Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page


Niaz Ahmed Apu and Hans A.J. Middendorp
Oxbow Lakes Small Scale Fishermen Project, DANIDA Technical Assistance
Jessore 7400, Bangladesh


This paper takes up the promotion of self-management of oxbow lake fisheries that have been enhanced in a number of ways. Self-management is placed in the context of the political and socio-economic history of the area. Steps along the way to self-management included establishment of a Common Property Regime and legal rights to exploit resources by Lake Fishing Teams via Lake Management Groups that depended on tenurial reform. It is concluded that long-term security of tenure for the individual as well as for groups in order to realise the gains on their investment is the most important factor in establishing self-management in culture-based fisheries."


1.1 Oxbow Lakes

An oxbow lake (baor) is a dead section of a river, created when the river changed course. A baor normally is still part of the floodplain of the river, to which it is connected by inlets and outlets. By screening the inlets and outlets a baor can be converted into a culture-based fishery. A baor receives its nutrients from flood waters that flow into it, bringing fertiliser runoff, animal manure and other organic matter.

Oxbow lakes fall into the category of what is known as common property resources (CPR). Baors have two important characteristics. First, there are often many villages around a baor. Consequently, it is difficult to exclude the people living around a baor from drawing benefits from that baor. The benefits may be fish, either naturally grown or cultivated, or water for various uses, including irrigation. The ease with which the many users of a baor may draw upon it as a resource makes it difficult and costly to develop institutions which would prevent other users using it. “This invites people to use, even overuse, common property goods without investing in their conservation or management” (McKean and Ostrom, 1994). The resources of a baor, whether fish or water, can be depleted, which means that the resource harvested by one individual is not available to another.

Figure 1. Map of the Project area.

Figure 1.

The Oxbow Lakes Small Scale Fishermen Project (Second Phase: 1991–97) is executed by the Department of Fisheries (DoF) and BRAC with technical assistance from DANIDA and funded both by IFAD and DANIDA. There are 22 oxbow lakes in the project located in the south-western part of Bangladesh (Fig.1). The lakes range from 10 to 150 ha, with an average size of about 60 ha. There are one to seven villages on each oxbow lake.

1.2 Baor history

During the British colonial period the baors were part of the various zamindaris in the state of Bengal. With the abolition of zamindari by the 1950 Tenancy Act, agricultural lands were distributed to those below the zamindars while the baors were taken over by the state and placed under the Ministry of Land and were leased to private individuals through auction. Because the Hindu zamindars (who were largely upper caste) had migrated to India, the lower caste Hindu ex-employees of the zamindars and some Muslims, who were close to the local administration, were able to get the baors on lease. The professional fishermen employed to harvest the fish were given a maximum of 40% of the catch income, while the leaseholders retained the rest (Apu, Rahman and Islam, 1994).

In 1968 the DoF initiated the Development Management (DM) Scheme. The DoF engaged staff for managing the baors, clearing water hyacinth and stocking. The funds for these activities, however, came only from the fees realised from fishermen from fishing. This did not amount to much, and stocking levels remained very low.

The independence of Bangladesh in 1971 created many expectations among the people. The general mobilisation of people in the Liberation War was reflected after the war in the formation of co-operatives of fishermen. With the government policy at that time encouraging the formation of co-operatives of “genuine fishermen”, these co-operatives were able to take control of a number of baors, e.g. Nasti, Saster, Porapara, Benipur and Koikhali. However, these primary co-operatives found their own position too weak to defend their user rights or to undertake such operations as lake stocking. In the absence of effective formal supportive structures, control over the co-operatives was sometimes taken by those who could afford to do so; many societies actively invited relatively powerful individuals to join. In turn, for protection against other claimants to the lakes and for the provision of working capital, these supporters were to benefit through catch sharing arrangements. This unequal relationship soon led to abuses; by now in most cases members of fishermen co-operatives, the lawful leaseholders, are reduced to the equivalent of sharecroppers with the control over all the matters of lake management and marketing of catch in the hands of the patron (IFAD, 1988).

