Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries
in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication

‘Aligning the stars’ for the implementation of the SSF Guidelines – A story from Costa Rica


The text below describes the work of the Marine Responsible Fishing Areas and Marine Territories of Life Network, supported by the Professional Services Cooperative for Social Solidarity (CoopeSoLiDar R.L.) and the Costa Rican Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture (INCOPESCA) to support implementation of the SSF Guidelines in Costa Rica. It is based on a visual and documentary review as well as interviews with Ms Vivienne Solis-Rivera, who is an associate fellow of CoopeSoLiDar R.L.

Zooming in on Costa Rica

In the 51,100 square kilometre country of Costa Rica, with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, fishing is a popular source of livelihoods among the 4.8 million Costa Ricans. For small-scale fisheries and the SSF Guidelines, Costa Rica is a particularly interesting country to look at.

The Costa Rican government showed keenness to implement the SSF Guidelines from day one by signing a national decree in 2014 that called upon Costa Rican institutions to support small-scale fisher organizations and the Costa Rican Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture (INCOPESCA) in their efforts to implement the SSF Guidelines at the national level.

Worth highlighting is also how the Costa Rican Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture (INCOPESCA) has engaged with small-scale fishers and fish workers as well as academia, NGOs and legislators to develop a draft law on small-scale fisheries that is currently with the Costa Rican parliament for approval.

Another important achievement to note is that small-scale fishers in the country have successfully collaborated with the government to establish ‘Marine Areas for Responsible Fishing’. This is a shared governance model that is being scaled up across the country. In a nutshell, the model ensures integration of efforts towards sustainable small-scale fishers. It also helps small-scale fishing communities maintain their cultural identity and way of life.

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Small-scale shrimp peeling women from Barra del Colorado, Costa Rica. ©Vivienne Solis-Rivera

The Marine Areas for Responsible Fishing and Marine Territories of Life Network

The Marine Areas for Responsible Fishing and Marine Territories of Life Network is an open and heterogeneous group with a broad representation of actors from the small-scale fisheries sector in Costa Rica. The members range from Marine Areas for Responsible Fishing, to fishing organizations of diverse nature, communities from marine management areas, indigenous groups, afro-descendant groups, mollusc gathering communities, and other community- and fisheries organizations.

The Network’s purpose is to work in accordance with the SSF Guidelines and advance the fulfilment of rights, responsibilities and committed to human development and the sustainable and equitable use of marine resources. It responds to the need to build alliances between different organizations, and allows them to articulate joint ideas and efforts to influence public policies related to the small-scale fisheries sector.

CoopeSoliDar R.L and Ms Vivienne Solis-Rivera

The Professional Services Cooperative for Social Solidarity (CoopeSoLiDar R.L.) – a collective of technicians from different professional backgrounds – worked closely with small-scale fishers in Costa Rica and other Central American countries long before the SSF Guidelines came about. The Cooperative’s work entails supporting small-scale fishers and fish workers to unite around common claims, form cooperatives or associations, and safeguard their rights and interests through collective action while supporting the sustainable use and conservation of the sea.

Ms Vivienne Solis-Rivera has been an associate with CoopeSoliDar R.L. since its foundation in 2000, working mainly in a CSO platform within a socio-economic movement promoting a Human Rights-Based Approach to marine conservation.

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Vivienne Solis-Rivera speaking at a Symposium in FAO in 2019. ©FAO Alessandra Benedetti

“The SSF Guidelines work!”

The Costa Rican small-scale fishers, being well organized and skilled in voicing their claims, stood ready and eager to contribute their thoughts when the SSF Guidelines were negotiated. Fisherfolk leaders from Costa Rica and Central America participated actively in the process. CoopeSoLiDar R.L., the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) and FAO helped amplify their voices by supporting a series of consultations with fisherfolk and other stakeholders, consolidating everyone’s views on what the SSF Guidelines should contain.

Ms Solis-Rivera expresses that the result, the final text of the SSF Guidelines, felt like a victory:

– By the time the SSF Guidelines came, we said this is it! This is what we have been doing, and it works!, Ms Solis-Rivera exclaims. We could see that the ecosystem was recovering even in the most adverse areas of our coasts, and that small-scale fishers really improved their livelihoods.

Her observation is that the key to this success lies in the holistic approach of the SSF Guidelines, with a human rights-based approach to conservation and sustainable use, with respect for traditional knowledge, and not least with gender considerations.

