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Sociological and historical studies

Technological change and economies of scale in the history of Mweru-Luapula’s fishery (Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo) - David Gordon

Common Property Theory (CPT) has been an easy picking ground for social scientists since Scott Gordon first outlined the economic theory of fisheries and Garrett Hardin developed the analysis into the “tragedy of the commons” in 1968 (Gordon, 1954; Hardin, 1968). In a parody of the theory, criticisms of CPT have become so commonplace that each successive article holds much-diminished academic returns (McCay and Acheson, 1987). In an exceptional case, Ottar Brox, a scholar of the Norwegian fisheries, has launched a qualified defence of CPT. He argues that CPT should be treated as an analytical tool, a Weberian “Idealtypus”, which models certain features of the real world to present an idea of reality rather than “real nature”. However, Brox points out that the CPT model may blind us to other features of common property regimes. It ignores how local class and power relations mediate resource access since all resource users are assumed to be equal economic agents. Moreover, the tendency to focus on tragedy “prevents one from seeing that commons involve opportunities which are far from tragic for the people involved, but rather necessary for the maintenance of local communities and even national cultures.... CPT closes our eyes to the potential of common property to absorb surplus labour, function as a “safety valve” on the labour market and establish a floor under which wages or land rents cannot sink” (Brox, 1990: 232-3).

Brox argues that by distinguishing between “horizontal effort” (changes in the number of fishers) and “vertical effort” (changes in capital investment) we provide greater clarity to the class relations which underpin the economic and environmental process described by CPT. However, fishery biologists associate a different meaning to vertical and horizontal changes in effort. For them, vertical change in effort refers to changes in gear technology that increase catches and horizontal increases refer to an increase in the amount of similar gear that may increase catches. This article demonstrates that changes in technology need not be associated with Brox’s changes in capital investment. It argues that the technological changes need not be associated with vertical increase in effort; changes in technology do not necessarily correspond to the capitalization of the fishery.

Distinctions in effort type seem especially appropriate to fisheries in Africa frequently exploited by poor and economically vulnerable social groups, either as fishers, labourers or traders. Small-scale fishing entrepreneurs benefit from easy access to resources that require relatively little labour or capital investment and at present do not have strong traditional or state controls over exploitation. This has led to great increases in the fishing population, that is horizontal changes in effort, with fisheries officials complaining of “overfishing” by locals and leading to socio-political struggles over the introduction of conservation regulations, which, for lack of state capacity in the countryside, are frequently defied by fishers (Aarnink, 1999). Yet fishers in Africa tend to adjust and incorporate technologies and fishing gear changes without necessarily becoming capitalist enterprises. Thus, in contrast to Brox’s theory, technological change need not correspond to vertical changes in effort but can also be linked of a growing number of individuals who choose to fish due to lack of alternatives in either salaried employment or agriculture.

In this article I focus on changes over time in the vertical and horizontal growth of fishing effort in Mweru-Luapula. Over the last century the fishery has emerged as a common resource, which in times of need, such as economic recession and structural adjustments in the 1990s, provides Zambians and Congolese with an informal safety net. In periods of prosperity, the fishery may be an arena of profitable investment; during times of recession, however, the more important function of the fishery has been to provide a means of economic subsistence. In the 1990s the fishery acts as a form of unemployment insurance for those without jobs and without the means to farm (Gordon, 2000).

The Mweru-Luapula fishery is found on the border of Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is presently divided between two national administrations and a number of different autochthonous and migrant peoples. The unity of the area is primarily geographic; a valley bounded by escarpments to the east and west. Lake Mweru is some 120 kilometers long and 40 to 50 kilometers wide (a total area of 4 650 km²), fed by the Luapula River. The lake and river form the southern-most section of the vast Congo drainage basin. The population of the valley has grown from about 50 000 in the 1920s to about 400 000 in the 1990s, an increase roughly in proportion to the national populations of Zambia and Congo, with at least 50 000 involved in fishing as gear owners, workers or traders.[29] In the 1990s the south of the valley was so densely-populated that there was little empty land; one village led directly into the next, and vacant land for cultivation could only be found several miles towards the plateau. The most important economic activities were cassava farming and fishing. Cassava farming was essential for local subsistence and fishing for a commercial economy linked to the towns of the Zambian and Congolese copperbelts.

Mweru-Luapula was not an a priori open-access common resource. Traditional settlement patterns and rights over resource exploitation had long been established. Certain aspects of these rights were reinforced in the colonial period by the machinations of Indirect Rule in the British case or dominer pour servir (“dominate to serve”) for the Belgians. For the most part, however, fisheries officials and expatriate fishermen and traders undermined traditional restrictions to entry by replacing sacred Owners of the Lagoon with secular bureaucratic forms of government. A sudden vertical increase in effort in the 1940s led to the collapse of the lake’s most important species in the 1950s. Yet increased exploitation of a smaller fish allowed for the resurgence of fishing activity from the 1970s. The new fishery was characterized by horizontal increases in effort as migrants from the declining urban areas became fishermen and women with decreasing access to farm land and fertilizer became fish traders.


