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by Margarita Lizarraga
Permanent Representation of Mexico to FAO
Viale Pasteur 65, 00144 Rome, Italy


Aquaculture activities in Latin America with the exclusive aim of production are relatively new. In many countries pre-hispanic antecedents of aquaculture exist, such as the handling of wild stocks in ponds or in fixed constructions, or interventions which can be considered as forms of extensive management. Until the end of the last century, the interest of scientists from institutes and universities in aquaculture in Latin America was known through bibliographic compilations or experiences and observations abroad. Many European technologies were described, and between 1872 and 1884 several species, like trout and carp, were introduced and schemes proposed for farming development.

For the last fifty years interest has been renewed in aquaculture in Latin America and further introductions of technology and species have increased. Aquaculture now occupies a place in the national development strategies of a number of countries, with respective plans, programmes, and legislation. This has produced encouraging results and allowed rapid development of the sector within a short time.

In aquaculture, and all other sectors of development, the situation of women in rural zones in Latin America is in evolution, with many differences from one country to another. This is partly due to advances in agrarian reform models, and also to many programmes concerned with economic advancement and employment of women.

Data collected directly and/or confirmed by Information from the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) and other organizations (United Nations, 1976; FAO, 1979c) indicate that Latin America has the lowest participation of women in rural activities (17% compared with an average of 52% world-wide). The reasons are the low salary of the family, the large size of the family, the absence or presence of a male head of the family, the size of the family plot of land, the organization of culture, etc. These have determined renewed requests to complement the family's salary, the capacity of the female working force, the possibility of access to credit schemes, and other conditions. As a consequence of measures taken to provide these incentives there have been rapid and positive responses.

It is important to point out the adverse economic conditions which the region is experiencing. The burden of external debt, and fluctuations of international markets for basic and other commodities, all add to the problems of the countries at the production level, particularly the lack of credit and high cost of labour. All these factors stress the regional phenomenon of women migrating to the cities in search of employment, aggravating the problem of excessive urbanization. Therefore, urgent measures are needed to allow women to remain in the country with the opportunity for employment which will gratify their role in the family and in society.

Quantifying the role of women in an activity not yet consolidated (in this case aquaculture) results in what is a difficult analysis, as the development of the sector is still new and continuously advancing. However, the following analysis of women's participation in aquaculture production considers three types of activity. The first in many ways parallels that of agriculture and animal husbandry in general, as rural-level aquaculture is an integrated part of all development in Latin American countries. Other forms of industrial aquaculture make up the second. Work of this kind is more technical and intensive. Other supporting forms of aquaculture, the third, include production activities such as government-owned hatcheries or research and training centres where the role of women is extremely important.

For the analysis information has been sought from various sources in each country. Although in most cases the answers received from government organizations responsible for aquaculture gave valid information on the state of aquaculture in the country, few answers referred to the role of women. Those which did referred to it imprecisely.


In Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile rural aquaculture is still in the research and development phase, or at the pre-industrial development level (Pedini Fernandez-Criado, 1984). Women are reportedly not taking any part in these activities. On the coast of Chile, for example, women participate among a force of 11 000 individuals collecting algae, and among 1 000 individuals collecting molluscs. This has led to the need for re-stocking and culture by the government as well as by private enterprise. Women are taking part in the collecting, processing (cleaning or stripping off the shells), other post-harvest industrial activities, and in marketing. They are also working in trout farms, and in the Chilean and Argentinian lakes which have been re-stocked with trout and other valued species. Women participate in harvesting only occasionally, but it is certain that they work in processing and marketing.

In Peru and Bolivia participants in agrarian reform schemes include women, but without remuneration for their work. In the Andes, women participate in aquaculture and fisheries, harvesting as well as post-harvest handling and marketing. In projects for trout culture in cages, women participate in construction, feeding, and maintenance. In rural pond farming, which has developed through international assistance projects, women participate in the management of ponds and feeding the fish. They are involved also in harvest and post-harvest handling, even though the present level of development is at a subsistence level.

