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Christophe Béné


Since the mid-eighties, the importance of small-scale fisheries in rural development has been widely recognized by academics, practitioners and development agencies. However, despite an increasing number of research and development programmes, the role played by small-scale fisheries in the rural development of coastal or riverine area communities is still poorly understood. It is in particular widely recognized that a more systematic framework is needed which could help to better evaluate the real contribution of small-scale fisheries to the sustainable socio-economic development of rural populations in developing countries.

The present document is an attempt to contribute to this improvement. In particular, its main objective is to address the question of the “Role of small-scale fisheries in multiple use of coastal, estuarine and inland waters”. For this purpose, it relies essentially on an overview of the sectoral interactions between small-scale fisheries and the other rural activities and discusses how those interactions may affect the livelihood of fisheries-dependent populations in developing countries. A special emphasis on the potential role played by artisanal fisheries in poverty alleviation is made. For its largest part, the analysis is conducted from a Sustainable Livelihood Approach (SLA) perspective - although the principles of this approach are not detailed here.

The paper is articulated in four main sections, as follows. First, an overview on small-scale fisheries and livelihood of fisheries-dependent communities in developing countries is proposed. Using a livelihood analysis-based approach, we show how the contribution of fisheries to household livelihoods is not simply a function of the time (labour) involvement shared between the different members of the household but rather a function of the combination of fishing assets they have at their disposal (including the status of the local ecosystem and its fish stocks), and the rules and other socio-institutional mechanisms which govern the access and use of those assets. Combining the index of human involvement (investment of labour and/or human assets, e.g. skills) adopted in the conventional approach with an index of “capital” investment (physical and financial assets) allows us to build up a new two-dimensional framework which captures and illustrates in a more comprehensive way the very wide spectrum of contributions that fishing may offer as part of the households’ livelihood strategies.

Second, the paper presents and discusses the issue of water multi-use and its impact on fishing activity and fishery-dependent communities’ livelihoods. Based on a typology of interactions including 5 categories (conflict, neutral multi-uses, compromises, complementary uses and collaborations) we show through a series of case-studies that the water multi-use interactions taking place between the different water stakeholders are not systematically of conflictual nature. Of particular importance is the case of complementary interactions. The review of the literature reveals, however, that empirical studies analysing how these complementary interactions evolve are cruelly missing. The main reason for this gap is that fishery has been considered too frequently from a mono-sectoral point of view (both by scholars and deciders), despite the fact that the multiactivity-based livelihoods of most fisher-farmers of riverine or floodplain environments have been recognized for many decades. A series of conclusions are then derived, which identify domains of investigation for further research.

Third, the issue of valuation and information use in fishery policy is discussed. It is first recalled that the gap of knowledge and lack of proper valuation which characterizes small-scale fisheries in most parts of Africa, Latin America, and - to a lesser extend - Asia, is usually presented as the main constraint for the design of appropriate fishery policy, both at regional and national levels. It is argued however in this paper that this perception - which tends to explain the lack of appropriate policies and planning by the poor abilities of practitioners and academics to properly evaluate the true social and economic values of small-scale fisheries-, hides another important dimension of the problem. The experience shows, indeed, that the generation of (more) information is not systematically a sufficient condition to support a more appropriate agenda setting and to ensure the implementation of successful policies. The impact of social/economic information generated through a better evaluation process is not merely determined by the quality of that information, but also to a large extent by the nature of the policy environment.

The second part of the section reviews the different valuation methods which are potentially applicable to the evaluation of artisanal fisheries, and discusses their respective rationales and limitations within a multi-uses, multi-users context. A specific emphasis is given in this review to the livelihood analysis approach, and in particular to how this recently developed approach fits into the more general socio-economic framework and how it may complete the other more conventional environmental economics methods.

Finally the specific question of poverty alleviation in small-scale fisheries is raised in the last section of this paper. More specifically, the role played by fisheries as an “activity of last resort” for the poorest is addressed and carefully discussed. First the prevalence of this paradigmatic perception is emphasized through a thorough review of the fisheries literature. Second a more in-depth analysis shows how this pro-poor capacity of small-scale fisheries to sustain poor people results in fact from the combination of two distinct mechanisms: (1) the “redistributive” dimension of fisheries, i.e. the fact that fishing activities appear very often to be of greater importance to the poor in terms of income, food security and employment than for the non-poor. Within this approach, fishing is considered as a fundamental “pillar” on which poor families facing chronic (long-term) destitution rely to sustain their livelihoods; and (2) the “safety-net” capacity of fisheries, i.e. the fact that in period of individual or collective economic crisis, fishing may also provide alternative or additional sources of income, employment and food for the households - poor and less poor - whose livelihoods have been temporarily reduced or affected by the crisis. Those two mechanisms are then analysed and discussed, and needs for further research associated to this role of “activity of last resort” are highlighted.


Since the mid-1980s and, in particular, as a result of the works of Lawson (1977, 1983), Smith (1979) or Panayotou (1982, 1985), the role of small-scale fisheries in rural development in terms of food supply/security, income and employment has been widely recognized (see, e.g. FAO 1984, World Bank 1993). Drawing upon those initial works, a significant number of research and development programmes were implemented (mainly in Africa and Asia) in the 1990s which attempted to further investigate the importance of artisanal fisheries to the local populations (see for instance the multiple programmes carried out by the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM) in Asia, the Integrated Development of Artisanal Fisheries (IDAF) programme implemented by FAO and the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) in West Africa, or the Traditional Management of Artisanal Fisheries (TMAF) programme funded by DFID in Nigeria). However, despite the great progress achieved through these programmes in describing and understanding the livelihoods of artisanal fishers, the position of small scale fisheries and how they fit into the more general, multi-activities rural economy remains poorly understood. It is widely admitted for instance that a more systematic framework (or strategy) is needed to better evaluate the real contribution of small-scale fisheries to socio-economic development of rural populations in developing countries (FAO 2000).

It is in this context that the FAO Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research (ACFR) recently recommended the establishment of a Working Party on small-scale fisheries. The objective of the Working Party is to make recommendations for the management of small-scale fisheries, including a set of Technical Guidelines, to increase the contribution of small-scale fisheries to food security and poverty alleviation on a sustainable basis. To support production of the guidelines, a series of background papers was commissioned to highlight issues and experiences in small-scale fisheries.

This document is part of this set of background papers. Its main objective is to address the question of the “Role of small-scale fisheries in multiple use of coastal, estuarine and inland waters” (Theme No.1 of the Terms of Reference). For this, it will rely essentially on an overview of the sectoral interactions between small-scale fisheries and the other rural activities and discuss how these interactions may affect the livelihoods of fisheries-dependent populations in developing countries. A special emphasis is placed on the potential role played by artisanal fisheries in poverty alleviation. The analysis will be conducted from an SLA perspective.

Throughout the paper, the discussion - although largely illustrated with empirical case studies - will be articulated mainly from a conceptual point of view and focus on research issues. This approach greatly limits the relevance of the paper with regard to the day-to-day tasks of practitioners (e.g. Department of Fisheries officers). The Terms of Reference also requested to restrict the analysis to the context of developing countries, which induces that some lessons or experiences achieved in more advanced, industrialized countries (especially those in the domains of integrated coastal management planning and coastal zone planning) will not be considered in this study.

The paper is articulated as follows. After an overview on small-scale fisheries and livelihoods of fisheries-dependent communities in developing countries (section 2), the paper will present and discuss a list of issues related to the multiple uses of marine, estuarine and inland waters (sections 3 and 4). Where possible the paper will link those issues to current knowledge (or lack of knowledge) and relevant future research areas. Finally the specific question of poverty alleviation in small-scale fisheries will be raised (section 5). In particular, the role played by fisheries as an “activity of last resort” for the poorest will be addressed.


Worldwide, and in particular in developing countries, fisheries and fisheries-related activities (processing, trading, net-repairing, etc.) are a key-component in the livelihoods for millions of people. In West Africa, for example, it is estimated than over five million men and women depend on the use of aquatic resources for their livelihoods and millions more are highly dependent on the nutrition provided from fisheries and aquatic resources from coastal areas and extensive river and floodplain systems. In Asia the figures are even larger. In the Mekong delta only, more than 15 million people are estimated to depend on fisheries activities on a daily basis, either for income, employment or food supply. The majority of these people live in rural (sometimes quite remote) areas, where the living standard is recognized to be usually low or very low.