It is unclear when the first people settled in Mweru-Luapula. They were probably BaTwa, so-called “pygmies”. Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests iron-working people organized in matrilineal clans migrated into the region between 1 000 and 1 500 years ago. According to oral traditions, they set fire to a vast grass plain, which killed all but two of the original inhabitants who then bestowed the rights of the land to the new settlers. These rights were to be maintained through membership of a secret organization called ubu-twa. After the last Twa died, it rained until the plain became a lake so vast that the locusts could not cross it (Cunnison, 1959; Musambachime nd., 1991; Verbeek 1990).

The most significant pre-colonial event recorded in oral testimony was the conquest of the valley by a Lunda lord called Mwata Kazembe in the early eighteenth century. Over the next century he created a powerful empire that traded with the Swahili and the Portuguese on the Indian ocean coast and the Nuclear Lunda to the western interior. He also brought cassava from the Nuclear Lunda, which began to replace millet as the most important crop of the valley. As cassava replaced millet, women became more responsible for farming. Cassava did not require as much fertilizer as millet and thus there was less need for male labour to practise citemene agriculture, which had provided the soil with the nutrients needed for millet cultivation. Instead, men were involved in fishing and during the nineteenth century in the ivory and slave trades. Cassava farming and the relative absence of male labour in agriculture distinguished the Luapula Valley from the “Bemba” of the plateau area, traditionally renowned for millet cultivation in citemene fields (Richards, 1939; Moore and Vaughan, 1994).

Despite the reputation of the Eastern Lunda ivory and slave trading kingdom, the more important forms of resource regulation and allocation were decentralized and linked to sacred forms control by local leaders. Matrilineal clan leaders exerted a combination of spiritual and political power over the resources of the valley. They maintained authority over the land and lake through ubutwa, which paid deference to the ancestral spirits (imipashi) and nature spirits (ngulu) of the land and lakes. In the river area where fish spawned and were easy to catch with traps and floating nets, local leaders called Owners of the Lagoon (Bamwine Kabanda) marked out distinct areas of control. By prayer and giving libations, they ensured that nature continued to perform life-sustaining miracles such as the spawning of fish. Only after the correct rituals had been performed and the fishery “opened” (kufungule isabi) could fishers begin to harvest nature’s bounty. It was primarily this form of sacred control that placed certain restraints on resource exploitation, although this was not its primary concern.[30]

In the actual catching of fish, there was little ethic of moderation. Fishermen in canoes caught spawning fish with floating nets in the river. Nearer the rapids and falls of Mambilima, villagers built dams and weirs (amaamba sg. ubwaamba) and installed traps (imyoono sg. umoono) to catch fish as the flood waters receded. Traps and nets were to catch everything they came across, like a hen that pecks at every last scrap, as indicated by this popular fishing song:

You are the hen who searches in the rubbish pits
look from one side to the other.
You are the pecking beak of a hen
that leaves nothing in the way (Musambachime, 1981:53).

Fishermen even attached parts of a hen to their nets to invoke the spirit of a hungry hen. However, although fishermen caught as much as they could, certain technological limitations and ecological conditions checked levels of exploitation. The kaboko fibers out of which nets were made were not as durable as nylon and easily broke. Crocodiles and hippos often destroyed nets that took weeks to manufacture. The number of nets and other fishing gear a fisher owned depended on the limited labour he could mobilize and control, and, for this reason, there was little vertical growth in effort in the form of capital accumulation and investment.


It was only well after colonial “pacification”, accomplished in the early 1900s, that new trading networks emerged, based on an entirely novel political economy. The Katangan copper mining concern, Union minière du Haut-Katanga (UMHK), had to ensure a steady supply of cheap rations for their recruited workers. They built a road that joined Mweru-Luapula to the fast-growing town of Elisabethville (present-day Lubumbashi). The monetary value of the valley’s fish soared as a labour force attached to the new copper mines had to be fed. Entrepreneurs -locals and expatriates generally from Greece and Italy - came to exploit the fishing resource.

In the Belgian Congo (present-day Democratic Republic of Congo), where the administration distrusted African traders, large-scale expatriate traders were the main beneficiaries of the fishing business from the 1920s to 1940s. In Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia), however, where colonial control was more tenuous, many African businessmen and fishermen also prospered, and a monetized economy based on Congolese francs spread to both sides of the river. Traders and fishermen were predominantly male, although through barter the female cassava-farming economy was linked to the booming fishery. Moreover, female labour was needed to dry and smoke the fish.[31]

With increasing profitability and commercialization, the fishery became oriented towards the fresh fish trade and dominated by male traders. Ice plants were established next to the river and lake, first in the Congo, but later in Northern Rhodesia. Despite technological innovations in processing, at first increase in effort was horizontal. Predominantly expatriate traders bought fish along the Luapula where many African fishermen, locals and migrants from the plateau areas, had set up camps. They fished with weirs and traps and with nets made out of fibre taken from old motor tyres. Although this represented a certain degree of technological innovation, colonial reports suggest that the number of fishermen increased dramatically. Colonial administrators became increasingly concerned with fishing camps full of “uncontrolled and detribalized natives concentrated for the sole purpose of making money.”[32] In the catching of fish, at least, prior 1940 there had been little vertical growth in effort despite the significant growth of capitalized trading ventures.

