were asked to take it and the case to the national fisheries office in the capital. There is only one fishery officer on the entire north coast and it was generally understood that he mostly enforced fishery regulations where the fish are landed in the regional port city of Puerto Plata.

The research team's discussions with the people of Buen Hombre established the notion that their sense of ownership of the natural resources contributes to the development of their conservation ethic. Simply, you protect what is yours.

4.6 Future occupation

Protecting natural resources for future generations is basic for people who have a conservation ethic. At one time in the United States, religious beliefs of the secretary of the interior who was in charge of most nationally owned natural resources, led him to conclude that the world would come to an end within the span of his lifetime. Thus, he spent most of his term in office selling off natural resources controlled by the government agencies under his authority. Most think his beliefs and behavior were closely connected: Why save when there is no tomorrow?

In contrast, some Native American tribes have natural resource and planning departments which are required to assess the potential social and environmental impacts of tribal development actions on tribal members seven generations into the future. These tribal regulations are more than rhetorical posturing, reflecting the timescapes traditionally held by these tribes.

The seven generations requirement is more extensive than that demanded by the people of Buen Hombre, but then again, the latter have not lived in Buen Hombre for a thousand years. There is a certain amount of evidence that the longer people live in an area the more they will project their way of life in that area into the future. Many Native Americans believe they have lived in their lands, often called holy lands, forever, and thus believe their children will live in these lands forever. The implications of such beliefs for natural resource use and the development of a conservation ethic seem obvious, and perhaps this is why many researchers observe higher levels of conservation among native populations who are still in their homelands.


If we take these understandings regarding the path to conservation and look at the actual social organization of the Buen Hombre fishermen we see certain parallels. Fishing in Buen Hombre is cultural and socially organized and at the center is the Fishermen's association. Fishing neither occurs at random nor without regulation. Instead fishing is structured like a European craft guild. The association is bounded; and people are either members or they are not. The association has a formal hierarchy with names and prestige attached to each level. While the organization owns very little of the means of production, it serves to regulate production by structuring fishing activities.

5.1 Time and knowledge - becoming a fisherman

The fishermen's association is structured so that the longer one participates and the more one learns the farther one moves up the hierarchy. The concept of a developmental cycle has been used to describe the pattern of ascending through four stages of fishing (1) apprentice, (2) journeyman, (3) craftsman, and (4) beached (Stoffle 1986: 95-100). Participating in a fishing crew is a prerequisite for membership in the association, although some senior members are "beached," which means they swim mostly from shore and dive alone. Entrance to crew membership tends to be as the son or male relative of an existing association member. Youth bring energy and a willingness to confront certain dangers, like diving at night in shark-infested waters lit by a light held by hand in a boat. Fearlessness is one of the valued attributes of a fisherman. Many have drawings of the great white shark on the walls of their homes, some have great white shark tattoos, and others tell of diving to kill them.

Most fishing occurs in small hand-made wooden boats. Until a few years before the study, many fishermen simply rowed, or sculled with a single oar, the boats early in the morning out as far as they could, then dove with mask, flippers, and a home-made spear gun on the reefs for most of the day. When the afternoon breeze came up they hoisted a homemade sail attached to a strong mangrove mast and sailed home. Simple hand lines with baited hooks were used during the row out and the sail back. In the evening another crew rowed the boat out to the reefs, and then fished all night with small battery-powered lights, or with torches. These night crews returned in the morning and turned the means of production over to the next crew.

Young men are taught to dive deeply, hold their breath, and wait until a fish swims past a hole in the coral reefs. Swimming fast is useful when migratory pelagic fish swim by. Some conch are eaten in the boats, with a part that is associated with enhancing human reproduction pulled from the shell and consumed raw, as all members of the crew express obvious delight, assuring one another that there will be resulting increases in physical and sexual prowess.