Analytical framework

It is usual to divide fisher households according to their degree of labour-involvement in fishing activities, and based on the conventional classification: professional, part-time and occasional fishers. However, such a division merges households that may have completely different livelihood strategies, and for whom fishing activities may play a completely different role within the overall range of activities undertaken by those households. This loss of socio-economic differentiation among fishing households can be analytically disabling, particularly when poverty is the primary concern.

Using the SLA approach could help to show how the contribution of fishing to household livelihoods is not simply a function of the time (labour) involvement shared between the different members of the household but rather a function of the combination of fishing assets they have at their disposal (including the status of the local ecosystem and its fish stocks), and the rules and other socio-institutional mechanisms that govern the access and use of those assets. From this SLA perspective, it is, therefore, necessary to ‘widen’ the approach through which the place of fishing activities in households’ livelihood is analysed. This can be done by combining the index of human involvement (investment of labour and/or human assets, e.g. skills) adopted in the conventional approach with an index of ‘capital’ investment (physical and financial assets)[2].

Figure 1. Typology of fishing activities as a function of human involvement (skills, labour) and capital investment (gears, tenure ownership or leasing).

Using this approach, a new two-dimensional framework can be built up, which captures the very wide spectrum of contributions that fishing may offer as part of household livelihood strategies (Fig.1). These strategies may range from low human (labour) involvement combined with low capital investment, to a highly intensive labour activity and/or highly capital-based activity. Between those two extremes, a continuum of combinations exists which provide opportunities to thousands of people to include fishing activity as part of the overall range of activities they undertake to sustain their livelihoods.

Small-scale fisheries and rural livelihood strategies

The combination of low human involvement and low capital investment (top-left corner of Fig.1) corresponds to the strategy of opportunistic fishing undertaken by a very large number of households in developing countries, essentially for subsistence purposes[3]. This strategy involves cheap and simple fishing gear (e.g. baited fishing lines) and is frequently carried out by “non-leading” members of the household (children or elders, or sometimes adult women) in addition to the other domestic activities. This type of fishing is usually operated in an opportunistic way on the margins of the water-bodies located in the vicinities of the house/village. The purpose is almost exclusively for subsistence. In floodplain areas of the Indian subcontinent, this type of opportunistic activity may involve up to 70-80 percent of the households during the flood season (Thompson and Hossain 1998; Hoggarth et al. 1999). In West African villages on the coast, or in the vicinity of rivers (e.g. Cameroon, Burkina Faso) or lagoons (e.g. Benin, Ivory Coast), opportunistic (morning and/or evening) fishing, with other activities such as farming, household or agricultural commitments occupying the rest of the day, is very common (Horemans and Jallow 1997, Williams and Awoyomi 1998).

Seasonal (or part-time) fishing is usually characterized by a slightly higher labour and financial involvement. It is also operated by different members of the households: part-time fishers are young and/or mature males who get involved in fishing activities as part of a wider, multi-activity livelihood portfolio. They usually use relatively cheap and simple fishing gears (e.g. traps, gillnets, hook lines) although some more ‘sophisticated’ gear or techniques (e.g. fences or barriers) may be used as well. This type of activity can last from a few weeks to several months during the season, depending on the combination of activities undertaken by the households and the availability of labour and resources. The catch is used for subsistence purpose or/and sold on local markets. In Africa, along rivers or in the vicinity of water-bodies (ponds, reservoirs) the active males may get involved in this type of seasonal fishing activity between crops or when other agricultural activities are low (Thomas and Adams 1999, Sana 2000). In the Tonle Sap Lake area in the Mekong Basin, hundreds of thousands of households share their time between the fishing activity, operated on the open water of the lake and the fringing floodplains during the rainy season, and the cultivation of rice paddy and other subsistence and cash crops during the rest of the year (Ahmed et al. 1998).

In coastal areas, people may enrol as crew members on boats for a given part of the year, depending on the opportunities (or absence of opportunities) in other rural activities. This category of wage-based labourers, however, involves mainly full-time professional fishermen (young and/or mature males) who are working all year round on artisanal or semi-industrial vessels (Chaboud and Dème 1989, Chauveau, Jul-Larsen and Chaboul 2000). Their revenues are usually based on a share-contract remuneration system and the activity is mainly undertaken for income generation (although some part of the revenue may be paid in kind). This concerns a large number of men in coastal villages (or even urban areas) in Africa (e.g. Senegal, Ghana) or in Asia (e.g. Sri-Lanka, Philippines, Thailand, Viet Nam). Other members of the household may be involved in fishing-related activities (e.g. fish scaling, processing, trading) or other urban or rural activities (farming, home gardening or livestock rearing).

In small islands (e.g. Pacific or Caribbean), or in inland areas (around rivers, lakes or reservoirs), full-time local (resident) fishermen constitute a very large share of village populations. In East-Africa lake fisheries their number has been estimated to be several million. In coastal areas they also represent a large majority of the males who are not enrolled as crew-members. These full-time resident fishermen usually possess their own artisanal fishing gears and, for the most successful of them, one (man-powered or sometimes motorized) canoe or pirogue. They sell the largest part of their catch to local markets, although a share is usually kept for household consumption. In inland areas, conflicts are frequent between these fishermen and migrant full-time fishermen who usually operate on the same water-bodies and compete for the same resource(s) (Faye 1994, Kassibo 2000). These migrant fishermen, who have usually very efficient gears and high level of fishing skill, are generally the main vector of technological transfer in those remote areas. In the Lake Chad region for instance, the goura (or Mali trap) which can be used either as an individual device (trap) or in aggregation to form barriers across rivers or channels was introduced in the early 1980 by migrant fishermen from Mali (Quensière, pers. comm.).

At the end of the spectrum, characterized by high human involvement and high financial investment, are the professional fishermen who possess their own fishing gear and their own boat. They may operate individually but usually employ one or several crew-members (relative or non-relative males). This category of professional fishers is very heterogeneous ranging from the poor individual full-time fisherman on the Amazon river’s tributaries who hardly makes enough profit to feed his family (Hartmann 1989) to the “Big Man”, sort of fishing entrepreneur along the coast of Senegal or Congo who employs a dozen of men on 10-m pirogues and is connected to a well-developed, efficient (and sometimes international) commercialization system (Nguinguiri 2000).

Finally, high capital investments can also be combined with low human (labour) involvement (top-right). This is the case for owners of boats or expensive fishing gear (e.g. large beach seine) or individuals who have gained the control over the best ‘fishing-spots’ but are not directly involved in fishing activities. This category also includes absentee (local or urban) leaseholders who sublease their fishing rights, or contract local community fishermen. This situation can occur in marine and freshwater habitats (for boat owners), but is mainly found in floodplain areas where the spatial and seasonal heterogeneity of the habitat creates good “fishing-spots”. The access to those very productive grounds (e.g. receding channels) is often restricted to the well-connected, better-off households, either institutionally -through asymmetric power-relationship - or economically - due to the very high entry cost (fees) which makes them unaffordable for the non-rich. Examples of such situations have been extensively described for Bangladeshi, Cambodian or Nigerian floodplains (e.g. Kremer 1994, Toufique 1997, Degen and Thuok 1998, Neiland, Jaffrey and Kudaisi. 1997).

In summary, the contribution of fishing activities to the livelihoods of rural poor and non-poor households may take a remarkably large number of various forms and involves a variety of different strategies. The use of the two indexes (human involvement and capital investment) represents, in that respect, an improvement over the more conventional approach which tends to characterize fishermen only by their degree of labour-involvement (professional, part-time and occasional).

However, as emphasised in the case of the full-time boat owner fishermen above, the degree of human and financial investments does not necessarily “explain” by itself the level of success (or failure) of the household and the extent to which involvement in fishing activities contribute to a household’s well-being.

(a) Subsistence vs commercialised activity

(b) Diversification (mono vs poly-activity)

(c) Number of households involved

(d) Profit derived from fishing activity

Fig.2. Characterisation of small-scale fisheries using four attributes: (a) subsistence vs commercial activity, (b) the degree of diversification characterising the fishing households’ livelihoods, (c) the number of households involved in fishing strategies worldwide, and (d) the profit derived from fishing activities.