Traditional restrictions enforced by Owners of Lagoon were undermined. Colonial officials appointed a network of chiefs to exercise power and these did not always correspond to the original Owners of the Lagoons. On the Northern Rhodesian side of the lake, colonial officials selected Mwata Kazembe and his subordinates as colonial chiefs since it was easier for the colonial administration to collaborate with a centralized ruler who would ensure that his subordinates respected and carried out colonial laws. Native Authorities became responsible for the enforcement of fishing regulations, and, most importantly, they received revenue from net licenses. This provided a major incentive for chiefly collaboration regarding fisheries. It was not, however, built on any traditional precedents: Mwata Kazembe had previously not shared the rights and responsibilities of traditional Owners of the Lagoon.[33]

On the Belgian side of the river, colonial administrators were more heavy-handed; chiefs had less autonomy and were more reliant on the colonial state. In Mweru-Luapula, at least, the Belgian administration relied on dispersed chiefs, nineteen in total compared to the nine chiefs found in approximately the same area in Northern Rhodesia. When the Belgians attempted to rationalize their administrations in 1933, they appointed chiefs loyal to the colonial administration to head secteurs. At the same time, the state bureaucracy became responsible for control over fisheries with the formation of a fonds poisson and mission piscicole in 1946. These agencies were also responsible for sponsoring more advanced fishing technology, including the sale of nylon nets and establishing a fishing and boat-building school.[34]

The Belgian and the British administrations treated the resource in different ways. For the Belgians, the resource was open to all for exploitation. The British, by contrast, proclaimed the area “Native Trust”, meaning that only indigenous fishermen could exploit the resource. The Belgians argued that such a policy prevented capital accumulation and improved fishing methods; the British countered that the development of the fishery should occur at a pace dictated by “native interests.” In the Lugardian words of the British colonial official responsible for fisheries:

They [the Belgians] look over the heads of the Africans; we must try to look through the Native Authorities. They draw no distinction between European and African fishing; we regard the fishery as in trust for the Africans.[35]

From the Belgian perspective, European investment in the fishery was desirable. “If one day the Natives will be able to fish in the lake,” the Commissioner of Katanga Province argued, “the Europeans will have shown the way to fish.”[36] The choice was between encouraging vertical growth in effort at the expense of undercapitalized indigenous fishermen or accepting a slower pace of vertical growth in effort by prohibiting outside investment in the fishery. The Belgian assumption was that technological innovation depended on the capitalization of the fishery and could not be accomplished by poor African fishers.

During the Second World War when the Allies required Katanga’s copper and uranium resources for the war effort, exploitation of the resource increased. The fish of Luapula became even more crucial as cheap rations for urban workers. Africans could not even be trusted to fish. The Belgians encouraged the settlement of capitalized European fishermen who would exploit the fishery to its full potential without the threat of political instability.[37]

There was one environmental obstacle to the development of the fishery - crocodiles. In a fashion similar to the destruction of farms by elephants, crocodiles prevented growth in fisheries technology throughout much of central Africa by destroying long nets and thereby discouraging capital investment in better nets. In 1944 UMHK introduced a bounty for the capture of crocodiles - by 1946, 5 000 crocodile heads and 60 000 eggs were delivered to the administrative posts of Mweru-Luapula. After a few years, the crocodile no longer obstructed fisheries development; the bounty was abolished but numbers of crocodiles never returned to pre-1944 levels.[38] Once crocodiles were no longer an obstacle, fishermen who had the capital, mostly Greeks, could lay bottom-set nets across the lagoons where the Luapula entered Lake Mweru and effectively block the spawning of the most profitable commercial species, the mpumbu (Labeo altivelis). Prior to 1947, African fishermen caught most mpumbu as they spawned in the river, after flooding in February and early March. But in 1946-47 catching techniques of mpumbu changed. European fishermen laid their long nets in Lake Mweru from July to December, when the mpumbu gathered at the inlet of Luapula before they spawned. The change is best demonstrated by considering the number of mpumbu purchased by UMHK The high catches between January and March in 1945-46 represent fish caught by small-scale African fishermen in the Luapula River during the spawning season using traditional gear. The trend in the late 1940s, however, was for increased catches in the July to December period, when the mpumbu gathered in Lake Mweru prior to spawning. This represented increased European fishing with motorized boats and nylon gillnets. In 1948 catches during this period far exceeded catches during the previous spawning seasons. In 1949, after the huge lake catches between August and December 1948, the mpumbu did not spawn.