1.3 Initial steps in setting up the Common Property Regime

A Common Property Regime (CPR) involves shared management, return and labour by a clearly defined set of users, i.e. not “open access”, but group management. It is a form of private property, in that the right to withdraw benefits from the resource (from fishing in this case) is restricted to a definite set of people. But, unlike individual private property, in a Common Property Regime, the right to use a resource rests not with an individual but in a group of persons.

The group of persons given the legal right to use a baor for fishing has come to be known as a Lake Management Group (LMG). Until recently the LMG consisted only of the Lake Fishing Teams (LFTs), which have the right to culture and harvest fish in the baors. The average size of a LFT is about 100 persons and the range is from 25 to 300 persons. Parts of the baor are in the process of being excavated for fish ponds and new Fish Farmer Groups (FFGs), mainly composed of women, have been established for these parts of the baor and are all together be included in the LMGs. But the LMGs now consist mainly of the LFTs and it is their experiences which will be referred to and analysed in this article. The FFGs have existed for a short period of time and only some of their experiences will be analysed here.

1.4 Baor production

The fishers in OLP-II have shown their capacity and motivation to innovate both in management and technical matters. Decisions about stocking, timing, densities and species composition are all taken by the fishers and their committees. This requires them to know more about the baor, its water condition, suitability for different species, and so on, than mere catching of fish would have required. The fishers interact with the water and fish much more than any managers.

As a result, fisheries yields of stocked carps from the oxbow lakes (OLP-II) have increased from 129 kg/ha (1991–92) to 535 kg/ha (1995–96) which is 5 times the levels prior to OLP II intervention (Fig. 2). The fish production can rise further (expected 700–800 kg/ha) (Middendorp, Hasan and Apu, 1996).

Figure 2. Average combined yield of stocked Carps and miscellaneous fish.

Figure 2.

1.5 Objectives

The objective of the study is an analysis of the developments leading to functioning of fishers' groups self-management, i.e. common property regime in oxbow lake culture-based fisheries.


2.1 Security of tenure for the Lake Management Group

The establishment of the Lake Management Group (LMG) as a new institution was a tenurial reform. Security of tenure is a crucial requirement. A short lease is not conducive to investments that would mature over a period of time. Any fixed term lease (even for a period sufficient to allow the investment to mature) carries the danger that adequate maintenance of the facilities will not be carried out near the end of the term. Consequently, the resource will become overexploited and thus allowed to run down.

A system of security of tenure for the LMGs has been developed from the practice in OLP-II. Already in the IFAD-GOB loan agreement for OLP-II, which was signed in 1989, an indefinite tenure (lease) of the project baors was agreed upon. Translating this into administrative decisions involved transfer of the lakes as CPR from the Ministry of Land (MoL) to the DoF with approval of the fishers' list by the Thana and District Jalmahal Committee and adoption of by-laws by the fishers' groups. Presently, registration under the Societies Registration Act of the LMG is under process.

Table 1. Common Property Regime in OLP-II.

Sl. No.InstitutionInstrument
  1Ministry of LandNew fisheries management policy
  2Ministry of Fisheries and LivestockHandover of baor
  3Department of FisheriesLease and licence
  4District/Thana Jalmohal CommitteeList approval
  5Lake Management GroupBy-laws, legal registration
  6FisherFishing rule

2.2 User rights of fishers to exploit the baor for fishing

Establishing legal tenure is only the first step in securing user rights. User rights have to be actively secured on the ground. This, as anyone familiar with Bangladesh or most other Third World countries knows, is not always easy. Decisions taken at higher levels are often sabotaged by local influential persons in collusion with corrupt officials.

Establishing user rights involves both physical and legal aspects. The physical aspects relate to the demarcation of the baor area, while the legal aspects relate to the right of the project to displace former leaseholders and to exclude certain categories of persons from acquiring fishing rights. For example, in OLP-II, it took five years to bring 23 OLP-II baors fully under the CPR while there is still one baor under the control of the previous leaseholder (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Handover of baors and operation under CPR.

