Guest post by Mike Mitchell, Fulbright-García Robles Grant Recipient, Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco
Throughout the past 40 years governments and international development organizations have viewed small-scale aquaculture as a potential panacea for rural food security around the world. As a comparatively low-input and less demanding form of animal husbandry (as compared to raising cattle), the general thinking is that small-scale aquaculture benefits individuals, communities, and the environment through provision of protein, income, employment, crop diversity and improved water management.. The term small-scale or “family-level” aquaculture typically refers to fish production in a pond or tank less than 1500 m² (roughly the size of three basketball courts) and may involve either “semi-intensive” or “extensive” production.
Semi-intensive production may involve a pond or fish tank and implies active management with external inputs, including the use of fish feed, significant stocking of juvenile fish ,etc. Extensive fish farming is marked by minimal maintenance to preexisting ponds with low stocking density and dependence on naturally occurring fish feed in the pond. Because of denser stocking and reliance on additional inputs, semi-intensive fish farmers produce much higher yields than those that farm fish extensively. Fish farmers from both groups are primarily dedicated to other economic activities, most commonly traditional farming or livestock, using fish farming as a complement or form of insurance to their primary occupations.
Little quantifiable evidence measuring small-scale aquaculture’s impact exists, however, which led me to pursue a Fulbright research grant with the Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco in Tabasco, Mexico. According to surveys measured across 90 families in Tabasco, families that farm fish consume fish approximately 4 times per month from their own production, amounting to about 47% of the total fish they eat in the household. This fish consumption not only exemplifies a reliable source of vital protein and micronutrients, but also a substantial cost savings for the families. Moreover, although the majority of families farm fish solely for household consumption, the few families that sell their production reported an average 16% increase in annual net income attributed to the sale of their fish.
In addition to fish farming’s contributions to food security at the family level, many development professionals believe small-scale fish farming is an ideal way to empower rural women. Rural women, often relegated to childcare and household chores due to cultural and social barriers, can benefit greatly from greater income distribution, protein availability and roles in economic decision-making associated with participation in fish farming. Empowering women to become more financially autonomous has proven to be one of the most effective poverty alleviation tools. According to the UN, for example, income generating women spend 90% of their earnings on family needs, like healthcare and education, while men on average spend a mere 35% of their income on the family. Owing to small-scale aquaculture’s lower physical demands and ponds’ proximity to the household, involving women in rural aquaculture has increasingly been gaining momentum. But to what extent has it succeeded?
Women in Asia and Africa have historically had more of a role in rural farm activities and continue to outpace their Latin American counterparts. Women comprise 20% or less of the rural agricultural workforce in countries across Latin America, compared to 50% or more in many Asian and African countries, leading to greater production and improved livelihoods. In Bangladesh for example, a recent FAO study found that women’s involvement in rural aquaculture had led to a 10-20% increase in fish production and almost all women fish farmers interviewed noted a tangible improvement in their socioeconomic conditions as measured by food consumption, child education, access to healthcare and purchasing power and ability. Women’s role is often to help or manage the feeding of fish, pond supervision and harvesting. Most women also asserted that, “They now tend to play a stronger role in economic decisions for the management of their households, including those concerning education of children, attending social functions, inviting guests and attending religious functions.”
In Latin America numerous development organizations and government agencies have launched initiatives to integrate women through technical training, microcredits and materials with mixed results. Though some programs have proven successful, many projects have floundered or shuttered due to lack of financing, limited access to land, poor technical assistance and overdependence on inconsistent government aid. Like other development projects in Latin America, administrators tend to be more interested in short-term results to win votes rather than implementing sustainable long-term solutions. The impotence of women’s fish farming initiatives in the region can primarily be attributed to culturally entrenched gender roles, divisions that are often exacerbated in rural areas.
In Tabasco, Mexico, 53% of fish farming families interviewed mentioned that the matriarch of the household routinely assists with fish farm activities, predominantly in feeding fish and basic pond supervision while men handle fish stocking and harvesting. Though this marks a relatively high participation rate of women, men were the primary decision-makers (and beneficiaries) in all but one of the families studied.
In Revolución, a ramshackle one-road fishing village in Tabasco, Mexico, resides a woman that shed her cultural straitjacket long ago and today exemplifies small-scale aquaculture’s potential among women. I meet Beatriz, at 43 years of age, behind her house as she tosses bits of kitchen scraps – stale tortillas and chicken remains – into two small cages holding approximately 50 tilapia and a dozen or so garfish, a small portion of her overall production set aside for household consumption.
Beatriz began farming fish through a governmental program that trained women’s cooperatives in rural Tabasco during the mid 1990s. With the encouragement of her husband, Beatriz organized a group of women and submitted the requisite paperwork. As fishermen’s wives, they had witnessed firsthand the alarming downward trend in wild catches and sought to diversify their income through fish farming. Unlike typical rural Mexican households, Beatriz’s husband has always encouraged her to work and continue her education. As her husband’s job often takes him away for weeks, Beatriz also manages the family’s finances and decision-making. Regardless of the male-dominated society they come from, the 11 members of the household, including Beatriz’s children, daughters-in-law and four grandchildren, are completely aware of who is “ la jefa”, or the boss, of the family.
In the nearly two decades since she began, Beatriz’s resourcefulness and tenacity have enabled her to endure the perpetual challenges of rural fish farming and create a successful family business. Over the years, Beatriz’s partners gradually deserted fish farming, due to a blend of limited financing and technical challenges accentuated by gender constraints within their families and government extension programs. Today she stands as the only remaining member and harvests about 3 tons of fish per year, netting around 10,000 pesos annually, or 33% of the family’s total income. Her perseverance has reaped benefits – Beatriz was able to build a second story on her home, the only one in the community, built houses for both sons, and routinely makes other investments such as new fishing nets and healthcare from fish farm earnings. Additionally, Beatriz mentions, “Whatever happens – if we don’t have money to fuel our boats, or if the weather scares off the [wild] fish, we’ll always have food here in our cages. That’s my primary motivation in farming fish – ensuring my family has something to eat.”
Although she can no longer participate in many of the more taxing farm activities, she passes on her expertise with motherly sagacity, deftly directing family members to wild juvenile fish harvest locations during the dry season and training even the youngest of the family to separate fish by gender. Despite her accomplishments, Beatriz remains far from complacent. The state government recently awarded her success with a partial grant to construct two 10,000-liter fish tanks, which will increase her production threefold. When asked why the program chose her over other community members she quipped, “Others just look for cash. I want to work. We all work in this house. That’s the rule.” Regarding her future plans, Beatriz coolly divulges, “I’m saving to buy a pickup. I’m going to cut out the coyote (middle-man) and sell the fish myself.”
Women in Latina America are often swimming against cultural currents, commonly pigeonholed into an exclusively domestic role. As policymakers and development agencies continue to seek improvements in food security, they must recognize that many women like Beatriz abound throughout Mexico and Latin America. Existing programs frequently engage solely rural men and fail to consider the overwhelming potential of women in small-scale aquaculture because of cultural preconceived notions. This untapped potential, facilitated by small-scale aquaculture’s low physical demands, minimal daily maintenance and proximity to the household, may be the catalyst needed to empower rural women in Latin America. Including women in fish farming is not only proven to increase yields and available protein, but also leads to greater income distribution throughout the family, resulting in educational and health benefits. Through enhanced access to financing and technical training, in conjunction with greater education surrounding gender roles, these women are primed to be the next generation’s Beatriz.