When the number of mpumbu declined, the colonial administrators paid greater attention to the enforcement of conservation measures. Colonial efforts to conserve the fishery pre-date the disappearance of the mpumbu. In 1938 the Belgian administration had introduced a closed season, a restriction on the mesh size of nets, and a tax on nets. Yet all fishers and commerçants ignored these measures over the war years when the Belgians desperately tried to furnish as many fish as possible for their mineworkers. In 1929 the Northern Rhodesian administration had gazetted legislative machinery for intervention in the fisheries, but did not embark on any concrete measures until 1943 when it introduced a minimum mesh size and a licensing system. In 1948, under the advice of the newly-established Anglo-Belgian Fisheries Advisory Board, the colonial regimes prohibited river fishing from 1 February to 31 March to protect the spawning run; fishing on the lake by expatriates was still permitted. The measures led to much resentment against the colonial states and collaborating chiefs who were called on cooperate in the enforcement of the regulations. In 1952-53 African fishers, who complained that laws favoured the Greek fishermen, rebelled and forced the colonial administrations to prohibit fishing on the lake as well. This was, however, viewed only as political concession to Africans, not an environmental necessity, although it became the basis for the three-month closed seasons implemented in future years. The conservation measures did not prevent the end of the mpumbu spawning run in the 1950s and the disappearance of the fish from Mweru-Luapula by the early 1970s.[39]

FIGURE 1 UMHK Purchases of Mpumbu from Mweru-Luapula

Source: Rapport Annuel, Mission Piscicole, 1947-8, AAIPAC AGRI 51.

The 1940s and 1950s had been a period of unprecedented in capitalization, which, as would be expected, coincided with technological change. Predominantly Greek fishermen, supported by Belgian mining interests, invested in large boats and long nylon gillnets. This rapid vertical growth in effort led to a collapse in the stocks of the most exploited fish, the mpumbu. After the end of the mpumbu’s spawning run, the Luapula River lost its importance as a commercial fishery to Lake Mweru. The sudden vertical increase in effort in the lagoon areas, not horizontal increases in effort, had changed the ecology of the fishery. With this change the commercial fishery relocated north to the shores of Lake Mweru and concentrated on the exploitation of pale (Oreochromis macrochir).


Through the 1960s and early 1970s there was a decline in Mweru-Luapula’s fishing industry, especially in levels of technological investment. A combination of local and regional factors contributed to the decline. The fishery was not as profitable without the mpumbu, and by the 1960s catches of pale also diminished. Fisheries officials feared the fishery had been overexploited and was no longer a profitable endeavour.[40]

On a regional level, the Congolese mining companies no longer signed contracts with the expatriate fish traders as the mines abandoned their system of partial payment in food rations. In the 1970s, following the collapse in copper prices, urban demand for fresh fish further diminished. A few years later in Zaire, the confiscation of expatriate industries under Zairianization decree of 1973 contributed to the decline of the expatriate-run fishery. Northerners allied to President Mobutu sese Seko, often inexperienced in fishing, took over the businesses of expatriate fishermen and traders.[41] In Zambia, a parastatal, part of the INDECO group, called the Lake Fisheries of Zambia (LFZ), took over the ice plant at Kashikishi and the marketing of fish. They tried to enforce a maximum price and this led to bitter conflict as fishermen were forced to sell their produce at declining terms of exchange relative to urban goods. Finally, other fisheries, especially Kafue and later Kariba, replaced Luapula as the most important supplier of Lusaka’s urban market.[42]

By the late 1970s, only remnants of the colonial fishery were left. With the closure of LFZ in 1979, there were no more ice plants on either side of the river and lake. Traders returned to the dried fish business. On the Congolese side of the lake some large trading and fishing ventures re-established themselves following “retrocession” in 1976, when a few businesses confiscated during Zairianization in 1973 were returned to their original owners. Katebe Katoto, the son of an expatriate trader and Mwata Kazembe’s sister, had a lucrative contract to supply the copper mines of Gécamine, formerly UMHK, with rations of fish. From his fishing camp at Mulonde, he dominated the entire northern Congolese side of the fishery. There was a joke that sometime in the mid-1980s Katebe Katoto attempted to buy the entire lake. Mobutu gave the matter some thought, and then replied that while he was responsible for the sale of diamonds and emeralds, only God could sell the lake; Katoto should ask him. But even with divine intervention Katebe Katoto’s profits were tenuous.[43] As infrastructure and facilities deteriorated, as the copper price plummeted, and Zambia and Zaire fell into political and economic bankruptcy, the future well-being of the fishery seemed most precarious.