Despite the bravado of these crewmen, they also have a serious obligation that other men in the village would rather not assume. Those men, of course, chose to become farmers instead of fishermen. Fishermen, unlike village farmers, must work daily. They almost never take a day off, and if they do it usually follows a very productive period. There are days and seasons when fishing is almost impossible because of high waves and cold, but even on those days fishermen swim out from shore to provide food for their families and cash for staples and water. The line between a family's hunger and a full-filling meal is thin for most people, and resolving this problem rests squarely on the shoulders of a father and his oldest son. The wives of fishermen make important contributions to food security by tending small garden plots, raising children, and growing food and medicine plants in small pots. They cook all meals over a raised wood fire and engage in trading and shopping. A few wives even go fishing with their husbands, but they tend to remain in the boat holding the light during night diving or fish with a hand line and baited hook. The division of labor in fishing families is more marked than it is in farming families where the place of work is near the home and the tasks are more often traditionally shared by men and woman.

5.2 Ownership - limited entry

Fishermen feel a sense of ownership of the ocean and its resources. They limit access to it by agreeing that generally only members of the fishermen association fish in Buen Hombre waters. Exceptions to this rule are the Buen Hombre farmers who swim out from shore to the first reef, relatives of Buen Hombre families who fish while visiting, and others who fish according to rules set down by Buen Hombre fishermen. While physical access to the marine portion of Buen Hombre territory is difficult to enforce, fishing required esoteric knowledge, which is not shared with people who should not be fishing. In this environment and given the technology normally available to the fishermen, knowledge is fundamental to both survival and fishing success.

Teaching begins when youths join a crew and are taught by older crew members where to fish, how to fish, and how to survive in the process. These older crew members are often relatives, but ultimately a crewman's ability to perform overwhelms kinship as a criteria for participation in a crew. Fishermen teach a number of things, and many of the ideas which are taught are associated with environmental relationships though a cultural abstraction called a landscape. Fishermen conceive of an underwater cultural landscape composed of places that are distinctive markers for navigating, and which may have been the site of some special former event. Some places are even named for a distinguished fisherman. Other places are noted as especially good for certain kinds of fishing or because they constitute a danger from tides or great white sharks. Because most boats do not have motors and the ones that do have only small ones, the perceived underwater landscape is criss-crossed with mental images of patterns of waves, tides, and winds. These images are multiplied by seasons and events that cause a shift in patterns of water and wind flow. A failed motor or a sudden storm can result in a fishing crew being pulled far out to sea and miles away down shore. Misreading a tide can strand a crew on the far side of a long reef system that was exposed before being crossed on the way home. The complex underwater landscape is combined with surface and stellar landscapes, to produce a very sophisticated three-level system of navigation and natural resource mapping. There is no direct measure of how long it takes to learn these cultural landscapes, but most fishermen who are called craftsmen have at least twenty years of fishing experience.

5.3 The future -intergenerational role transmission

The people of Buen Hombre do not express a desire to move away from their home community, either to neighboring farming villages or to the city. In fact, most consider their location ideal except for problems that arise and for which they may or may not have a solution. Fishermen are especially clear about not wanting to move. When natural and human events are in balance, fishermen are respected by the community, by their peers, and think of themselves as living a good life.

Until recently fishermen wanted their sons to be fishermen too. This is adaptive for the family that derives its food and household income stability by having an elder son fishing with his father. The father is in a special position as a senior fisherman and member of the Fishermen association to enculturate his son by teaching esoteric knowledge concerning the three cultural landscapes needed for fishing. Eventually, the son has access to the physical and intellectual means of production necessary to assume a socially prestigious position in his home community.

The perception that future generations will occupy the village and perform similar roles is important for maintaining the conservation ethic. But, for Buen Hombre fishermen and other community members the future of their coastal marine ecosystem is perceived as less certain than it was for past generations. As a result, when asked what they wanted their sons to do, while most fishermen still preferred that they would follow in their footsteps as a fishermen, many of them also believed this may be impossible. Instead, many have chosen occupations that would take their sons out of the village and into the wider society of the Dominican Republic or even to other countries as immigrants. This suggests that many local people are worried about the future of their community and about the Buen Hombre ecosystem. They are concerned that new threats may be beyond the capacity of the community to adapt to and neutralize. Mainly, they are concerned that the land and the life they have known, for which they learned and planned, is ending.