In Brazil rural aquaculture is more advanced. Many programmes and a high level of organization by farmers have permitted greater development of aquaculture. There is evidence that in continental fisheries with certain aquacultural components, women participate in a proportion of about 20% in harvesting, and almost equally in post-harvest handling and marketing as well as in manufacturing and repairing of fishing gear. Post-harvest handling in the rural environment in Latin America is generally limited to evisceration and preservation on ice (when ice is available), or cured and/or smoked.

With the development of pond farming, particularly in northeast Brazil, cooperatives and other groups have been organized with a view to obtain credit and exploit land and water rights. Within these groups are women who, in general, are the heads of the family. In the same way, in land-and-cattle projects aquaculture is promoted more and more. Fish ponds are integrated and managed by groups or individually by the intended beneficiaries. If the ponds are close to living quarters, or if the property belongs to the women or to the family, women will take care of the husbandry and management of the pond, and will participate in harvesting. If production is organized by groups or cooperatives, the marketing is also organized; and if preparation for cold-storage or semi-industrial storage is needed, women will take part in these activities. No accurate figures on women's participation for these projects in Brazil are available, but estimates indicate that around 1 500 women may be involved at the production level.

In Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador several inland-area projects executed through international technical assistance include fishpond production with plant and animal husbandry. The majority of these projects operate at subsistence level, but others are at pilot or pre-commercial scale. In all three countries women participate, particularly as they are motivated to improve nutrition for their families. In projects where women manage the ponds these are better kept and give higher yields. The numbers of women involved are still low. Perhaps less than a hundred women are involved in each project. The Villavicencio project in Colombia involves small-scale commercial production of colossomids, and credit has been made available to farmers through the project itself. One effect of the project has been the growing participation of women. More women have been attending the meetings than men and, in some cases, have received credit for their own enterprises (Martinez Espinoza, 1986).

In Panama aquaculture development is undergoing definite expansion. The position of women is equal to that of men due to the agrarian reforms for the distribution of land and social organization. Aquaculture projects in Panama are generally at a semi-intensive level, expanding mainly in marginal areas with production aimed at self-consumption as well as national and international trade. At the present time more than 1 000 fish farms exist with a variety of manually-constructed ponds. They are used in integrated agro-aquaculture schemes, which include reafforestation with fruit trees for wood production, and integrated farming with pigs, chicken, ducks, rabbits, goats, and cattle. In general, agriculture is the prime activity, and by-products and residues are used to feed the fish. In the same way vegetables are planted at the lower levels of the pond to take advantage of the water and to minimize wind erosion. Production through integrated farming and polyculture generally includes tilapia, carp, colossomids, freshwater prawns, and other species.

Recently further expansion has taken place in agro-aquaculture in Panama with the support of credit schemes. Some 650 women in the rural environment are dedicated to aquaculture production, supported by some 50 women at the technical level, among whom are biologists, nutritionists, extension workers, and other specialists.

In Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala there are several semi-intensive production programmes associated with external assistance food projects. Others are managed with credit obtained under integrated rural development schemes. These include ponds managed by families or cooperatives. Active participation of women, at least on a part-time basis, is recorded. As development in these countries is recent, it is probable that participation is limited to about one hundred women in each country. Special mention is made, however, of the way in which women have adapted to this type of activity and by the fact that, when their participation is remunerated, production is increased.

In El Salvador the Quezalapa project is managed exclusively by women. According to the extension agents, this project has fewer problems and operates more efficiently than other similar projects. The success of the project is attributed to its profitability. Although tilapias are harvested every three weeks for home consumption, tilapia fingerlings are sold for cash income. The principal market for the fingerlings is the tilapia cage culture project in Ilopango (Martinez Espinoza, 1986).

In Guatemala nearly 600 small ponds have been constructed in recent years by the Peace Corps and governmental technical assistance. The ponds are managed on subsistence and semi-commercial levels. Tilapias are harvested for home consumption and surpluses are sold in local markets. Women are responsible for the daily management and feeding of these ponds while the men are primarily responsible for pond construction and harvest.