Fisheries officials continued to argue that levels of exploitation in the lake were unsustainable. There had been no closed season since the lifting of the colonial regulations in the early 1960s. The Mifimbo breeding ground, although formally prohibited to fishers in 1976, was often exploited. The mesh size of nets decreased, especially as state-provided nets became rare. Finally, a decade of limited rainfall had disrupted breeding patterns of the most stable exploited species, pale. Fishermen had to exert far more effort or own many more nets to maintain their previous catches - although the total catch remained at about 8 000 tonnes, the nightly catch per 100 m gillnet steadily declined from around 12 kg in the 1950s to 2 kg in the 1980s.[44]

The decline of the fish resource seemed a typical example of increasing competitive exploitation of a common resource leading to decreasing economic returns. Although the ecological dynamics behind the changes are unclear, in Mweru-Luapula fisherman began to “fish down” in size of fish and exploit smaller species. In the late 1970s women who washed food and dishes in the lake noticed that there was a proliferation of small fish called chisense (Microthrissa moeruensis). A fisheries official in 1982 reported that “stocks of this small fish have, of recent, increased tremendously....”[45] Women used pieces of cloth to catch chisense and prepare extra relish to accompany the cassava porridge eaten by their families. But due to the increasing amount of fish and the ease of capture they began to dry the fish and use them for barter and trade. Then, as their profitability became apparent, men became involved in their capture. Veteran fishermen from Lake Tanganyika, familiar with the capture of kapenta (Limnothrissa miodon)adapted fishing techniques to catch chisense. They used paraffin lamps to attract the fish at night and then dragged an expanse of small mesh or meshless material through the gathered shoal. With the spread of this technique, a new commercial chisense fishery emerged.[46]

Net fishing continued alongside chisense fishing and new patterns of economic interest and political conflict surrounded the rise of chisense fishery. Established gillnet fishermen had invested in their nets and knowledge of traditional fishing techniques; they did not find it easy to drop all these activities in favor of chisense. New equipment like paraffin lamps and fine mesh material needed to be bought and this was only done through the sale of other fishing equipment. Net fishers hardly earned enough to keep up their present equipment and had no investment capital. Indeed, they relied on patronage networks to access nets on credit, and these credit relationships tied many of them to their traditional fishing practices.[47] Moreover, the best areas for chisense fishing, sandy shorelines, were not always the same as those for gillnetting, meaning that fishers found it difficult to alternate between the two activities. Instead it was men with limited amounts of capital from urban employment who began fishing for chisense. The older migrants to the lake and local fishers who already owned gillnet equipment were reluctant to invest in the new fishery, learn new techniques and relocate their operations; they had a stake in their traditional businesses and many continued with gillnet fishing. Survey data collected near Chief Puta’s area in the early 1980s, demonstrates that chisense brought in nearly 30 times more cash than gillnet fishing, although start-up costs were far greater and could only be afforded by 18 percent of all fishermen (Allen and Chileya, 1986: 13).

Interviews suggest that it was predominantly returning migrants to the lake who began fishing for chisense. They had usually acquired a small amount of capital in salaried employment in the urban areas, from fishing in Lake Tanganyika, or from trade, and were willing to invest in new money-making ventures, especially given their precarious positions in the urban economy.[48] Statistical evidence suggests that although these fishers had access to urban capital, they were not considered “foreigners” and more than 90 percent of them considered the fishery as their residence. Yet only 19 percent of chisense fishers owned gillnets, indicating that they formed a new class of fishers (Zwieten et al., 1996). In this sense, the rise of the chisense industry, although dependent on access to capital and new technologies, was connected to growing number of fishers and can be considered a horizontal rather than vertical increase in effort.

Perhaps the most profound effect of the chisense industry was the promotion of an independent class of female fish traders. While fishing was a male pursuit, women undertook the processing of fish - more than 90 percent of the local traders who were also processors were women. Women also became more involved in trade around the fishing camps and with the copperbelt urban areas, forming about half of the rural-urban chisense traders (Zwieten et al., 1996). There were two types of female traders in Mweru-Luapula. In a more nuclear-oriented household a woman might process the fish of her husband and husband and wife then traded the fish as a joint endeavor. These types of family businesses were typical of the wealthiest families. More common, though, were poorer households that belonged to extended family or clan networks usually organized according to matrilineal traditions where a mother and her children did not rely on the continued and faithful support of a husband (Poewe, 1976). These women increasingly sought money, primarily for the school-related expenses of their children. Since they did not automatically gain money or fish from their husbands, they had to look for other activities to meet their daily needs. Moreover, cassava farming for profit was increasingly difficult as land scarcity increased and unprofitable as prices fell due to state-sponsored maize (Allen and Chileya, 1986).

Chisense trading was one strategy adopted by poor women who needed to access cash. They bought small amounts of fresh chisense from the migrant fishermen with the little cash earned from other activities, or bartered chisense for cassava that they farmed. Once processed, they sold their dried chisense to urban traders, who at first were predominantly men. The initial capital of these women expanded and many went to the urban areas themselves to trade. Unlike the colonial period, there were no restrictions on women traveling to the urban centers. The chisense industry thereby paved the way for the rise of an independent class of female rural-urban fish traders. By the mid-1980s fish markets were full of female chisense traders. Afew brought their profits back to Luapula and invested them in chisense fishing equipment, which would be used by their sons or by employees. They formed about four percent of the chisense fishing population (Zwieten et al., 1996; Aarnink, 1999).