The situation in Buen Hombre described above prevailed until the drought of 1987-1991. With this climatic change came a series of unrelated but critical threats to the community ecosystem and its environmental adaptations. Some of these threats, while dangerous, fell within a range of issues community members had previously addressed. Other threats were too new and apparently beyond the power of Buen Hombre people to resolve on their own. Still others were solved by new efforts from the DR government.

To some extent, the people of Buen Hombre were left wondering if they should continue to enforce the conservation ethic at all costs or if they should instead take maximum profit from the natural resources as others were doing and hope something might remain to sustain the next generation. At times, it was unclear whether the people would retain control over their village lands and its marine ecosystem.

6.1 Threats: outside fish harvesters

There are two kinds of outside fish harvesters who posed a special problem for the fishermen of Buen Hombre: urban harvesters and wealthy neighbors.

Urban Harvesters

The threat of outside fish harvesters existed in 1985, and it was viewed over the next few years as a growing danger for the ecosystem and a direct threat to village sovereignty. For these reasons the NASA funded research project in 1988 focused on observable changes in the coral reefs, sea grass beds, and mangrove forests. One purpose was to determine whether or not short term impacts (occurring over a five-year period) to the ecosystem could be measured. Changes were documented by combining remotely sensed images from two time periods, bottom type and condition analysis conducted by a marine biologist, and ethnographic interviews with fishermen regarding the history of the ecosystem. All three types of data were collected from sample locations so the findings could be compared. The study documented that where urban fish harvesters had brought their activities into Buen Hombre territory the sea grass beds and coral reefs were becoming whiter - a direct external measure of removed sea grass and dying coral.

Wealthy Neighboring Harvesters

A second type of outside threat occurred just after the drought of 1987-1991 ended. A relative of a community member relocated from an interior agricultural village and began fishing in non-traditional ways. This action would normally not have been a problem, but this individual had money - lots of money by community standards. He repaired or replaced existing village boats and supplied powerful new motors. He hired people to work the boats on two shifts per day. He also supplied an air compressor, diving helmet, and equipment. With this new equipment, his fishermen went to the farthest and deepest reef (the 3rd reef) and dove in places that were formally inaccessible or had been deliberately kept off limits from fishing. His diving crews shot the largest groupers and filled their boats with other types of 1st class fish. He made money, but he was killing the foundation of the ecosystem.

What happened next has never been totally clear even though the university research teams were in and out of the village every year or so during this period. One possible interpretation is that local fishermen had finally acquired the technology to over fish the reefs and willingly did so. A second interpretation is that the fishermen of the village, belonging to the Fishermens association, were against the newcomer fishing in Buen Hombre waters with such technology, but felt powerless to stop this person who by their own rules had access to the fish. Also, to the extent that Association fishermen did participate with the outsider they did so unwillingly because he eclipsed their market. With so much first class fish for sale in Buen Hombre the interest in second and third class fish declined. In order to remain competitive fishermen had to be part of this new enterprise. Still, few Association fishermen had ever dived with an air compressor. Indeed, fishermen had once had access to such a diving outfit and decided as a group not to use it, feeling it was both dangerous for the diver and for the fish. It also appears that some of the larger groupers had been defined as a type of fish that should be left alone, probably reflecting a recognition their biological role as the mothers of the new generations of groupers.

6.2 Threats: tourism

Tourism became increasingly important after 1985. This occurred because the only road into Buen Hombre was greatly improved and as an international hotel was built in the first major village to the east of Buen Hombre. Before the improved road, travel into Buen Hombre was either by boat along the coast or by horse over the mountains. In 1985 there were a few vacation homes that had been built by outsiders, but these were mostly relatives of local people and were rarely occupied. The new improved road linked the village with the outside world by car as well as truck, and could be traversed sometimes even when it rained. Heretofore, getting out of the village was anything but a guarantee after a rain. Soon, there were two types of tourists that were posing different threats to the village of Buen Hombre.

International Tourists

In the early 1980s international tourists began to visit a moderately priced hotel in a small village 20 miles to the east of Buen Hombre called Punta Rucia. Although this village was slightly larger and more connected by roads to the outside world than Buen Hombre, before it had been similarly isolated. The isolation of the hotel combined with its lack of normal facilities like electricity and swimming pools, laid the foundation for the development of ecotourism. The tourists came mostly from Europe, to rough it, and it was normal to hear German, French, and Spanish at dinner. Some Canadians also came. Few Americans were attracted to this isolated venue.