Further characterization of small-scale fisheries

Four additional analytical “entry-points” can be included in the initial framework to complement the characterization of small-scale fisheries with respect to poverty alleviation and food security (Fig.2). These characteristics are: the occurrence of subsistence vs. commercialized activity (top-left diagram), the various degree of diversification (mono vs. multi-activity) characterizing the livelihoods of the fishing households (top-right diagram), the number of households involved worldwide in the different categories of fishing strategies (bottom-left diagram), and the degree of profit (financial return) derived from those fishing activities (bottom-right diagram). These features have been superimposed on the initial framework through gray scale shading gradients.

(a) In the top-left diagram, the occurrence of subsistence fishing (light shading) is represented along with the expansion of commercial fishing (darker shading). The review of the current literature suggests that the current marketization of the activity tends to restrict the occurrence of (pure) subsistence to the cases of low involvement and low investment activities. When human involvement and capital investment both increase, the degree of dependence on subsistence tends to decrease and an increasing share of the catch is commercialized.

(b) In the top-right diagram, the coloured pattern differentiates the mono (light shading) vs. poly-activity strategies (darker shading) adopted by the households involved in fishing. The shading illustrates that the level of financial investment is not a key-factor determining the degree of diversification at the household level. Both strategies - specialization (mono-activity) and diversification (poly-activity) - can be observed indifferently with low or high financial investment.

(c) The bottom-left diagram simply illustrates that the majority of the people (men, women) involved in fishing activities are occasional opportunistic fishers, seasonal fisher-farmers or fishermen who do not own their own boat (FAO 2003). On the other side of the spectrum, absentee leaseholders and households controlling or owning expensive fishing gears or fishing spots are comparatively very few.

(d) In the bottom-right diagram, the gradient illustrates the level of financial return derived from fishing activities (the light shading indicating low returns while darker shading shows high profits). The gradient is horizontal, indicating that the level of return is largely determined by the degree of financial investment and not by the level of human involvement. Those who can afford expensive gears or are socially or financially able to pay the formal and/or informal fees required to control highly productive fishing grounds are more likely to receive a higher return[4].

The comparison between this last entry-point (d) accumulation of profit and (c) -number of people involved in fishing activity is important from a poverty alleviation point of view. The opposition of gradient between the two cases suggests that for a very large majority of fishery-dependent households in the world, fishing activities cannot be considered as a potential source of high economic return. This contrasts with the fate of a few households who control the highly profitable part of the activity and for whom fishing represents a source of substantial capital accumulation[5].


Water, by its very nature, is a multi-use good. Notwithstanding its cultural dimensions, water is used for human needs (drinking water, domestic uses), economic activities (agriculture, irrigation, fishing or aquaculture, transport, hydroelectric power, etc.) or even as a depository for domestic or industrial wastes. Even if rigorous comparisons are difficult, an overview would rapidly indicate that coastal, estuarine, or inland areas do not face “equal” situations in terms of water multiple-use issues. Broadly speaking, the different elements and mechanisms influencing the degree of interaction between two or more water-related activities can be “encapsulated” into two major components: (1) the multiplicity of uses and (2) the degree of intensity of those uses.

Table 1. Multi-use of water in coastal, estuarine and inland areas

salt water

Estuarine environment

Inland areas
fresh water

Direct uses

· Fishing activities
· Tourism activities
(diving, sailing, etc)
· Recreational activities
· Mineral extraction
· Transport
· Coastal aquaculture

· Fishing activities
· Brackish water aquaculture
· Transport
· Recreational activities
· Mineral extraction

· Fishing activities
· Fresh-water aquaculture
· Domestic uses (drinking, washing)
· Livestock
· Agriculture (irrigation)
· Power generation (electricity)
· Transport
· Dams
· Mineral extraction
· Recreational activities
· Flood control
· Water transfers

Indirect uses

· Domestic and
industrial discharges
· Conservation
(protected area)
· Urbanization

· Domestic and
industrial discharges
· Conservation
(protected area)
· Urbanization

· Domestic and industrial discharges
· Conservation (protected area)
· Urbanisation
· Forestry

3.1 Multiplicity of uses

Globally, even if it is difficult to draw any pertinent generalization due to the very local-specificity of water multi-use interactions, some trends can be identified. In particular, the number of direct and indirect uses globally increases from coastal (inshore) to estuarine areas (including river delta, mangrove, lagoon, etc.), and from estuarine to inland areas (rivers, reservoirs, lakes, ponds, floodplains) (Table 1). This increasing trend essentially reflects the fact that all direct uses, except power generation and transport, are strongly related to the salinity degree of the water in the area considered - salt water in coastal area; brackish-water in estuarine environment; and freshwater in inland areas - and in particular that animals, human beings, and most agricultural plants need fresh water for their development.

3.2 Intensity of use

The major driving forces determining the intensity of water use are: (a) population pressure and (b) degree of economic development. Population pressure varies from one continent (country) to the other. A comparison between Asia and Africa for instance is almost meaningless, given the tremendous difference that exists today between those two continents in terms of population density (203 vs. 64 person/mile2 respectively). This difference is further exacerbated by the discrepancy in economic development.

Within continent (or country) the intensity of water-use also varies between inshore, estuarine and inland areas. In most places, estuarine waters are usually characterized by high population density (e.g. Mekong delta, delta of the Ganges, Nile delta) and therefore is likely to be characterized by the highest intensity of use, followed by inland and coastal waters.

3.3 Pattern of interactions

The combination of multiplicity and intensity of water-use is the key element conditioning the degree of interactions between stakeholders. These interactions are the mechanisms which impact, either positively or negatively, upon the communities’ livelihoods. Potentially, multi-use conflicts can occur between any of the activities listed in Table 1.

Most of the water multi-use interactions taking place between stakeholders (especially at the intra-household or intra-community levels) are not, however, necessarily of conflictual nature. Yet, very often, those interactions are perceived, presented and analysed within the restricted framework of conflict (or conflict resolution) analysis (e.g. Nickum and Easter 1990, Charles 1992, Blench 1996).

Other categories of interactions are possible. Four are used in addition to conflict in a typology (Table 2) to illustrate the more complex nature of multi-use interactions. Those include (along with conflict) neutral multi-uses, compromises, complementary uses and collaborations.

The typology also makes the distinction between multi-uses and multi-users. Multi-uses interactions may be experienced by the same individual/household/user group, while multi-users interactions occur by definition between different user-groups. In both cases, the users can be affected positively or negatively by the interaction(s).

3.3.1 Conflict of usages

Conflicts of usages between fisheries-dependent communities and other water-users are widespread throughout the world and greatly affect coastal, estuarine or inland fisheries. However, as noted previously, inland fisheries, because they compete with a larger number of other types of usages, are likely to be very often at the epicentre of those multi-use conflicts. In this respect, fishing communities appear to be frequently amongst the “losers” of these conflicts, due to the low priority that this activity is usually given by national (or even local) planners but certainly also due to the general lack of political power and/or voice that characterize these communities.

One very frequent and many times reported scenario which illustrates this type of conflict of usages is that which opposes irrigation schemes and fisheries. It is widely admitted that the productivity and diversity of inland aquatic resources may be strongly affected by the development of water resources for irrigation.

An illustration of this is the situation experienced by the Mousgoum communities of the Yaéré floodplain along the Logone river in North Cameroon (Béné et al. 2003a). Here the local populations have developed a complex livelihood strategy where fishing plays an important role both in terms of food security and generation of income.

Table 2. Typology of multi-uses and multi-users interactions

Type of interactions

Multi-use interactions

Multi-users interactions


Conflict of usages: situations of negative externalities: the use of unit(s) of water (as a resource itself or as the vector of the resource,e.g. fish) by one activity/sector is affecting other users.

Stakeholder conflicts:
Situations of competitions for the access to, or oppositions of interests about water-uses between two (or more) stakeholder groups.

Neutral multi-uses

Neutral multi-use: situation where one type of water use does not affect another type of use.


Stakeholder compromise:
Situations of trade-offs - a trade-off is the process of balancing conflicting objectives- between two (or more) stakeholder groups.


Complementarity of uses: situation where the use of water in one sector/activity may have positive outcomes in other activities/sectors.

Collaborations (or consensus)

Stakeholder collaboration:
Situations of active agreement - materialized through alliance, partnership or association- between two (or more) stakeholder groups.