The rapid expansion of this industry transformed economic roles of village members and consolidated new social groups. Men with links to urban areas became the new chisense fishermen and rural women the new processors and small-scale traders. This alliance of capitalist-inclined fishermen and local women adopting a survival strategy was at the base of the new chisense fishery in the villages of Mweru-Luapula. By the 1990s, the fishery produced 30 to 40 000 tons, from three to five times the total catch of the demersal fishery.

Yet these vast catches have had to be distributed between an increasing number of fishers. Presently there are so many chisense fishers that at night it seems as if a city of lights dances on the lake - nearly 7 000 gear owners and 6 000 workers, not to mention those involved in trade (Zwieten et al., 1996). In fact, gillnet fishers have reported increased catches of pale, makobo (Serranochromis macrocephalus), ntembwa (Tylochromis mylodon) and chituku (Tilapia rendalli), probably due to better rainy seasons. Combined with better catches, a new road in Zambia has encouraged a resurgence of the fresh fish trade. Katebe Katoto’s operation, for example, has relocated to Zambia and is run by his younger brother Moses Katumbi, and called Tamba Bashila (previously Chani fisheries).

In the 1990s a donor-funded buying agency, Isabi Fisheries, Chani Fisheries, and the DoF began to negotiate over a closed season and attempts to restrict access to the fishery. Influenced by the idea of “co-management”, they incorporated several “community” organs in to their programme, including “traditional” chiefs and fishermen’s associations. To a certain extent they have succeeded in enforcing the measures in Zambia’s major fishing towns and camps; however, more remote camps and most of the Congolese fishery have not adhered to the closed season. Besides limitations on enforcement, the success of the regulations is difficult to measure given their ill-defined biological and economic goals (Aarnink, 1999).[49]

I have argued that changes during the post-colonial period - especially the the rise of the chisense fishery - represented more of a horizontal increase in effort than a vertical one. It has rested on an increase in the fishing population, especially men with urban contacts and women previously involved in agriculture. The chisense fishery relied on new capital-labor relationships, but this has not led to the growth in a capitalist class of fishers who invested in the fishery - although this occurred in certain cases. Instead, a growing number of men and women adopted new techniques and technologies as a livelihood strategy rather than a capitalist enterprise.


Changes in horizontal and vertical effort depend on different constellations of social, economic and ecological forces. The history of Lake Mweru-Luapula suggests four factors that influenced patterns of vertical or horizontal growth in effort. The first two factors concern the market for fish, the third relates to the broader institutional environment, and the fourth is the interaction between the fishery and other sectors of the economy.

Contracts between fish traders and urban wholesalers who could absorb vast amounts of fresh fish encouraged vertical growth in effort. A purchasing arrangement between UMHK and the Greek fishermen and traders sponsored vertical increases in effort during the 1940s. Katebe Katoto’s business in the 1980s was built on his contract with Gécamines. Due to limited refrigeration facilities among urban consumers, the fresh fish trade could not exist without these arrangements. Where such arrangements were absent, the dried fish business prospered, allowing easier access to rural-urban exchange and horizontal increase in effort. With the dried fish trade, local processing techniques limited the growth in effort. Since drying fish required labour and inputs of firewood or salt, the amount of fish that could be processed limited the amount of fish caught. It is not uncommon that fishermen left fish to rot for lack of buyers or processors - clearly to avoid this situation, fishermen limited their catch. Where processing was easier, as in the case of chisense, which only needs sunlight and good weather, local processors could absorb more fish. In this case, horizontal increase in effort was unimpeded by marketing arrangements.

Another factor linked to marketing is transport infrastructure. In the face of other adversities Chani Fisheries emerged in 1991 following the construction of a good surfaced road through the length of the valley. Improved transport infrastructure benefited small-scale producers and traders as much as large scale, or even more. One reason for horizontal increases in effort in the chisense fishery was the surfaced road through the valley. By linking the rural and urban areas, if other factors prevent vertical growth in effort, infrastructural improvements may lead to greater horizontal than vertical increase in effort.

Thirdly, other institutional and financial factors affected the relative merits of investment in the fishery. Capital was essential, and usually had to be mobilized through bank loans, such as those that the European traders received during the colonial period. During colonialism, once the Europeans had built their boats and bought their nets, they faced few threats of confiscation, destruction or theft - the most serious problem facing the gillnet fishery in the 1990s. By contrast, after the colonial era, the unstable Zairian currency made rural-urban trade difficult since fishermen did not want to be caught with vast amounts of worthless currency. The Zairianization measures of 1973 precipitated the collapse of the commercial fisheries on the Congolese side of the Luapula. Fish marketing boards and co-operatives in Northern Rhodesia and Zambia led to much resentment among fishermen and distrust of government. Price controls, especially maximum purchase prices, had a similar effect, encouraging fishermen to evade the formal economy. Yet an unstable formal institutional environment was not necessarily to the disadvantage of small-scale producers and traders; in some cases informal markets, or illicit ones, were more profitable than formal. For example, presently the most profitable fish trade is with the diamond capital of Congo, Mbuji-Mayi, where sacks of fish can be traded for diamonds. In times of formal economic collapse or economic restructuring, such as DRC and Zambia have experienced in the 1990s, horizontal growth in effort can be expected.