Figure 3.

2.3 User rights of fishers versus paddy cultivators

While the baor as a water body is distinct from the surrounding land, there are still many conflicts. The area covered by the baor varies considerably between the monsoon and the dry seasons. The area that dries up is used for paddy cultivation in winter. Legally this may also be government-owned (or khas) land. Before the initiation of intensive fish culture in oxbow lakes, this did not lead to problems. But since fish culture has raised the value of the baor as a resource, the cultivators of the dried up areas have in some cases claimed the areas as theirs, even in the period when they are under water. With this they have either insisted on their right to catch fish that come into the claimed lands, or sought compensation from LFTs for supposed damages to their rice crop caused by grass carp released by the LFTs in the baor. For instance, in 1993 the LFT of Marufdia baor paid Tk. 14,000 as compensation to a landowner who claimed that his paddy crop had been damaged by the grass carp.

2.4 Large-scale poaching by other rural poor

The question of controlling poaching is one of enforcing property rights. Initially therewas some justifiable scepticism in the minds of the rural poor about whether the Project would in fact be able to establish the property rights of the poor licensees. But when this could be seen to happen, there was increased demand to join the LFTs. With the poverty situation in the area, and the lack of sufficient opportunities to use one s labour in income-earning activities, there clearly would be pressures to increase membership. Also, because groups initially were small, fisheries benefits per person were relatively high. The pressures were manifested in the form of poaching, mass poaching at that. Villages that were left out of LFT membership or felt that they had too few members, and which have strategic locations around the baor, made their displeasure felt and brought pressure by poaching. This was in effect a way of telling the existing LFT and the Project that they would not be able to continue without paying attention to their demand for inclusion.

Figure 4. Poaching vs. Fishermen increase.

Figure 4.

Securing property rights is to secure the co-operation of the settlements around the baor. This is the logic behind the Project's attempt to replace the former auction, leaseholding system by that of licensing the poor fishermen. The social costs of guarding and establishing property rights are to be shared and spread among the members of the LFTs themselves. With members from all the villages around a baor, it will be possible to more effectively guard the fish and check attempts at poaching. Further, representation of a village in LFT membership is likely to secure the co-operation of not only the actual members but also of their shomaj (local community) and community in securing the rights of the LFT and of managing the baor as a common, indivisible resource. This is a form of ‘social fencing’, which reduces administrative costs and gives the CPR members the confidence that they can appropriate the returns from their investments. Considering the above facts, the project increased the number of fishermen from less than 1 per ha to more than 2 persons per ha which eliminated the mass poaching problem. (Fig. 4).

With regard to licensing (in open water capture fisheries, i.e. sections of rivers) one study (Toufique, 1994) questioned whether licensed fishermen, who would necessarily be poor, would be able to establish their rights “over a water body which is extremely rich in fish”. The author suggested that fishermen should be organised only in “the small and poorer water bodies”.


3.1 Necessity of incentives

In establishing a CPR there are two factors that need to be considered: the history of co-operation of the producers involved, and the setting up of incentives that foster co-operation. In Bangladesh village-level co-operation used to be organised under the leadership of the local elites, the village patrons. Initially the Hindu zamindars organised village-level celebrations of Hindu festivals, like Durga Puja, in which Muslims too participated. After independence from British colonial rule, the migration of Hindu zamindars to India and the rise of Islamic feelings, this tradition disappeared. The non-religious navanna (new rice or harvest festival), however, continued to be celebrated by the village, led by the new elites as patrons. Subsequently, after Bangladesh liberation from Pakistani rule, the rise of the NGOs weakened the patron-client links. The change in the agricultural pattern reduced the importance of the monsoon (transplanted aman) rice crop and increased the importance of the irrigated winter (boro) rice crop of hybrid varieties. With these changes the non-religious navanna festival also disappeared.