In 1979, however, a national irrigated rice-growing project was constructed under the management of the state-controlled company SEMRY (Rice Culture Expansion and Modernization Authority). The objective of the project was to control flooding of the adjoining floodplain and to allow the culture of irrigated rice through the construction of 28 km of embankments, plus some 80 km of dykes along the Logone River. These irrigation schemes seriously modified the hydrological regime in the entire floodplain, leading to an acceleration of the degradation of the environment which had been initially caused by the 1970-80s Sahelian drought. In particular these modifications eliminated the flooding of some 59 000 ha of floodplain and seriously reduced another 150 000 ha which were important breeding and nursery areas for fishes. Using simple calculations, and taking into consideration the catch losses induced by the flood reduction, Neiland and Béné (2003) estimated that this irrigation scheme induced a direct lost of US$ 120 million (first sale value) for the local community over the 21 years during which the flooding pattern was significantly affected (1979-2000)[6].

3.3.2 Stakeholder conflicts

As for the conflicts of usages above, the number and type of stakeholder conflicts that can potentially break out between fishing communities and other stakeholders are almost endless. Those types of conflicts are likely to occur in inland and estuarine environments where the number of different stakeholders other than fishing communities involved in water uses is large (e.g. herders, farmers). But these stakeholder conflicts can also occur in coastal inshore waters, even if the groups or communities which share the resources are less numerous. One classical example is the conflicts of interest between fishing communities and tourism activities. In the Caribbean, where marine tourism is well developed, the different activities (scuba-diving, sailing, jet-skiing) undertaken by tourists, either individually or through operators may interfere with fishermen activities. On the Island of Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos archipelago (British West Indies), for example, demographic pressures from a rising number of tourists is now reported to impact heavily upon fishing activities (artisanal conch and lobster fisheries). Providenciales relies mainly upon the tourist industry for employment and income, and fishing is becoming much less important. As the tourist industry expands, so too does the pressure on the coastal zone as divers, swimmers, water skiers and jet skiers vie for space. The waters are zoned and several marine parks have been created around the island in areas which initially did not overlap too severely with fishing grounds. However, dive operators competing with each other and seeking for ever more unspoilt and quiet dive sites are now reported to be encroaching on fishing grounds outside the parks, creating conflict with the artisanal fishermen (Bennett et al. 2001).

3.3.3 Stakeholder compromise

Conflicts between fishing communities and other users of waters are not unavoidable, even in the case of apparent competition for the same resources. Compromise is another possible type of outcome. The example used here to illustrate this type of interaction is the arrangement which was found between the Levuka fishing communities of the Makogai Island (Fiji) and the local authorities (Fisheries Division) on the creation of a protected marine reserve. Generally, in the Pacific Islands, where at least some vestiges of traditional marine tenure systems persist (Ruddle 1993), fishing areas are finely subdivided between villages, clans or families, and it is relatively difficult for one or more of these units to give up their holdings. In the case reported by Adams (1998), the Levuka people “owned” fishing rights around a series of islands which were felt to be a good site for protection of giant clam re-seeding experiments carried out by the local government-run hatchery. The Fisheries Division proposal to create a protected area was not initially well received, due mainly to worries about the ultimate ownership and control of the area. After several rounds of negotiation, a final agreement was reached in 1990, and then renewed in 1992. The key issue is that the protected area was not defined in de jure legislation but maintained in practice by formal written agreement, ratified in the traditional way, between the Tui Levuka (the traditional local leader) and the Minister responsible for fisheries. The reserve area is not entirely banned to fishing, but fishing pressure is sporadic and minimal, and a complete fishing ban is imposed both for the giant clams and the turtle nesting area on the shore. Subsistence fishing is held in abeyance except for certain special occasions agreed in advance between parties. Adams (1998, p. 134) who evaluated the case concluded: “Significantly, the fishing rights to the area have not been extinguished and it is this government-community compromise with limited objectives that has enabled the area to become probably Fiji’s most effective marine conservation area” (emphasized by C. Béné).

3.3.4 Neutral multi-uses

Neutral interaction refers to situations where two or more water-dependent activities undertaken simultaneously do not seem to impact on each other directly. Examples of neutral multi-uses are relatively sparse in the literature, although they may be more frequent in reality. The reason for this relative overlook is the fact that, due to their apparent neutral impact, these types of interaction do not attract much attention: they are neither totally negative (conflicts) nor overall positive (complementarity or collaboration), and stay therefore outside the usual “success and failure” framework adopted by scholars and/or practitioners to analyse natural resource use®s interactions. The very few cases trying to describe neutral interactions are therefore quite valuable for the original information they offer.

The example presented below is even more enlightening because it addresses this issue in a case where highly conflicting interactions are usually expected to occur, namely between inland fisheries and irrigation (see the section “conflicts of usage” above). In rural areas of the developing world, irrigation is indeed recognized as the single most important intervention impacting fisheries (World Commission on Dams (WCD) 2000). Irrigation systems may abstract and deplete (through evapo-transpiration) a large proportion of the annual flow from tropical river basins, and reduce the overall availability and ecological connectivity of aquatic habitats. However, at the same time, it is (less frequently) recognized that rain-fed rice paddies designed to store water for extended periods, can create aquatic ecosystems with many similarities to natural floodplains. Like floodplain habitats, paddies are colonized by fish during the wet season and contribute substantially to the overall fisheries production of the river-floodplain system.

Recently, Nguyen Koa and her colleague conducted a series of quantitative surveys in the rice-based farming system of Southern Laos to evaluate the impacts of small- to medium-sized weir and dam irrigation schemes on local fisheries. They showed that dam schemes caused no significant overall decline in catches, but a very significant re-distribution of catches and effort into the newly created reservoirs. In both weir and dam schemes, changes in catch were largely explained by changes in fishing effort. No significant impacts on fish species richness were detected. The authors concluded: “rather than being fundamentally degraded as often assumed, fish populations and the fisheries they support can remain productive and diverse within irrigated rice systems” (Nguyen Koa et al. 2003).

3.3.5 Complementarities

Empirical analyses of potential complementarities between water multi-uses, and especially between fishing and other rural activities at the household level, are sadly missing. The main reason for this gap is that fishing has been considered exclusively from a mono-sectoral point of view for many decades, despite the fact that the multiactivity-based livelihoods of most fisher-farmers from river or floodplain environments in Africa or Asia has been recognized for a long time both by practitioners and academics (e.g. Monod 1928). As a consequence, very few empirical studies have been carried out with the explicit objective of trying to evaluate the exact contribution of each of those activities to the households’ livelihood. Some noticeable exceptions in the African floodplain context are Neiland et al. 1994, and Béné et al. (2003a; 2003b); and Barr (2000) in Bangladesh. All these field studies were, to some extent, based on the main principle of the Sustainable Livelihood Approach[7]; in contrast with other studies, they were based on a trans-sectoral, holistic approach, using activity ranking and wealth ranking analyses.

Overall, the main conclusion of these analyses was that the contribution of fisheries to households’ livelihood varies greatly depending on the household’s wealth (or symmetrical poverty). No generalization across or even within communities is possible, and the widely accepted perception that “fishermen are the poorest of the poor” may be misleading in a large number of cases (see Béné, 2003) for a more in-depth discussion on this point.

From these studies, a whole set of issues were identified which need further investigation, especially in relation to the possible role of fisheries in poverty alleviation. In the African floodplain context the following key issues were highlighted:

Fisheries, poverty, and wealth stratification:

Access to fishing activity and/or fishing grounds is largely determined by a household’s wealth level. However, at the same time, fishing activities contribute to a large extent to wealth differentiation. These two mechanisms tend to reinforce each other and suggest that fishing is not systematically a good “leverage” for poverty alleviation. This last point is in agreement with the results presented in Fig.2 (c) and (d).

Fisheries and livelihood diversification:

Fishing can contribute to a households’ livelihood diversification through a wide variety of ways. This ranges from the “diversification for survival” strategy adopted ex-post by households in the case of temporary environmental and/or socio-economic crisis, to the “diversification for accumulation” strategy generally developed ex-ante by better-off households. The “diversification for survival” strategy is closely related but different from the “activity of last resort” which is generally assumed to characterize fisheries (see section 5 below on this point).

3.3.6 Collaboration (consensus)

The last type of multi-user interaction is collaboration (or consensus). Like conflict situations, consensus scenarii have received considerable attention, not necessarily because they are more common than other types of interactions, but rather because they are the success stories from which “good lessons and practices” can, in theory, be derived.