Three developments happened because of the new hotel. The Punta Rucia water system was upgraded to the point that it worked, the connecting road was paved all the way from the coast to the state highway, and the ecotourists sought out pristine places to snorkel and SCUBA. The first two infrastructure improvements resulted almost immediately in a large number of national tourists buying lots in the nearby mangrove forest and building homes. The clearing of the mangroves is vividly documented in the NASA satellite change images. A third activity was also documented: as the tourists swam in the bay they killed the coral reefs. This was attested to by the hotel dive shop operator, who lamented the need to spend more and more time and gasoline on taking tourists to more distant sand islands. This dive operator and the Punta Rucia fishermen observed that after many tourists began swimming around the small coral heads in the bay, these coral quit making nose(what is "nose"? It seems to be a word commonly used in diving.). Flipper action, minor coral collecting, and even urination can kill fragile coral. One of the small islands, Sand Key, had only been visited for a few years by tourists at the time of the NASA study and yet the damage to its coral reefs was sufficient to appear as whiter areas in the NASA change images.

Less direct effects on the fishery were an increased demand for first class fish to serve in the hotel restaurant and the bumping of Buen Hombre fishermen off some of the sand islands they had traditionally fished. The demand for first class fish had stimulated the economy of the Punta Rucia fishermen and within a year or two they were able to purchase bigger boats and motors and go farther and fish deeper for first class fish. Soon they were encroaching on the traditionally defined boundary between themselves and Buen Hombre, as well as, presumably, their neighboring village to the east. This, combined with the presence of wealthy tourists making day visits to the sand islands, effectively pushed Buen Hombre fishermen away from their eastern fishing grounds. There is also some evidence that fish stocks as well as coral reefs were being damaged by these events.

National Tourists

After 1985 increasing numbers of lots were purchased by people who were not related to people in Buen Hombre. These were DR citizens, generally represented wealthy families from the biggest cities. Local tourists desired to fish recreationally and brought new means for doing so, including boats with big motors, adequate supplies of gasoline, and an array of modern fishing gear and scuba equipment. They also hauled in fancy food, fine liquor, and what must have seemed an unlimited supply of beer. These new tourists offered new economic opportunities to local fishermen and many began to serve as fishing guides to help tourists pursue big game fish. And, of course, no local fisherman was in a position to enforce catch limits on these tourists. Because the tourists were so transient and ephemeral to everyday life in Buen Hombre, initially it was not clear whether they constituted a significant threat to local marine ecosystems and marine resources.

6.3 Threats: structural adjustment policy

Between 1980 and 1990 the Dominican government, with strong encouragement from the International Monetary Fund, enacted a series of structural adjustments including currency and monetary reforms (Greenberg 1997:88). The government also withdrew subsidies on sugar, flour, and petroleum products, allowing prices to rise to world levels. Gasoline rose from US$.95 to US$1.60 per gallon (Greenberg 1997:88).

According to Greenberg (1997: 90), there is considerable evidence to that structural adjustment policies erode the standard of living of the rural poor. One response in the Dominican Republic was for fishermen/farmers, like those in Buen Hombre, despite their strong ethics of conservation, to turn to the sea to provide food and income, especially increasing their impact on the first reef. Greenberg further cautions that assessing the local effects of structural adjustment policies on the environment is not simple, requiring also the study of the mediation effects of marketing systems and the complex dynamics of households.

6.4 Solutions: empowerment by Dominican Republic Government

In the face of what appeared to be overwhelming threats, the Dominican government began to recognize the real threats that were being posed for one of the best reefs on the island. They also informally recognized their inability to effectively police the north shore reef system with only one fishery officer. Meetings between top Dominican Republic fishery officers and other government leaders were held in the village. At these meetings data from the university studies were combined with satellite images of the ecosystem and the testimony of the local fishermen, to argue for the right of Buen Hombre to police its own ecosystem. The fishermen were formally empowered when the Dominican Republic government issued badges to two Buen Hombre fishermen who had been chosen by other fishermen to patrol local community waters. Now The Buen Hombre fishermen had formal authority to incarcerate violators and to transfer them to the nearby coast guard station on top of the mountain to face legal sanctions.