Two village-level institutions were supported until recently (i.e. until the 1970s) by the village as a whole. These were the mosque and the community school. The entry of Arab money for mosque and madrassa building from the late seventies onwards has put an end to the village role in maintaining these institutions, further weakening systems of co-operation, even if they are of the patron-client variety. But, while patron-client based co-operation weakened, no new forms of village-level co-operation have come up in its stead. NGO activity has been limited to organising small groups (usually 25 to 60 persons) in a village, and does not even draw all the village poor into its fold. The weakness of the NGO base at the village level was illustrated by the recent fundamentalist attacks on the BRAC non-formal primary education schools. The Islamic fundamentalists were able to mobilise village people in their opposition to women being taught in these schools, while those interested in the schools were not able to resist.

Among the poor in the areas that we are concerned with, only traditional Hindu fishers stood out with sustained collective activity. Fishing in the rivers and in closed water bodies was usually done in groups, often organised by the influential from their own community. They celebrated festivals like Durga Puja in a collective manner. Most important perhaps was the fact of being a minority, which held them, patrons and clients, together. A number of co-operatives, dominated by the elites, were formed to organise fishing activity.

At the village level, unity and co-operative activity existed for a short while - during the struggle for establishment of a Bangladeshi national identity and against Pakistani rule. But this period of co-operative activity was not followed by any sustained co-operation institutions in the post-liberation period.

3.2 Establishing incentives

Given the absence of a history of co-operative activity, it was particularly important to provide incentives that would foster co-operation and would penalise non-co-operative behaviour. The lakes were handed over to groups of persons: traditional fishermen and other ‘poor’ who lived around the baor. The incentive to co-operate lay in the access to a substantial resource, the lake, with the prospect of infrastructure work being undertaken by the project, along with the provision of credit for stocking.

Unlike the former leaseholders, the poor persons to whom the lakes were handed over could not hope to organise stocking and fishing activities on an individual basis; the only way they could hope to use the resource was as a group. This was the first and basic incentive to co-operate.

Initially there was just one rule: that the lakes were to be handed over to traditional fishermen and other poor who lived around the baors. There was a general notion that there should be equality among the members of the group. In the first two years of the project (1991 and 1992) there were no established rules of functioning. Credit was given to the group as a whole and was used to buy fingerlings and also gear, such as boats and nets. Equality was thought of as equality of access. But the traditional Hindu fishermen had a monopoly of knowledge of fishing, while the poor Muslims who entered into regular fishing for the first time had no knowledge of fishing as a group, either with seine nets (kochal) or with brush shelters (komar). In most baors the skilled traditional and some of the influential persons operated as separate groups. They caught and landed fish separately and monopolised the catch. The new unskilled fishermen were unable to counter this.

During the formation of a group among the poor the more outgoing among them will possess the knowledge and confidence to become leaders. They are the persons appointed by the NGO as leaders in the first year of functioning. When a proposal was made to hold elections in the second year, almost all the existing leaders opposed it, while the general members supported it. The project introduced a rule that a person could stand only once for election to a post. This was subsequently modified, and a person could not stand for election in successive terms. The non-consecutiveness of terms means that there would be at least two sets of persons in each LMG who would have knowledge of stocking, selling and dealing with officials, and who would watch and monitor each other's performance.

Thus, from observations in the initial years of the project (1991 and 1992) a set of conditions for membership was formulated in 1993:

3.3 Equity in income and cost sharing

Sharing of income is defined on the basis of the number of days a fisherman participates in fishing. After deducting 50% of a day s gross income for costs to be paid out of the central fund, the rest of the income is equally distributed among all those who participated in that day s fishing.

There was initial opposition from the established leaders of the groups that formed the Lake Fishing Teams (LFTs) and from some skilled fishermen to the Project s condition of equal sharing of a day s net income. Where there were few skilled fishermen, as in Hariharnagar or Porapara, they could not dominate the LFTs and readily accepted the equal sharing of income. Such skilled fishermen were distributed among the various LFTs. As a result there was no difference between the quantity caught by one team and another team.