In Mexico the role of women in the rural environment and the development of aquaculture is of utmost importance. Agrarian reforms applied through development programmes for rural integration are now in full expansion. At present, a programme for the development of 126 projects in 6 States of the Republic is being implemented; where agro-industrial farms exist the objective is to integrate women and the family in general. Within this programme 18 aquaculture production units are already in operation with more than 300 women members; at least another 500 are still to join in both aquacultural fisheries and activities in ponds and small barrages located on communal land. Aquaculture production models are at three levels, namely extensive, semi-intensive, and intensive. Models are similar to those described for Brazil and Panama, with rural integration varying according to climate and activities integrated with land and animal husbandry. In addition to the native species previously mentioned, catfish are reared in monoculture and in polyculture, as well as some local species (striped mojarra fish, black bass, whitefish). An important element in polyculture programmes is the use of waterlilies, aquatic plants which cause bio-fouling in lakes and hydro-electric projects. In polyculture farms, waterlilies are harvested and fermented, and used in combination with other ingredients as fodder for pigs; in turn, their waste is used to fertilize the ponds.

There are a number of programmes designed for women in the rural environment in Mexico. For example, in the State of Morelos there is a cooperative with 30 rural women occupied in producing 20 tonnes of tilapia, running a self-sufficient fry production unit, feeding and cleaning ponds, and harvesting and marketing; in the State of Colima three units are in operation and two are being constructed for the production of tilapia, carps and freshwater prawns; and in the State of Tlaxcala 16 units for polyculture with carps have been developed for integration with agricultural schemes.

In Cuba, much aquaculture activity is concerned with developing culture-based fisheries in reservoirs. Fingerlings of various species are released each year. A start has been made with the construction of ponds for integrated farming, even though the sites are limited as the major part of agricultural land is cultivated with sugar-cane. Participation by women is reported to be the same as that of men but no accurate figures can be obtained.


Industrial aquaculture, as described at the beginning of this document to differentiate it from rural aquaculture programmes, although commercial in character, includes activities operated by individuals or groups (cooperatives). These activities are technologically more advanced and require substantial capital investment. Industrial aquaculture includes production at an intensive and semi-intensive level. In some cases only part of the process is intensive, such as semi-intensive production of fingerlings before transfer to intensive systems, such as cages, ponds, and raceways.

Development of industrial aquaculture is more recent in Latin America and the participation of women has not been established. There is some evidence that, because of their meticulous attention to handling the initial life-stages of organisms under culture, women are proving to be ideal for this technical and manual work.

In Argentina, industrial production is confined to farming rainbow trout. There are 13 private hatcheries employing 11 technicians of whom only one is a woman (Pedini Fernandez-Criado, 1984). No mention is made of women involved in other hatchery operations.

In Chile the participation of women on farms which produce coho salmon, oysters, mussels, and algae, is well known, but no numbers are available. There is an indication that there are 390 authorizations (including individuals, firms, institutions, etc.) at this level of the industry, but no specific mention of women.

In Brazil prawn culture has expanded following experiments in Rio Grande do Norte to make use of salt-flats which have been abandoned. Presently several individual enterprises and groups are exploiting this system. In the post-larval hatchery stage, participation by women in the farms is about 30% among technical and support personnel. Every unit consists of 10 to 15 persons depending on production capacity. This accounts for about 50 women at this level. This number may increase as the projects expand into grow-out phases of shrimp farming.

Shrimp cultivation in Peru has developed semi-intensively, as post-larvae are captured from wild stocks and are then fattened in tanks. Women's participation has not been reported in production, except in governmental technical support in which one or two women biologists are taking part.

Ecuador and Panama are currently the largest producers of cultivated shrimps. The initial expansion has been achieved by fattening wild stocks of post-larvae in ponds built particularly in the low-lying coastal areas. Following conflicts with artisanal and industrial fisheries, farmers have begun to work with the hatchery-reared post-larvae. In these projects participation by women is of the order of 30-35%, which is approximately 50 women. In the grow-out process there are no accurate records. It appears that women work on a part-time basis as on most farms there is only supplemental feeding to do. About 150 women may work in production in both countries.

Within the shrimp industry, women participate most in post-harvest handling, particularly shelling and/or packing and freezing of shrimp for export. No exact figures are available but there could be approximately 200 in Ecuador and 100 in Panama.

In El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala there are farms which produce both freshwater and marine shrimp. In coastal areas cultivation is carried out partly by collecting wild post-larvae and partly by intensive hatchery production with foreign participation. The role of women is again mostly limited to processing (cleaning, washing, peeling, and packing). There are about 40 women working part-time in production in these countries.