Case studies are always plagued with questions concerning the extent to which they can be generalized to other human situations. This question has been raised over the past decade as our research team has published more than a dozen reports, articles, and book chapters on the Buen Hombre case. Our study team returned to the same village to conduct iterative research because the community perceived the studies to be valuable to them. We returned because our findings accumulated over the years and because other variables like climate and the national economy policy fluctuated over this time. By focusing longitudinal research on one community we could study the process of change for fishermen and were able to explore parallel issues with other members of the village.

Our study team believes that the findings from the Buen Hombre case represent fish-based food security issues that are being grappled with by other rural coastal communities. Buen Hombre is representative of stable coastal communities who perceive they own their coastal marine ecosystem, and who believe their children will be there living and working in similar ways for generations to come. This case is expected to contrast in many ways with newly established coastal populations, who are working for others and thus have no reason to believe they own the natural resources in their environment, and who expect to be shifted from the location in the future -perhaps by the same forces that initially brought them to the coast.

Our confidence in the validity of our findings regarding the urban poor is somewhat lower because less systematic survey and observation was conducted there. We believe, however, that subsequent research will support the general trends in our findings. We strongly urge that such studies be supported, because the fish-based food security of the urban poor is clearly related to events in the rural coastal fishing-farming communities.

There is some slightly more direct evidence with which to explore the comparability of the Buen Hombre case. Elsewhere on the island of Hispanola, in French-speaking Haiti, there have been studies that provide points of comparison and contrast with the Buen Hombre case. The Haitian case is important because the question of whether or not marine conservation exits among local communities has been raised by a number of scholars. The evidence for conservation ethics among nearby Haitian fishers adds important support for our findings.

The coastal ecosystem of Haiti, located less than forty miles to the west of Buen Hombre, was documented has having in essence crashed (Brass 1990). Brass observed during fish landing studies that no fish larger than four inches were being caught. This observation was supported by other fisheries studies conducted at various locations around the island. The problem is of such a magnitude that the World Wildlife Fund has suggested establishing no-catch zones in marine parks as a solution (Zacks 1998).

Food Security Studies Under-Representing Fish

Anthropologists at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona (UofA) were asked to conduct a series of food security studies throughout Haiti (Woodson 1997). These studies were conducted in the Northwest, Central, and the Southern Peninsula regions of Haiti (Baro et al 1994, BARA 1996a, 1996b, 1996c, 1997). Each study included coastal populations, but when the statistics were compiled the overall contribution of fish to food security was small (both as a percentage of income and as a percentage of food consumption). When only the coastal communities were considered, the role of fish in food security increased, but the researchers were still impressed that the figures were unexpectedly low.

The UofA researchers suspect that their general methodology for assessing food security under represented fish-based food security issues for coastal fishing-farming villages. Perhaps this finding was due to the poor conditions of the fish stocks in Haiti, where fish may not currently be important to food security. Or, perhaps this finding was due to sampling and analysis generalizations that under represented fish-based food security issues. The researchers on the Haitian project believe that the observation was an artifact of the research methodology, rather than reflecting insignificant levels of fish-based food security. More specifically, in a random sample of rural Haitian localities coastal area and fishing-dominated localities were necessarily under represented. This has to do with the distribution of population across sampling areas and the fact that some of these coastal settlements are poorly mapped. So, in order to accurately understand the role of fish in food security one has to design studies that specifically target coastal areas and fishing-dominated localities.

Haitian Fishermen Conservation Ethic

In late 1987 and early 1988, the anthropologist Alexis Gardella studied artisanal fishermen and patterns of fishing in Haiti. One of her studies was conducted in the Haitian village of Luly (Gardella 1988). Gardella noted that despite Luly's apparent sophistication, fishing was based on the same artisanal methods and equipment as used elsewhere in Haiti. Thus, Luly is something of a window into patterns of fishing in Haiti.