In the case of naturally breeding non-carp fish, referred to as miscellaneous fish, in most baors only the licensed fishermen are now allowed to catch them. The LFTs do not permit others to catch miscellaneous fish, on the plea that it would be difficult for them to check if the persons were also poaching the stocked carp. But in some baors, like Nasti and Banderdah, they allow non-members to catch miscellaneous fish. This is a part of their social adjustment. Before the Project the leaseholders used to charge a fee for miscellaneous fishing rights. Where there were no effective property rights, anyone could catch fish.

Costs are shared proportionately to the income earned from carp fishing. These costs are initially paid for by loans - most often from BRAC, but in some cases from the fingerling suppliers, who provide fingerlings on credit. There is no individual contribution to costs from income. Rather, a portion of the sales income is deducted for meeting costs, before distributing income to the fishermen. Thus, there is no problem of collecting costs individually from the fishermen, something which might have led to attempts at free riding. In a sense, costs are met centrally, as would be the case in an enterprise.

The contribution to fishing labour is the basis for earning a share of fish income. So, labour costs in fishing are shared proportionately. There are, however, some other types of labour besides fishing. There is the labour of guarding the baor against poaching. This requires presence at night. In some baors, the LFTs have hired guards and pay them a wage. In other baors, the members themselves take turns at guarding. In the case of guarding done by the members themselves there have been cases of some members not being present for assigned duty. In one of the baors, there is a graduated fine to be paid by members absenting themselves from guard duty. But, in the case of Saster baor, some members who did not participate in guard duty were then prevented by other members from fishing. The other main contribution of labour is removing weeds from the baor for fish culture, which is also performed in the same way.

3.4 Monitoring by group members

Monitoring by group members is required with respect to the activities of the LFT Committees, which supervise the activities of stocking, harvesting, handling the LFTs cash and accounts, and distributing money to the fishermen. Monitoring of some type is carried out by the Project office and by BRAC. But this can not be done by these agencies on a day-to-day basis, nor do they have many instruments at their command to back up monitoring with the use of sanctions, other than the ultimate sanction of dropping someone from the list of licensed fishermen for violating the rules of the Project.

In the beginning there were many instances of fingerlings being released at night, without any notice to members, with no fishermen present. But incidents of this type have decreased and are opposed by members, as an example from Porapara shows. Most LFTs no longer rely on a fixed supplier of fingerlings, and call for tenders. What has enabled the LFTs to get away from the clutches of the fingerling suppliers is the provision of credit through BRAC. Without this credit the LFTs would have remained dependent on suppliers credits for stocking. This would have been a major channel for siphoning off the earnings of the fishermen. It is very important to note here that the fingerling average weight has steadily increased during the tenure of the project (Fig. 5), which is considered an important factor for the total fish yield.

Figure 5. Fingerling stocking performance.

Figure 5.

In harvesting, the extra incomes earned by the committee members or other leaders have generally been less than in stocking. But there are instances of a few persons monopolising fish sales. In one case, in Benipur, the Secretary made money by reporting some of the higher-priced rohu as being lower-priced silver carp. In other cases, the weight loss due to transporting the fish to urban markets was overstated. In Bahadurpur a group of about 20 (out of 250) fishermen have been monopolising fish sales. They are the ones who get commissions and such as extra income from the wholesalers (arathdars).

Some baors have developed a system to get around the initial monopolisation of fish sales by the Committee and a few other leaders (usually those of the various fishing teams). One of the methods is direct sale by auction at the baor side. Where the timing of sales is well known there is less chance of collusion between buyers and some of the leaders. In some of the baors there is a system of rotation of groups. The group that takes the fish to market and sells it is changed every now and then. Further, there is no restriction on any person who might want to join the group.

Quite a large number of the fishermen are illiterate. But every LFT has at least a few literate persons. This is useful for keeping and checking accounts. Initially account keeping was very haphazard. Various pieces of paper and notebooks were used. The Project developed a Baor Record Book (BRB) to help with record keeping.