In Mexico the cultivation of shrimp is expanding due to legislative changes defined in a new fisheries law. Increases in both types of cultivation are projected and new hatcheries are being installed. As the level of participation of women at technical levels is high, women may in the future form 50% of the work force in the centres producing seed. In the next 10 years this could provide 500 jobs. The shrimp processing industry currently employs more than 5 000 women. A further 3 000 women may be added to this number due to the projected expansion.

Another important industrial activity in the Latin American countries is the culture of molluscs (oysters, mussels, and clams). As with shrimp, the practice is to collect seed from wild stocks and reinforce supplies with hatchery resources propagated under controlled conditions using skilled labour. It is precisely because of these requirements that a high proportion of female labour is used (FAO, 1986a). In the grow-out stages female labour is also used, and women participate in processing (cleaning and shucking) and in marketing.

Although data on the participation of women in the production of molluscs cannot be obtained, the industry is expanding in Chile, and to a lesser extent in Argentina, Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela. Probably some 200 women in Chile and 100 in Argentina and Brazil are working in this field. Peru is still at a pre-commercial stage, and Venezuela has small-scale production with possibly 10-20 women involved.

In Mexico there are 5 industrial plants for seed production of molluscs, where about 30 women work at technical and support levels. In the manufacture of collectors about 800 women participate during certain months of the year, as well as in processing and marketing. The exploitation and cultivation of oysters is reserved for cooperatives. The extensive and semi-extensive cultivation of oysters has been practised for more than 20 years but, except in rare cases, women form part of an existing cooperative and the work is paid at piece rate. At present women are active members of many cooperatives, and there are two cooperatives composed exclusively of women in Sonora in the North East of Mexico.

In Cuba the production of oysters in hatcheries is increasing and there is almost equal participation of women in the industry.


In most countries the role of women in support units (hatcheries and research centres) is of great importance, or is beginning to be so. In contrast to other regions, where aquaculture has been a traditional occupation in the private sector, in Latin America the governments, local universities, and research centres have developed or adopted aquaculture technologies, and adapted them to local conditions. Furthermore, they continue to promote and provide support for aquacultural activities.

In the last 30 years women have been increasing their participation in the aquaculture sector in Latin America. This has been achieved in part by the opportunity for careers in marine biology, oceanography, and other fishery sciences and, in so far as national policies have allowed, by the infrastructure (research centres, hatcheries and other support services) for aquaculture production.

This paper focuses on those centres which provide support for production, in particular the production of fingerlings in hatcheries and development centres. An estimate of the number of women employed in production activities in Latin American countries is given in Table 1.


In most Latin American countries there is great Interest in developing aquaculture. Aquaculture has significant economic potential and it can be integrated readily into rural activities. The development of aquaculture in Latin America is limited mainly by the high initial investment, the lack of credit, the reliable supply of fingerlings, and the support of extension services.

The economic situation in Latin America is complex at the present time, but most countries are investing in aquaculture with great determination. They are negotiating credits with the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and with national banks. At the same time they are reinforcing their existing government support services, particularly for the rural and social sectors, and opening up and encouraging private investment.

Table 1. Estimates of numbers of women employed in production facilities, by country

Number of Production Facilities (hatcheries)

Women in Workforce (%)

Estimate of Number of Women in Production Facilities



Technical level























El Salvador








































Sources: Pedini Fernandez-Criado, 1984; personal communications

The FAO Regional Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean held in Barbados (FAO, 1986a) revealed that there was significant development in the participation of women in rural areas. Although the following estimates are without documented evidence to support them, it is probable that in Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and Panama the number of women employed in aquaculture production is counted in thousands; in Chile, Colombia, Cuba, and Nicaragua it may be about one thousand; and in Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras the number is between 100 and 500.


I would like to recognize many individuals who provided personal communications about the activities of women in aquaculture in the region; in particular, Laura Luchini, Argentina; Roberto Cabezas Bello, Chile; Florecita del M. del Valle, Guatemala; Ricardo Juarez Palacio, Mexico; Ma. Amanda del Carmen C., Nicaragua; Richard Pretto Malca, Panama; Enrique Sanchez Vazquez, Peru; and Juan Jose Salaya A., Venezuela.

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