Putting the SSF Guidelines into action

Since 2014, CoopeSoLiDar R.L. and the small-scale fishers organized in the Network have work closely to raise awareness about the SSF Guidelines and support their implementation – both in Costa Rica and other Central American countries. CoopeSoLiDar R.L. and the Network have for instance:

  • Helped prepare summaries and simple versions of the SSF Guidelines in Spanish and the minority language Garifuna in Honduras, as well as other resources about the SSF Guidelines as a way to support uptake.
  • Trained trainers from the diverse Marine Areas for Responsible Fishing and Marine Territories of Life to educate others about the SSF Guidelines in Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama.
  • Developed an easy-to-use traffic light system to evaluate how the Marine Areas for Responsible Fishing are performing on a number of goals, including recommendations set forth in the SSF Guidelines.
  • Arranged learning exchanges between women within Costa Rica, as well as between women from different countries in the region. The SSF Guidelines have served as a starting point for discussions in these exchanges. (Some women from an exchange in 2015 still stay in touch today through a WhatsApp group, sharing and learning together!)
  • Produced numerous visual aids on the life of small-scale fishing communities in Central America to share knowledge on issues like food security, climate change, governance, fisher youth and fisher women.
  • Place SSF Guidelines implementation actions within global discussions and frameworks through participating in global meetings and conventions related to fisheries, marine conservation and marine sustainable use.
  • Incorporated indigenous peoples from Central American into the SSF Guidelines discussions and into the implementation of a human rights-based approach to marine conservation.

A ‘laboratory’ for implementing the SSF Guidelines

Recalling the past few years, Ms Solis-Rivera compares Costa Rica to a ‘laboratory’ were many ways and roads to implement the SSF Guidelines have been tested. The SSF Guidelines are broad and holistic, and subsequently so are the efforts to put them into action. Ms Solis-Rivera underlines that

– Our interaction with FAO has been innovative, transparent, and hands-on. For four years, we got everything needed for moving forward. And the SSF Guidelines implementation work!, she adds. If you do what is in there, they work!

From her CSO perspective, she appreciates how FAO got creative to find funding and technical support at the right moment for different initiatives that contributed to action on the recommendations in the SSF Guidelines. In her opinion, Costa Rica’s small-scale fishers and fish workers and their organization now stand better equipped to drive the implementation forward.

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Mollusc gatherer women from the Cabuya community in Costa Rica. ©Vivienne Solis-Rivera

Striving for recognition of women’s work

Coming over to more recent work, CoopeSoLiDar R.L., together with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the National Institute for Women (INAMU) strives to make the large number of women along the small-scale fisheries value chain visible and place more focus on their needs. The SSF Guidelines and the initiatives to implement them in Costa Rica have been a great inspiration in this work, underlines Ms Solis-Rivera.

The ongoing push for increasing women’s visibility has even gotten the Ministry of Women involved in small-scale fisheries for the first time. Given fisher women’s historical marginalization and vulnerability, this is indeed a milestone.

The ambition from CoopeSoLiDar R.L. and the Network is now to find workable ways to allow formalization of the work women in small-scale fisheries do. Such formalization would enable the women to be better recognized and have greater access to decent working conditions.

– Fisher women and the important work the do in small-scale fisheries really need to become visible – we know this!, Ms Solis-Rivera exclaims with emphasis. We have known this for long! It is a ghost if you like, a ghost of our conscience that keeps coming back to us asking how we could ignore women for so long.

Ms Solis-Rivera admits that finding forms for formalization has been harder than imagined, and some initial attempts to formalize women’s work backfired in that costs and fees were too high for the newly formed cooperatives to bear.

We have learned from our mistakes, she admits. We need to re-invent formalization, find a new form for it that suits these fisher women. It no small task, and who knows if we will be able to do it, but we have to try!

In Costa Rica, the ‘stars aligned’

For the progress made thus far, Costa Rica has been called a ‘champion of the SSF Guidelines’. However, Ms Solis-Rivera suggests that the praise given to the country steers focus away from what is truly essential. She emphasizes that when it all started, Costa Rica was not special in any way.

– We were like any country, but we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to implement the SSF Guidelines, and we took it!, she explains. This means any country could stake on the journey we have done – and that’s essential to realize.

She underlines that what has made Costa Rica successful was the buy-in from both the fisherfolk and the government. It was as though the ‘stars aligned’. This keenness from both sides has over time evolved into stable participatory mechanisms for implementation that needs to be continuously maintained and reinforced.

– They [the fisherfolk and the government] both showed proof of ‘stewardship’ and ‘accountability’ – two beautiful words in English!, she remarks. And we from civil society were there to help.

For any country aspiring to become a champion, having those traits goes a long way, Ms Solis-Rivera concludes.

Learn more

Do you want to learn more about how CoopeSoLiDar R.L. has supported efforts to put the SSF Guidelines to action? Plenty of information can be found on these links:

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A Honduran fisher getting ready to weigh his catch. ©Vivienne Solis-Rivera


The CoopeSoLiDar R.L. website


A study on strategic routes towards formality for fisher women (in Spanish)

Case study: Decent rural employment in small-scale and semi-industrial fishing sectors in Costa Rica


Directrices (a 17 minute introduction to the SSF Guidelines in Spanish with real life examples)

The women of the sea (in Spanish, subtitles in English)

Fisher women’s knowledge exchanges and knowledge sharing:
Video 1 (in Spanish, subtitles in English)
Video 2 (in Spanish, subtitles in English)
Video 3 (in Spanish, subtitles in English)

1st National small-scale fisheries Congress in Costa Rica (in Spanish, subtitles in English)


SSF Guidelines training manual (in Spanish)

Simple summary for fishers of the law proposal (in Spanish)

Fisher youth workshop report (in Spanish)