Unlike the village of Buen Hombre, which is extremely isolated, Luly is on a major road and linked directly to regional and capital city markets. Luly is approximately two hours or forty-five miles from the capital. With a population of about 2,000 people, Luly is also almost twice as big as Buen Hombre.

Similar to Buen Hombre, the people of Luly still expect their sons to become fishermen, with hopes also that they will have better access to education and other trades. Similar to Buen Hombre fishermen, the fishermen in Luly must double their efforts, both because of competition with outsiders and in order to sustain acceptable yields from an increasingly over exploited marine environment. Identical to Buen Hombre, the fishermen of Luly have a traditional fishing territory which they share with some outsiders, and which they will defend to repel outsiders who abuse traditional fishing norms. Although no sanctions were applied by the fishermen of Luly during the Gardella study, an example did occur in a neighboring village where fishermen burned the house and destroyed the gear of a non-local fishermen after he persisted in taking fish of a certain size that local fishermen do not exploit (Gardella 1988:17). Also, like the fishermen of Buen Hombre, portions of the larger reef system have been damaged by siltation and overexploitation. And, because other fishermen have experienced food security issues due to the decline or loss of their marine ecosystems, they have asked and received permission to fish in the territorial waters of Luly.

It is important to note that a more recent study and analysis of fishing in Luly by Zacks (1998)supports the sense of marine ownership but, strangely enough, not the sense of restriction. Zacks (1998: 115) maintains that Luly fishermen will not restrict one another because they feel the ocean is owned by God and thus open to all. Zacks (1998: 122) did observed violent confrontations between fishermen from different villages, but attributes these to gear conflicts rather than to concerns for damage to the ecosystem. Nonetheless, Zacks (1998:128) notes that Luly fishermen do not approve of using certain gear and methods that are perceived as being dangerous, destructive to the marine environment or causing stocks to be depleted. Clearly, the issue of whether or not fishing behaviors are motivated by a conservation ethic or something else remains open to debate.

The case of Luly contributes to our understanding of what can be extrapolated from the Buen Hombre case, and what may instead be uniquely tied to it. Despite obvious differences in language and culture, village size, and integration with national markets, Luly and Buen Hombre have fishermen who have distinctive marine territories, restrict their catch size to protect the species, protect their resources with violence if necessary, and recognize the problems and causes of ecosystem damage.


Consultation describes a process by which local peoples with traditional ties to resources are identified and brought into discussions about managing these resources(See Deloria and Stoffle 1998). Consultation involves a fundamental decision on the part of natural resource managers to share some decision-making with local peoples. There are a number of ways that the consultation can involve shared decision making. Local people can be asked to share in the decision to identify resources needing protection. Local peoples can be asked to share in the decision to prioritize which cultural resources will be protected first. They can also be asked to share in the decision to select from among a variety of management practices those that most appropriately protect the cultural resources in the context of other resource uses. Local peoples also can be asked to share in the long-range planning and monitoring of natural resources.

According to scholars who study consultation (Cernea 1991; Dobyns 1951; Parenteau 1988: 5-10) the quality and success of the consultation process depends directly on the degree to which decision-making power is shared. Arnstein's (1969) studies demonstrate that any consultation process can be characterized as falling on a scale from 1 to 8 where participation without shared power is called manipulation, while sharing power to the point of negotiating with the agency is called partnership. The main decision that a natural resource manager must make is how much decision-making power can and will be shared with local peoples. Once the range of decision-making sharing is established, it should be clearly identified at the outset of the consultation so that it can become a part of the local people's decision to participate in the consultation.

8.1 Sensitive issues

When working with local communities of fishermen, there are a number of consultation issues that are potentially quite sensitive, and when managers are working with rural fishermen in the Caribbean they should be mindful of these:

a. Respecting community sovereignty
b. Identifying folk knowledge
c. Identifying individuals and groups having a conservation ethic
d. Developing local partnership with shared power
8.2 Assessment variables

The Buen Hombre case study suggests the following variables managers should focus upon, regarding the role of fish in food security:

a. Community
Look for special fish user dependencies in populations such as coastal communities and the near-coast urban poor.

b. Climate Change or Climatic Events
Drought can greatly increase fish dependencies in coastal areas. Hurricanes can have local impacts that shift dependencies.

c. Economic Policy
Rapid movements from socialized food to free market food prices can create a gap between the cost of food and the ability of certain populations to pay for food. When cash cannot be earned it must be acquired from natural reserves.

d. Production Roles
While it is easy to understand the direct dependency of fishermen on fish, it may be unexpected to find that their farming neighbors may be even more dependent during times of drought and economic hardship.