One particular example which illustrates these collaborative interactions between stakeholders involved in water multi-uses, is Community-Based Ecotourism Management (CBEM). Generally, CBEM projects are based on initiatives managed by the local communities relying on ecosystem goods and services to improve their socio-economic status. Successful CBEM case studies show that the main challenges are minimization of impacts, benefit sharing equity and integrated national policies for rural development. In a recent study, Foucat (2002) assessed the sustainability of the ECBM project of the village of Ventanilla, south Pacific coast of Mexico. The households of this poor rural community, which used to make their living from the exploitation of sea turtle, were heavily impacted by the turtle hunting ban imposed in 1992 by the federal government. The community was then forced to search for new sources of income. With the initial help of a local non-governmental organization (NGO), and then the collaboration of governmental organizations (including one University, the Ministry of Environment and the Marine Turtles Mexican Centre), the local community successfully developed a series of eco-tourism activities within an appropriate local institutional framework (creation of a cooperative to manage the benefits of the activities). The case study shows how such a type of collaboration ensured the economic and social viability of the project. The CBEM now generates the largest part of the income of the households belonging to the cooperative, which complete their revenues with subsistence agriculture and fishing.

3.4 Multi-uses of water: implication for research

From this general overview, a series of conclusions can be derived which highlight the need for further research.

In developing countries, due to past (and still existing) over-emphasis on mono-sectoral approaches, analyses of water multi-uses and water multi-users’ interactions are rare.

The mechanisms which condition the outcome of interactions between different uses and different users of water remain obscure. As illustrated by the examples above, the interactions between fisheries and irrigation schemes may be detrimental (Yaéré case) or neutral (Southern Laos). Similarly, the interactions between fisheries and tourism activities may be conflictual (Turks and Caicos Islands) or lead to collaborative initiatives (Ventanilla CBEM project). We are, however, far from reaching a complete understanding of the complexity and richness of interactions which bind fishing activities to the other water user activities at the household or community levels. A similar conclusion holds at the regional and national levels for water multi-uses and/or multi-users policies and planning. There is in these domains an urgent need for the development of adequate analytical frameworks to implement cross-sectoral analyses.

Success or failure stories are only part of the overall picture. A large number of empirical situations do not fall into those two clear-cut “theoretical” categories, but are located somewhere along a spectrum of more complex and constantly evolving interactions. Figure 3 attempts to highlight this point. The figure illustrates in particular that, except for some studies on conflict resolution (compromise) carried out recently and mainly based on developed countries’ experiences (e.g. Hart and Pitcher 1998) little research has been conducted so far to understand complementary interactions (both at the local household, community, and national levels) in the specific context of developing countries.

Lessons can be drawn from water multi-uses and multi-users interactions. But to generate valuable conclusions, (a) the work would require a large-scale, rigorous research programme implemented on an international, multi-disciplinary, and more fundamentally multi-sectoral, basis - the worldwide collaborative Challenge Programme on Water and Food co-ordinated by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is a possible example of such collaborative set-up between different research institutions (CGIAR 2002); (b) these analyses should not simply focus “in a static manner” on the success or failure scenarios and on the factors which explain those successes or failures but rather analyse, in a more “dynamic” manner, the socio-institutional and economic factors (including policy impacts) which constrain or facilitate the move along the interaction spectrum.


4.1 General context: an urgent need for better valuation of fishing activities

The conclusion highlighting the poor understanding of the complexity of water multi-use and multi-user interactions also holds for the contribution of fishing activities to economic development and poverty alleviation. Very little has been done (especially in comparison to other rural activities, such as farming or forestry systems) in these domains. It is for instance widely admitted that in most parts of Africa and Latin America, and to a lesser extent in Asia, it is currently extremely difficult to make any accurate and up-to-date assessment of the economic value of small-scale fisheries activities (Neiland 2003, Cowx 2003). Similarly, a large number of recent work underlines the great potential of small-scale fishing activities for economic development (both at local and national levels) but systematically highlights how poorly the true (economic) value of this sector is reflected in official statistics and discussions on food security and livelihoods (e.g. European Commission 2000, Kaczynski and Looney 2000, Anon. 2001).

This knowledge gap and lack of proper valuation is usually presented as the main constraint for the design of appropriate fishery policy at both regional and national levels. Recently, in relation to research activities in the Mekong Basin, a DFID document emphasized:

“...the failure to understand the value of the river in its ‘natural’ state, and of the variety of economic, ecological and livelihood benefits that rivers and floodplains can deliver, is seen as a weakness in major policy decisions related to large-scale basin development projects” (DFID 2001).

Figure 3. The current mismatch between research focus (solid line) and empirical situation (dashed line) in the domain of water multi-use situations.

Furthermore it can also be argued that an additional reason for explaining why policy related to river-use and conservation is weak is that the ecological “values”, i.e. ecological ecosystems “services” provided by rivers is in general poorly understood. The term “value” does not therefore just relate to economic value but also to a wider understanding of the importance of fisheries in maintaining ecosystem services.

Faced with this lack of information, not only national policy-makers and planners, but also international development agencies, are severely constrained in their ability to formulate and implement rural development policies appropriate for, and adapted to, the sector.

This perception - which tends to explain the lack of appropriate policies and planning in small-scale fisheries by the poor abilities of practitioners and academics to properly evaluate the true ecological, social and economic values of small-scale fisheries, hides, however, another important dimension of the problem. Experience shows that the generation of (more) information on the economic and/or social values of small-scale fisheries is not a sufficient condition to support more appropriate agenda-setting and to ensure the implementation of successful policies. The impact of social/economic information generated through a better evaluation process is not merely determined by the quality of that information, but also to a large extent by the nature of the policy environment. In other terms, better (or more accurate) valuation is not necessarily the solution to the problem. One can indeed identify some special circumstances where the generation of more information would have no tangible effect on the well-being of (local) populations, unless the general policy context within which this information is “injected” is properly understood, and the alternative usages affecting the water resources genuinely evaluated[8].

These remarks highlight two distinct but complementary domains where further research activities need to be engaged.

Valuation methods for fishing activities within a context of water multi-uses and multi-users, with special reference to local rural development and poverty alleviation in the specific context of developing countries.

Policy research for a better understanding of small-scale fisheries policy process (design and implementation) in the specific context of water multi-uses and weak governance characterizing developing countries.

The first of these two research areas will be treated in detail in the next section. The second research area is beyond the scope of the present paper and will not be developed here. It corresponds to the Theme No.3 of the TOR “Policy objective, legal framework, institution and governance” and should be addressed under this last theme.

4.2 Valuation of fishing activities within a multi-use, multi-user context

In general terms, values can be defined as: “beliefs, either individual or social, about what is important in life and thus about the ends or objectives which should govern or shape public policies” (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 1998). Based on this definition, economic valuation in fisheries can be approached in a number of different and yet complementary ways. Three broad economic-value study approaches can be identified: (1) conventional economic valuation; (2) economic impact analysis; and (3) socio-economic analysis.

Fig. 4. Components of the Total Economic Value (TEV) of an aquatic resource, such as a river system and its adjacent wetlands.

4.2.1 Conventional economic valuation

The conventional approach in economics to environmental valuation is to look for some way of measuring human preferences for or against changes in the state of the environment (improvement or deterioration). Where such preferences are expressed as willingness to pay - for example, to raise water quality on a certain stretch of river - value can be expressed in monetary terms. This can then provide a rational basis for policy decision-making on the use or management of environmental assets.


It can also be argued that economic values are social values, since the concept of value is anthropocentric (see definition above): it is the people who value the environment, and accordingly the estimated value resides with the individuals themselves rather than in the objects of their assessment. The arithmetic of conventional economic valuation is underpinned by Economic Efficiency Analysis (EEA) which has the maximization of social welfare (defined in terms of the optimal allocation of resources) as its goal. There are two ways in which EEA is commonly applied. These are cost-effective analysis and cost benefit analysis. With cost-effective analysis there is a presumption in favour of the least-cost option for achieving a given objective; with cost-benefit analysis, the presumption is in favour of the option which produces the highest ratio of monetary benefits to costs. In short, there is an implicit value judgement underlying efficiency analysis (i.e. that improvements in economic efficiency are desirable). In a policy-planning context, this presumption in favour of efficiency is the basis of a number of decision criteria that can be used to select and prioritize project options (or other interventions) in terms of their economic value to society.