The final factor is the alternatives to fishing. For vertical increases in effort to occur, fishers have to see the potential for greater returns on capital investment in the fishery than can be experienced in other economic sectors. Horizontal increases also depend on alternatives for investment of labor and capital; women who found that farming could not meet their cash needs turned to chisense processing and trading. Men who could no longer find urban employment, used their savings to begin businesses based on the chisense fishery. Horizontal increases in effort are not necessarily characterized by the growth in fishers using traditional methods; increasing numbers of fishers can make use of new technologies as a result of engagement with diverse economic sectors.


With the rise of the colonial regimes, traditional restraints and sanctions on fishing enforced by the Owners of the Lagoons were undermined in favor of a formal state authority carried out by colonial chiefs, administrators and fisheries officials. Vertical increases in effort occurred when expatriate entrepreneurs linked to the Belgian colonial regime invested in the fishery. They occurred during a period of resource regulation and led to the most marked ecological shock when the mpumbu disappeared from the fishery.

With the end of colonialism, state authority in the countryside was eroded and in many arenas collapsed. Since pre-colonial restraints had long been abolished, there were few formal restrictions on who could fish; even though local mechanisms restricted access in the more remote areas, the fishery became more “open access” than ever before, especially in the urban-like fishing towns and camps. This, along with a new local ecological and regional economic landscape, contributed to horizontal growth in effort. Retired or retrenched urban workers originally from Luapula invested in lamps, boats and meshless nets, and became chisense fishermen. Horizontal increase in effort was largely due to these migrants who returned from the copper mines and joined with rural women who found farming difficult and unprofitable. As long as the chisense fishery offered better opportunities than urban trade or cassava farming, new fishers and traders arrived, despite total yields remaining constant or decreasing per fisherman. This did not however preclude vertical changes in effort - indeed in many senses the chisense fishery, with its alliance of male fishers and female traders, relied on new types of capital-labor relations.

Those familiar with the patterns of development in the fisheries of Norway or elsewhere in the developed world would find this turn of events surprising and contrary to expected developmental patterns. Ottar Brox argues that horizontal increases in effort characterized “the peasant mode of production, subsistence fishing, and frontier phases in the development of the national economy”(Brox, 1990: 233). Vertical growth in effort, by contrast, occurred when investors participated in resource exploitation and dynamized the “stagnant” local economy. This presents an accurate picture of the fishery growth in the developing or developed world. In economies that have experienced long-term decline, such as Zambia and DRC, patterns of effort growth have been rather different. Technological change and commercial activity have not been bound to vertical increases in effort that imply labor-saving investments; instead, an increased number of fishers have made use of technological change and exploited urban markets. In Mweru-Luapula vertical growth - the combination of capitalization and change in gear technology - came and went between the 1940s and 1960s; the more technologically innovative and more commercial sector that has driven the development of the fishery since the 1970s has been characterized by more fishermen rather than more nets per fisherman. Over the last thirty years, as commercial and survival options for Zambians and Congolese have narrowed, horizontal increase in effort has been significant and has contributed to innovations in gear technology.