8.3 Procedures and topics

The Buen Hombre case study suggests that there are certain procedures and topics to be considered when establishing the extent of fish-based food security issues. Critical is the issue of over generalization wherein people who are most vulnerable to fish security issues may be lumped statistically with others who are not as vulnerable. The procedures are:

a. Conduct Professional Social Science Studies
There are many types of artisanal fishermen. Some may be only resource harvesters and others may be natural resource conservers. Only survey and in-depth research will identify the types of fishermen and their environmental values.

b. Identify Stable Coastal Communities
Conservation ethics are developed and supported by stable communities that have existed in a region for long periods, have learned about the environment, and believe that their children's children will depend upon the same natural resources.

c. Recognize That Fishermen Often Live in Farming Communities
It is essential to understand the overall community structure and culture within which fishermen live, work, and distribute fish.

d. Consider THE Importance OF Small Fish.
Many researchers of food security unduly focus on the larger and more valuable fish. It is important to also follow the distribution of small fish (3RD Class) which may be feeding the urban poor.


This essay began with noting the importance of thinking in terms of cultural phenomena that are both spatially integrated and temporally sequenced. This suggests that fish-based food security is, at a minimum, a function of the sum of the relationships between fishermen and other people, fishermen and technology, fishermen and marine ecology, fishermen and climate, and fishermen and world economic policies. At any point in time these relationships constitute the cultural landscape of fish-based food security. Within this landscape there are interrelated but different food security issues for the fishermen themselves, the farmers in the fishermen's community, and the poor urban consumers of the fish. Fish not only exists as an aspect of diet for these types of people, but fish extraction for food impacts the marine ecosystem and potentially future generations.

When landscapes are viewed sequentially, a timescape perspective emerges. According to Adam (1998:54)

With the idea of the timescape, I seek to achieve an extension of the landscape perspective, that is, to develop an analogous receptiveness to temporal interdependencies and absences, and to grasp environmental phenomena as complex temporal, contextually specific wholes.

When the timescape perspective is applied to fish-based food security it is important to remember the earlier discussion of the three perspectives on food security - food for today, food for this year, and food forever. There is a food security calculus that occurs in the minds of fishermen that weighs the relative impacts of meeting the perceived needs of each of these timescapes. Food security at some level amounts to making fishing decisions that balances the fish demands at all timescapes, because if meeting present demands undermines the ability of the fishermen to meet future demands then insecurity will exist in the minds of people living in today's landscape.

Having argued for this complex analysis of fish-based food security, it must be pointed out that few studies have ever addressed food security at all these levels and scales of analysis. Most studies have been spatially restricted, focusing on the fishermen and, at most, other farmer households in the village. Few studies have considered the food security ties of people who are in the fishermen's market network, like the urban poor discussed in this case. Even fewer studies have considered temporal issues of environmental sustainability, climate, employment, and market influences. So, if fish-based food security studies have rarely addressed these issues, is it realistic to urge that they be addressed in the future? The answer hinges on whether or not past studies have been limited by vision, policy, or funding. If the issue is vision, recent research on landscapes does suggest that having temporal and spatial dimension strengthens these studies in important ways. So, more complex and integrated studies can not been envisioned. If the issue is policy, then funding agency's limitations on past studies may still be in effect and require major effort to change. If the issue is funding then an argument must be made for sufficient levels and temporal commitments so that useful studies can be conducted. On the other hand, social scientists must also develop ways to conduct rapid cultural assessments that collect needed spatial data that are sufficiently inexpensive to permit repeating. Hopefully this case study will convince some readers that detailed and prolonged studies indeed are useful.


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