It is recognized that a natural resource may provide a range of benefits according to the particular use or function it fulfils, and this forms the basis of the concept of Total Economic Value (TEV). The components of TEV in respect of an aquatic resource, such as a river system and its adjacent floodplains, are shown in Figure 4. The obvious and tangible benefits would be those derived from direct use of the resource, and these may materialize in the form of commodities (e.g. fish, aquatic plants, fuel-wood) or services (e.g. recreation and amenity). The aquatic resource may however also have additional indirect use, such as coastal protection and providing a habitat for juvenile fish. These represent the ecological values of the ecosystem. Individuals may also derive a benefit from being able to postpone their personal use of the resource to a later date; they attach an option value to using the resource. There is also another set of benefits, which are quite distinct, termed non-use (or “passive” use value). This might include the value associated with the desire to maintain a river fishery intact for future descendents (bequest value) or simply the satisfaction of knowing that a particular aquatic habitat has been preserved in perpetuity (existence value).

4.3 Economic impact analysis

In contrast to the EEA described above, Economic Impact Analysis (EcIA) does not set out to determine whether a particular policy intervention or project is either beneficial or detrimental in terms of economic worth to society. While EcIA will consider the level of benefits generated by an intervention, it does not consider costs of implementation (i.e. there is no benefit-cost framework). Instead, EcIA aims to establish what effects a particular policy intervention or project has on specific variables. This might involve using revenue analysis to see whether a new fisheries management system is likely to raise fishermens’ gross earnings or revenue. One direct application of this EcIA approach already mentioned is the evaluation of the revenue losses induced by the SEMRY irrigation schemes on the Yaéré populations (see section 3.3.1).

More ambitiously, EcIA might involve the application of multiplier analysis to measure the total economic activity generated by a new fisheries management system as a consequence of the interdependence between fishing and other sectors comprising the regional economy. The total economic impact will be made up of direct and secondary (i.e. indirect and induced) effects both locally and regionally. In the case of fisheries this will include not only the effects on employment and income that an improvement in the management system (or an increase in fish production or fleet size) can induce on direct upstream and downstream sectors such as boats and fishing gear supplies and services, processing, trading and marketing activities, fish transport, but also indirect effects such as the increase in demand for infrastructure and services (e.g. port infrastructures, education and health services, etc) which may follow the economic improvement of the area which benefits from the improved fishing activities.

4.4 Socio-economic analysis

Finally, it is important to reiterate the point made above, that conventional economic valuation is concerned with the analysis of whether particular interventions or projects improve the net wealth of society. It might be the case that this outcome also involves the creation of “winners” and “losers” in society. For example, the building of a dam across a river for hydro-electric power involves a wide diversity of effects including major changes in environmental quality and aquatic resource use. Conventional cost-benefit analysis sidesteps the issue by invoking the principle of “potential compensation” (i.e. that the intervention represents a net gain to society if the winners could compensate the losers and still be better off), but since this principle does not insist that compensation actually be paid it starts to become rather unsatisfactory where the losers also happen to be the poorest of the poor.

In other terms, the arithmetic of economic valuation may well adjudge a project such as dam construction, to be worth undertaking insofar as it improves the net wealth of society, but it is unclear whether the social impact of the project is likely to be neutral or not. In such situations (especially where there is poor governance within the weak state context) something more than economic valuation is warranted, specifically a distributional analysis to examine how the net costs and benefits are apportioned across different groups affected by the change. Socio-economic analyses can often provide an important starting point in identifying and characterizing the socio-economic strata in a community or region. Once the social strata are known, further in-depth economic studies (e.g. income-expenditure surveys) can provide a better understanding of benefit flows (or the lack of them) in relation to specific policy interventions.

4.5 Livelihood analysis

In recent years, socio-economic analysis has been further extended with the development of techniques for Livelihood Analysis (LA). When underpinned by conceptual frameworks, such as the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA), they can help to provide a better understanding of the relationship between human society and natural resources. In this respect, LA can be used to complement economic valuation and socio-economic analysis.

4.5.1 The rational for adopting Livelihood Analysis

Intrinsically, economic valuation techniques do not permit the identification of the factors which influence or affect people’s access to these resources. However, very often the key issue is not the availability of the resource (or conversely its scarcity, to which its economic, or even social value is related), but the access to this resource. Extending Sen’s main conclusion[9], which was initially framed in the specific context of famine (Sen, 1981), to the wider domain of natural resources, an increasing number of empirical studies have clearly demonstrated that poor people in rural areas are usually those who lack access to the natural resources: e.g. forest, fishing grounds, grassland, (e.g. Kremer 1994, Devereux 1996, Leach, Hearns and Sconnes, 1999).

Within the context of fisheries, this issue can be illustrated through the example of the Fisheries Enhancement Programmes (FEP) initiated in the 1990s in Bangladesh. These FEP were carried out with the double objective: of (i) mitigating fish resources over-exploitation; and (ii) poverty reduction for the poorest (landless) households which largely depend on these resources to sustain their livelihoods. For a majority of them, these FEPs have been technically successful and there is little discussion that fish production increases in the enhanced water-bodies (see for instance Welcomme and Bartley, 1998. Ali and Islam, 1998. Cowx, 1999). There is, however, increasing evidence that at the same time these FEPs have partially or even totally failed to improve the food security and welfare of the poorest people (Ahmad et al. 1998, Apu and Middendrop 1998). The literature reveals in particular that the poorest, who could not invest in adequate fishing gears and fishing licenses (required to access the newly enhanced water-bodies) were totally excluded or only benefited from a very limited portion of the increased fish production (Bernacsek, 1994. Capistrano, Ahmed and Hossain, 1994). This example is particularly instructive because it clearly illustrates the point emphasized above, i.e. determining the value of a resource may be irrelevant, if people cannot access it.

It can further be argued that adequate policies and processes (e.g. effective management) of natural resources needs information about the people involved, and the ways in which people use natural resources to sustain their livelihoods. In other words, to make an appropriate decision regarding the management of a natural resource, one not only needs the economic value (albeit through the most comprehensive evaluation framework possible, such as the TEV), one also needs to know the contribution which this resource makes to livelihoods: who uses the resources? When? How?

The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) offers a useful framework to answer these different questions. In brief, SLA is a holistic and people-centred approach that attempts to capture and provide a means of understanding people’s livelihoods, and in particular the factors and processes which affect these livelihoods (DFID 2000a). The framework consists of five components: (1) the vulnerability context of the environment in which the communities under consideration operate; (2) the livelihood assets of these communities; (3) the Policies, Institutions and Processes (PIPs) which affect their lives and in particular their access to livelihood assets; (4) the livelihood strategies which the communities adopt; and (5) the outcomes they achieve or which they aspire. An important aspect of the SLA is its use in helping to understand the role of institutions (e.g. rules or norms) which appear to be so important in shaping the mechanisms which affect people’s access to the resource.

SLA is therefore a powerful tool which can provide the conceptual basis for:

the analysis of the causes of vulnerability - shocks and stresses in the economic, social and political context, trends, seasonality, fragility of natural resources, etc. - which affect the communities;

the assessment of the assets, at the individual, household or community levels, comprising human, social, economic, physical and natural resource assets;

the description of the context within which livelihoods evolve - policies at both micro- and macro-levels; civil, economic and cultural institutions, both formal and informal; the nature of governance and its processes at all levels in society;

the identification of people’s livelihood strategies, including, but not restricted to, consumption, production and exchange activities; and

the evaluation of the resulting livelihood outcome, assesses multidimensionally in terms of food and other basic needs security, greater sustainability of the natural resource base, reduced vulnerability and increased income.

In summary the value of such a framework is to encourage analysts to take a broader and systematic view of the factors that affect people’s livelihoods - whether these are shocks and adverse trends, poorly functioning institutions and policies, or a lack of assets - and to investigate the relations between them. It does not take a sectoral view, but tries to recognize the contribution made by all the sectors to building up the stocks of assets upon which people draw to sustain their livelihoods. It is important, however, to keep in mind that this SLA is, and remains, a conceptual framework. It is not an assessment technique per se.

4.5.2 Livelihood analysis in practice

As mentioned earlier, water is a multi-use/multi-user resource. This characteristic induces a certain number of important methodological constraints. In particular, the intricacy of activities characterizing the livelihood strategies of the large majority of fishing households - cf Fig.2 (c) - implies that mono-sectoral approaches disaggregating and considering these uses as separated activities (e.g. fisheries on one hand, and agriculture on the other) are not appropriate. To evaluate more correctly the exact contribution of these activities and their complementarities more integrated (holistic), assessment analyses are needed where the different sectors of the local economy would be viewed together as a joint production activity.