However, there is one aspect of expenses and accounts which is still somewhat hazy. This is the amount spent under the non-fishing, miscellaneous heading, which includes expenses incurred during visits to officials, money spent on court cases, and other such official matters. A large part of these payments are not against receipts. In Marufdia, for instance, while the general accounts are well maintained and checked by various members, the money spent on court cases is handled by just a few persons and is likely to be overstated. It is likely that these miscellaneous expenses will go down over time, as the various cases are settled. Overall, miscellaneous expenses account for about 11% of total operating costs in 1994–95, which is down from 16% in 1993–94.

3.5 Participatory decision-making

An effective common property regime also requires the direct participation of general members in its functioning. In order to regularise such participation the Project office has tried to institute rules requiring general meetings of members once a month, in which the committee members are supposed to report about activities and progress.

In the initial stages general members did not pay much attention and were reluctant to attend such meetings. They felt that only issue-based meetings, such as those on credit, releasing fingerlings, inaugurating harvesting, etc., were required. But as general members realised that the committee members were not open about the various expenses made, they began to ask for accounts to be presented at regular meetings. Committee members were not happy with these demands.

Besides participation in general meetings and other forms of monitoring, one important aspect of participation is the election of the committee. The Project rules for election started by permitting individuals to stand for election only once. In practice, this was modified to mean that individuals could not stand for successive terms. The reason for this stipulation lay in attempting to reduce the hold of the traditional leaders of the fishermen, who were generally those close to the former leaseholders or traders and fingerling suppliers. The idea was to enable other leaders to emerge by insisting on rotation (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Number of terms fishermen s leaders elected (period: 1992–96).

Figure 6.

3.6 Welfare functions

The change in fingerling purchase methods, the decline of suppliers credits and the increased monitoring by various members of stocking, point to a decline in the influence of the former natural community leaders. It has also been seen that some leaseholders and their close associates have also lost their earlier influence over the fishermen. The fishermen were connected to these leaseholders through the multi-faceted patron - client relations that come up in these situations. The patrons not only provided a means of employment, but they also performed a number of welfare functions, helping the destitute in times of need. But, of course, the help the patrons provided was at a high cost in terms of low-paid labour.


Long-term security of tenure for the individual as well as for groups in order to realise the gains on their investment is the most important factor in establishing self-management in culture-based fisheries.

A functional Common Property Regime (CPR) can be established by taking the following steps:

The number of fishers should not be so small that individual benefits are envied by other rural poor, leading to mass poaching. When increasing the number of fishers, care should be taken to select members from all villages/neighbourhoods around the lakes social fencing.

Monitoring by common members and checks on leaders will lead to efficient investment in stocking and marketing, thereby optimising fishers income share.


This paper results from the work done by the authors as part of the Oxbow Lakes Project (OLP-II) in the south-western region of Bangladesh around Jessore. The project is financed by IFAD, DANIDA and the Government of Bangladesh. It is executed by the Department of Fisheries, along with the NGOs, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), and the DANIDA TA. The project is supervised by UNOPS, Kuala Lumpur. While the paper analyses the experience of the project, which is the joint work of all the above agencies and the fishers, men and women, and in which the two authors have participated in their respective capacities, the analyses and conclusions are the authors own and are not necessarily shared by any of the above-mentioned agencies. Our special thanks go to Dev Nathan, a short-term consultant of DANIDA TA, for his valuable contribution during the preparation of this document. Most of all our thanks go to the fishers, men and women, who struggled hard to make a success of a difficult and innovative project.


Apu, N.A., M.M. Rahman and M.S. Islam. 1994. Fifty years background history of baor management: the evolution of culture-based fisheries.

IFAD. 1988. Oxbow Lakes Small Scale Fishermen Project. Appraisal Report. Rome.

Middendorp, A.J., M.R. Hasan and N.A. Apu. 1996. Community fisheries management of freshwater lakes in Bangladesh. The ICLARM Quarterly NAGA 19: 4–8.

Toufique, Kazi Ali, 1994. Issues on the exploitation of inland open-water capture fisheries in Bangladesh. European Network of Bangladesh Studies. Bath, ENBS/EC Research Paper No 4/6–94.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page