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[29] These are estimates based on a variety of sources. Since the fishery is split between two administrations and part of several different districts, it is difficult to compile accurate figures (Gould, 1989: 22-44; Zambia, 1980; Zaire, 1984).
[30] Interviews: Chief Mulundu and Traditional Councillor, Mulundu, 9 Jan. 1998; Chief Lubunda and Traditional Councillors, Lubunda, 8 Oct. 1997; Chief Mununga and Traditional Councillors, Mununga 16 June 1998. Also Musambachime, 1981: Vol 2: 2,13, 25.
[31] The early history of the fishery is reconstructed through interviews conducted by the author and archival sources based in the National Archives of Zambia (NAZ) and the Archives Africaines (AA) in Belgium. For details see Gordon, 2000: 101-147 and Musambachim, 1981.
[32] Kawambwa Tour Report 5/1938, NAZ, SEC 2/872.
[33] This process was made possible through the Native Authorities and Native Courts Ordinance in 1929 and the Native Treasuries Ordinance in 1936. In Luapula, the process was accentuated with the appointment of Mwata Kazembe XIV Shadreck Chinyanta who was an educated and appreciated collaborator. Conflict with chiefs, especially Lubunda, Mulundu and Katuta Kambemba, who were subordinated to the Lunda Native Authority but were not traditionally Lunda, were frequent. Colonial policies are recorded in Kawambwa Tour Reports, 1936-1960, NAZ SEC 2/871-886 and NP 2/6/8-17, Lunda Native Government, NP 2/7/13. For conflict between Lunda and other chiefs see "Note on the Bena Mbeba and their Pretensions", Kawambwa District Notebooks, NAZ KSG 3/1. Also Interview with Mwata Kazembe XVIII Munona, Mwansabombwe, 19 Oct. 1997.
[34] The creation of the fonds poisson and mission piscicole is documented in Mission piscicole divers and Rapports annuels, AA, IPAC AGRI 14.210-228. For documentation on the appointment and organization of chiefs in Mweru-Luapula see Chefferies Luapula-Moëro Dossiers Kasenga, Pweto, AAIPAC 14.160. Affaires Indigène et Main d'Oeuvre (AIMO) Rapports Territoire Kasenga, 1932-1950, AARA/AIMO 106, Territoire Pweto, RA/AIMO 162.
[35] Director of Game and Tsetse to Member for Agriculture, 13 March 1953, NAZ, SEC 6/372.
[36] M. Scholler, Commissiare Provinciale du Katanga, Minutes of the Anglo-Belgian Fisheries Conference, Ft. Rosebery, 29 June 1953, NAZ, SEC 6/13.
[37] One of the reasons behind the creation of the fonds poisson and mission piscicole in the immediate post-War years was the recognition that the exploitation of the fishery was so crucial to the mining profits. Mission piscicole, Elisabethville, 1945-1948, AA, IPAC AGRI 14.210
[38] Records of crocodile extermination can be found in Dossier Lutte Crocs. Correspondence and Statistics, AA Inventaire Provisoire Archives Venant du Congo belge (IPAC) AGRI 13.042.
[39] Records of the series of negotiations between British and Belgian administrators and fisheries officials can be found in NAZ SEC 6/5,7,13 and AA IPAC 13.039. A detailed account of the "mpumbu rebellion" based on archival and oral sources is in Gordon, 2000: 148-193 and Musambachime: 1987.
[40] Between 1960 and 1967 production dropped by approximately 1 000 tonnes. It is unclear whether this drop was due to changing patterns in demand or the condition of the resource - probably a combination of both. Zambia, Dept. of Game and Tsetse, Annual Reports, 1960-1967.
[41] Interview with David Lupandula, Kasenga, 17 Dec. 1998. Kabundi-Mpenga Ka'mpeng "La problematique du développement rural au Zaire: Reflexion sur les conditions des masses rurales dans la zone de Kasenga." Memoire, UNILU, 1975-76, 72.
[42] The creation of LFZ is recorded in Fish Marketing Board and Co-ops, Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, NAZ ML 1/15/36, 39. Also see DoF, Chilanga, Annual Reports, 1965-1971. For conflict between fishermen and LFZ buyers see DoF, Chilanga, Luapula Monthly and Annual Reports, 1976-1979. According to the fixed prices, the real income of fishermen would have dropped by 16 percent between 1964 and 1969. This does not include any changes in catches. (Bates, 1976: 157)
[43] Interview with Abraham Soriano, 16 June 1998.
[44] Statistics from Zambian Department of Fisheries, Nchelenge (henceforth DoF), Report on Zambia/Zaire joint meeting held on 22 July 1996, 4. Reports of the fishery through the 1970s and 1980s are from DoF, Chilanga, Luapula Monthly and Annual Reports, 1976-1990. Also Service de l'environnement et conservation, Kipushi, Rapports annuels de Zone de Kasenga, 1986-96 (intermittent).
[45] DoF, Luapula Province Monthly Report, April-June 1982.
[46] Data for the rise of the chisense fishery are from reports of DoF officials and interviews conducted by the author in Mweru-Luapula, Lubumbashi and Lusaka. DoF, Chilanga, Luapula Monthly and Annual Reports, 1976-1994. The first reports of commercial chisense fishing to my knowledge are in DoF Annual Report of 1976, although colonial reports indicated that women caught chisense with cloth long before. Fish Ranger Report, 3/1948, NAZ, NP2/1/19. The author interviewed fishermen in chisense and gillnet fishing camps. Traders were interviewed in Kashikishi, Mansa, Lusaka, Kasenga and Lubumbashi. A total of 56 in-depth interviews were relevant to the development of the chisense industry. Also see van Zwieten 1996.
[47] Jean Philippe Plateau has identified the lack of diversification due to limitations in access to credit as a widespread feature of Africa's fisheries (Plateau 1992: 101). Luapula data are based on my interviews with several older fishers all of whom did not consider changing to chisense fishing. Interviews Gabriel Kunda, Kasikisi, 14 July 1997; Daud Samual Kalaba, Kasikisi 12 Jan. 1998; Kabel Kaoma, Kasikisi, 11 Jan. 1998.
[48] Interviews with Bupe Mande, Kabwe Sande, Kavunda Hilbert, Kisamba Claude, Pweto, 12 July 1998; Gabriel Kunda, Kashsikishi, 14 July 1997; Daud Samuel Kalaba, Kashikishi, 12 Jan. 1998; Kabel Kaoma, Kasikisi, 11 Jan. 1998.
[49] Details in Nchelenge District Council Files, Nchelenge Fisheries Coordinating Committee (NFCC) 3/14/2.

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