The survey techniques and methods required for those trans-sectoral socio-economic valuations already exist. They have been tested and applied for many years in other domains (e.g. agro-pastoral, agro-forestry systems) and their respective methodological and analytical strengths and weaknesses are well documented (e.g. DFID 1998). Usually a combination of participatory and non-participatory (passive) techniques is required. Those methods are either qualitative or quantitative in nature, based on verbal or visual, rapid or in-depth interviews/data collection. They can be developed as case studies or relying on larger-scale surveys. They are usually designed and implemented by multidisciplinary teams. There is no one unique ‘recipe’ or best methodological combination. The only central condition is that they must be trans-sectoral and holistic. Some of them are presented in Table 3 below but the list is not exhaustive.

Finally, to sum up this discussion, the different techniques and approaches which have been briefly described in this section are recalled in Figure 5. Altogether, these different, but complementary approaches constitute an overall framework which can be applied for the valuation to fisheries and aquatic resources within a multi-use/multi-user context.

Table 3. Types of socio-economic techniques susceptible to be used in fishery-livelihood analysis.

Type of analysis / assessment

Data collection techniques

Wealth ranking
Income-expenditure survey
Food Security assessment
Institutional analysis
Stakeholder analysis
Conflicts analysis
Ethnic analysis
Gender analysis
Natural Resource accessibility analysis
Multi-sectoral Activity Analysis
Household survey
Activity ranking
Seasonal Calendar
Oral histories

Verbal/Visual / Analytic
Rapid Appraisal/In-depth survey
Case study/Large-scale survey


The last section of this paper addresses the particular issue of “fishery as a last resort activity” for the poor. Basically the idea conveyed by this hypothesis is that fisheries, due to their open or semi-open nature, offer an alternative activity to people (individuals, or communities) when other economic activities fail to provide adequate economic support, or when these people are economically or institutionally denied the access to other activities. Through this mechanism, fisheries are assumed to offer “pro-poor” socio-economic support to the most deprived (e.g. the landless).

The objective of the section is not to provide any definite answer to whether or not fishery does fulfil this role of “activity of last resort”, but simply to highlight the complexity of the issue and to offer some preliminary elements of reflection for further investigation. It should also be noted that the question is addressed here mainly from a theoretical/conceptual point of view, although reference to empirical evidence is made in the first part of the section.

Figure 5. Valuation techniques for aquatic resources within a multi-use context.

5.1 A wide consensus across the literature

The first point to notice is that the “last resort activity” hypothesis has received a large consensus in the fishery literature. Table 4 is a collation of quotes from articles and documents which explicitly report the occurrence of this mechanism in small-scale fisheries. The table illustrates the great extent to which this role has been emphasized, especially in developing countries over the last two decades.

Table 4. Fisheries as the “last resort for the poorest”*

(chronological order)


Panayotou 1980, p.145

“Open access fisheries (as well as other natural resources of similar status) often serve as safety valves for population pressures and as source of subsistence and cash income for those who by virtue of their poverty have little or no access to other sources of income”

Panayotou 1982, p.30
(see also footnote 32 p.27)

“There is considerable evidence that coastal fishing is an economic activity of last resort. For example Pollnac & Sutinen (1979) report that in East Africa “fishing is viewed as the employment of last resort ... people fish when farming is not feasible”... Yet another example is found in Cordell (1973) who reports that in Northeast Brazil labourers released from coconut plantations took up canoe fishing for lack of better alternatives...”

Bailey & Jentoft, 1990, p.337 and p.341

“The open access nature of fishery resources and the ease with which people can enter a fishery with limited experience or capital investment, means that there are few obstacle to seeking a livelihood at sea.... The role of fisheries as employment source of last resort underscores the importance of employment generation...” “... ocean fisheries function as a society valve for surplus labour ...”

FAO 1994, p.7

“Marine fisheries typically are the employer of last resort. Fishers who do not own the boats on which they work are reported to feel a general sense of hopeleness and despair regarding opportunities for upward mobility”.

Machena & Kwaramba 1997, p.245

“The worsening economic climate in the country is also a strong contributory factor to the crisis. Fishing is often described as an ‘activity of the last resort’. Entry into the gillnet fishery is easy compared to other economic ventures because of the low capital input requirements”.

Townsley 1998, p.142

“Indeed, aquatic resources in many parts of the world constitute a resource of ‘last resort’. Open access fisheries and other forms of aquatic resource use are fall-back options for the rural poor when loss of land or failure in access to other rural activities threaten their livelihoods”.

Paynes 2000, p.1

“[Fishery] is often one of the few livelihoods open to the landness and often becomes the default livelihood”.

FAO 2000, point 5

“Small scale and subsistence fisheries have often been denoted as ‘employers of the last resort’ implying that people enter open access fisheries when they are unable to make a living in other sectors”.

* In this table only references are quoted which use explicitly the terms “last resort” or “safety valve”, not those which mention or describe this mechanism but do not use the two key-terms (for those, see for instance van Zalinge, Thuok and Seang Tana (1998) or Degen and Thuok (1998) for the rural populations in Cambodian floodplains after Pol Pot times, Beck and Gosh (2000) for the populations living on the Bank of the river Matla (India), Gutkind (1989) for the Fante (Ghana) and Jul-Larsen (1994 for the Xwala (Benin) for population during the development of the West-African coastal fisheries in the 1950s and 1960s, Dia (1998) for the cephalopod fisheries in Mauritania in the 1990s, etc. (source Béné, 2003)

5.2 A combination of two different mechanisms

A more in-depth analysis, however, highlights that this pro-poor capacity of small-scale fisheries to sustain poor people results in fact from the combination of two distinct mechanisms:

Those two mechanisms (Table 5) are detailed in the following paragraphs.

5.2.1 The “redistributive” dimension

The assumption of redistributive capacity is based on the empirical observation that fishing activities usually make up a larger share of the poor people’s subsistence and income bases than for the better-off households. This heavier reliance on fisheries activities by the poor can, itself, be explained by the combination of two mechanisms.

(A) A compensating effect offered by the semi-open or communal access which usually characterizes fishery resources. In situations of (economically or institutionally) restricted access to other capital (e.g. financial capital, such as credit) or production factors (such as, private land) the supposedly relatively easy/free access to fishing grounds allows the poor to rely more heavily on the local common resources to obtain/extract the goods and services they need to sustain their livelihoods.

Although the compensating effect is observed in a significant number of situations, its occurrence depends on a stringent condition that Leach and Mearns (1991, p.10) termed the “environmental entitlements”, i.e. the “combined outcome of: (a) the level/quantity of environmental resource bundles that people have command over as a result of their ownership, their own production, or their membership of a particular social or economic group; and (b) their ability to make effective use of those resource bundles”. Evidence suggests that the fulfilment of these two conditions is far from being systematic for the poorest part of rural communities - as will be emphasised below - and some scholars even argue that the effective occurrence of the environmental entitlement hypothesis for the poor is in fact an exception rather than the general rule (e.g. Devereux 1996).

(B) An income share effect: Other things being equal, the relatively lower total incomes of the poor makes it mathematically easier for fishery-related activities to represent a greater share of their total earnings[10]. It is therefore unsurprising that for a majority of rural poor families, fishing-related activities do represent a large part of their incomes.

Combined, these two mechanisms (the compensating effect and the high share in poor households’ income) explain why rural poor may appear to depend more heavily on fishery-derived activities than better-off households. Based on this, the fishery sector is therefore very often perceived and presented as a fundamental element of rural economy upon which poor people facing chronic (long-term) destitution can rely to sustain their livelihood. For several decades, a large number of national governments or bi-lateral or international donor agency poverty-reduction programmes have been based on this perception (e.g. DFID 2000b). It should (or could) then be raised the question: to what extent the relative failure of some of these programmes is related to this initial hypothesis?

5.2.2 The safety-net dimension

The second element that contributes to this perception of “fishery as a last resort employer for the poorest” is that fishery also appears to play a fundamental role as a “safety-net” element for people in case of contingency. This is the replacement effect. When rural or urban household-head looses his/her wage-based job, when farm crops fail, or when the entire local - or even national - economy collapses, the fishery sector very often represents additional or alternative sources of income, food and/or employment which can help the household to reduce the impact of the crisis. For instance Machena and Kwaramba (1997) reported how the fishery of the Lake Kariba played this role of safety-net during the mid-1990s.

“... The worsening economic climate in the country is also a strong contributory factor to [this]... People who are threatened by poverty easily find their way into fishing. Economic development opportunities in the areas around Lake Kariba are limited. People are basically agrarian despite the fact that agriculture frequently fails because of a hot and dry climate. During particularly dry years, the situation gets desperate, driving people into the fisheries. ... Fishing is often described as an ‘activity of the last resort’. Entry into the gillnet fishery is easy compared to other economic ventures because of the low capital input requirements” (p.245-46)

Civil or military wars, population displacements or natural disasters are also events which may drive entire populations to (re)turn to common property resources (and in particular fisheries) to palliate the loss of their regular source of livelihoods.

Table 5 summarizes the different points highlighted in the analysis. It shows how the two mechanisms which the hypothesis of fishery as a last resort activity relies on, act upon diverse dimensions of poverty - the redistributive dimension acting as a positive counterbalance against chronic (long-term) poverty while the safety-net capacity is used by the poor as a ‘cushion’ against short-term vulnerability.

Table 5: Mechanisms contributing towards the perception of fishery as a critical livelihood support (activity of last resort) for poor and / or vulnerable households.

Pro-poor mechanisms



Poverty reduction effect /
contribution to livelihood

dimension /

Redistributive dimension of fisheries: the contribution of fishery for poor livelihoods appears higher than for non-poor.

Compensating effect: while denied access to other capitals and production factors, the poor rely more heavily on fishery-related activities to sustain their livelihoods.

Environmental entitlements of the poor i.e.
· availability of the resource bundles that people have command over (as a result of their ownership, their own production, or their membership of a particular social or economic group).
· ability of these households to make effective use of those resource bundles.

Fisheries providing

Subsistence products and material (food, water, fodder, etc.).

Income (through employment, self-employment, trade/commerce activities).

Ex-ante strategy against long-term (chronic) poverty

Usually households unable to maintain a minimum living standard with the resource at their disposal.

Income share effect *:
the lower total income of the poor makes it easier for fishery-derived revenues to make up a high share of the total income.

No assumption

Safety-net capacity of fisheries: fishery provides alternative and/or additional source of support in case of crisis.

Replacement effect: In situation of temporary crisis (collapse or cutback of the regular livelihood support), fisheries can provide activities and materials to replace or complement the deficient support. **

Environmental entitlements of the vulnerable households: points (a) and (b) as above.

Fisheries providing

Mainly subsistence products and material (food, water, fodder, etc.).

Possibly complementary income (through temporary self-employed activity, pretty trading).

Ex-post reaction against transient poverty / Short-term vulnerability

Vulnerable households may or may not be above the “poverty line” initially but face risks to their livelihoods which could drop them below the line.

Notes: * The income share effect does not effectively participate as such to poverty reduction. It actively contributes to the perceived “redistributive” dimension of fisheries -see text for details.

** If the fishing sector becomes a permanent source of subsistence products or income, the safetynet role has been transformed into a chronic redistributive mechanism.

The table also shows that these two mechanisms are based on distinguishable effects which operate under different circumstances and affect different types of households. These effects may, however, complement and reinforce each other, generating this overall and confusing impression of pro-poor activity. Underpinning this perception is the assumption of “environmental entitlement”, namely that fisheries are easily accessed by the poor.

5.3 A need for further research

Although this mechanism of activity of last resort may occur in a large number of circumstances in both inland and marine fisheries (as suggested by the list in Table 4), an increasing number of empirical studies question this assumption and emphasize that fishing can also, in other circumstances, be a powerful means of wealth differentiation and further marginalization of the poor. In the Chari Delta in Chad for instance, a recent fishery livelihood analysis showed that fishing contributes the largest proportion of income to the richest households and remains relatively inaccessible to the poorest. Those poorest households who lack fishing gears and have access only to marginal and low-productive water-bodies, must find alternative activities as their main source of income, and in this case, the study reveals that the households mainly rely on woodcutting. In these areas, it seems therefore that woodcutting plays the role of last resort for the poorest, while in contrast fishing activities are a key-element of the livelihoods of the richest households (Béné et al. 2003b).

This situation where the poorest seem to be excluded from the fisheries has been already described in other parts of Africa. In the Nguru-Gashua wetland in North Nigeria, Neiland et al. (1997, p.300) observed for instance that “the richest fishers are those with ownership and access rights, whereas the poorest fishers are marginalized or excluded entirely from the most productive fisheries”. In Bangladesh, which is a typical example of developing country where fisheries are usually presented as a fundamental safety valve sector for the poorest and landless, Kremer (1994) found that in some areas it was the poorest people who were denied access to the floodplain areas supporting the most productive fisheries. He concluded:

Access to the fishery is effectively an asset. Being both scarce and unequally distributed it confers economic benefits upon fishermen, but to some more than others. ... In brief one should reconsider the popular romantic view that the floodplain is “an open access resource, open to anyone with a net” (Majumder and Durante 1993, p.1) and therefore a resource of last resort for the poorest of the poor. The most productive parts of the floodplain are gradually being privatized and territorial control over the rest has been established according to a community’s relative power” (Kremer 1994, p.9).

In summary, it seems that the question of whether or not fisheries do act as an “activity of last resort” for the poorest may not be clear-cut and deserves further investigation. From the analysis above, it also appears that both theoretical (conceptual) and empirical works are required in this domain if we wish to address this issue in a more comprehensive way, and provide relevant policy recommendations for poverty alleviation in fisheries. At the present time, too much confusion between the different elements that contribute to this mechanism prevents a correct evaluation. The design of an analytical framework is first required that should help decompose and analyse the different mechanisms at work and their potential roles in poverty alleviation. Once it is conceptualized, this framework could then be applied to empirical case-studies through a large-scale research programme. The following list of questions provides some preliminary guideline for further research:


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[2] This part is derived from an initial analysis proposed by MRAG (2001).
[3] In this document subsistence refers to an economic system adopted by households primarily organized around a domestic mode of production which depends heavily on natural resource harvesting and mainly geared towards home-consumption (i.e. not commercialised and therefore not income-generating).
[4] For illustration Kremer (1994) calculated that in the floodplains adjoining the River Meghna in North-east Bangladesh, during the receding season, the richer fishing households using very efficient and costly fishing techniques catch 2.5 times more fish by weight per household than their poorer counterparts.
[5] For illustration, in Cambodia where the fisheries of the Tonle Sap Lake has been estimated to support more than 1.2 million people, a recent FAO study revealed that in the year 2000, 80 percent of the dry season shoreline of the lake was controlled by only 18 men (Evans 2003).
[6] In 1993, IUCN started a rehabilitation project in the area. The main objective was the restoration of the flooding area to a level close to the pre-dam conditions. This was to be achieved by the opening of the dyke at two different locations in 2000.
[7] Even if the study by Neiland et al (1994) was conducted years before the formal SLA framework was developed, these authors had already recognized the necessity to adopt a multi-sectoral approach.
[8] For illustration, an in-depth assessment of the social and economic values of the inshore and deltaic fishing activities operated by the local populations of the Delta and Bayelsa states in Nigeria is unlikely to have any impact on the actual status quo, unless this information is placed within the wider context of the Nigerian national economic development priorities (and in particular, the oil-revenue issue).
[9] Sen’s main conclusion, based on the empirical observation that people can starve to death in the midst of food, is that it is the people’s entitlement to the resource (in this case, food), rather the abundance of this resource, which is the key factor to explain famine.
[10] For illustration, let us assume two households (a poor and a non-poor) who derive the same amount (e.g. US$2 per day) from fishing activities. If the daily total income of the first household is US$4 p.d. while the revenue of the second is US$10 p.d., this means that fishing corresponds respectively to 50 and 20 per cent of the households’ total daily revenues.
[11] The Goal No.1 of the Millennium Development document (voted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2000) is “Poverty and hunger eradication” through Target No.1 = reduce by half the number of people living below the poverty line of USD1 per day, and Target No.2 = reduce by half the number of people suffering from hunger by 2015. The Goal No.7 and in particular its target No.9 is to integrate the principle of sustainable development in country policies and reverse the loss of environmental resources.

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