FAO, states must defend fishers' human rights, close gates to corporations

If the FAO and governments around the world truly want to help end the marginalization of small-scale fishers and their suffering from unequal power relations, they must stop keeping their gates open to corporate interference.

Amid the celebration of the World Fisheries Day, FIAN International is calling on states comprising the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to not just recognize the efforts of at least 35 million small-scale fishers – the source of more than half of the world’s fish catch – but also genuinely listen to their needs and aspirations and work with them towards nourishing the world without compromising their human rights.

FIAN laments that while the FAO has time and again underscored the major role of small-scale fishers and fish workers in eradicating hunger and poverty by supporting the livelihoods of over 120 million people across the globe, its commitment to support them are being weakened by its pronouncements and actions that either lean towards corporate interests or open wider opportunities for corporations to further interfere with the affairs of small-scale fishers. 

FAO Director General Director-General Qu Dongyu released a statement during the September 2021 Global Conference on Aquaculture Millenium+20 in Shanghai that aquaculture is key to meet increasing food demand.

While he stressed during the event that the benefits from the growth of aquaculture “must be equitable and fairly distributed,” the FAO chief was vague on what type or scale of aquaculture he was referring to.

Aquaculture is diverse. However, this diversity isn’t captured in the definition used by the FAO, which includes both “individual and corporate ownership”.

And if the FAO chief was suggesting during his speech that it was the large-scale industrial aquaculture that needed to be equitable and fair, this would be next to impossible because the industry remains incorrigibly exploitative, destructive, and profit-hungry.

In fact, Mr. Qu delivered his speech before a bevy of fellow speakers and panelists, many of whom were working for or linked to corporate aquaculture operators, establishments, and trade organizations. 

FIAN is also wary of the FAO’s inclusion of corporate-friendly actors in the international steering committee of the 2022 International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA) that was recently launched by the FAO in time for the Nov. 21 World Fisheries Day. 

With IYAFA’s vision of fully recognizing and empowering small-scale fishers to continue their contributions to poverty alleviation, human well-being, and resilient and sustainable food systems, it was surprising that opposing bedfellows have become part of the IYAFA. On one side are small-scale fishers and on the other are representatives and allies of the corporate fisheries sector often being blamed as the cause of the former’s marginalization and exploitation. 

The corporate capture of fisheries through the UN and the FAO is also happening through the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS).

Following the UNFSS last September, at least 25 multi-stakeholder coalitions were created to supposedly find solutions to hunger and malnutrition in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Among these is the Coalition for Aquatic/Blue Foods whose main objective is to “realize the full potential of sustainable blue or aquatic foods – such as fish, shellfish...plants and algae, captured or cultivated in freshwater or marine ecosystems.”

The UNFSS noted that this coalition would support FAO in its work on fisheries and aquaculture in relation to the 2022 IYAFA. 

A closer look at the composition of this coalition reveals excessive corporate influence. 

For instance, among its networks, the Blue Food Assessment, an international joint initiative comprising scientists,” is funded by the Walton Family, the founder of US-based multinational retail corporation Walmart

Another network of the coalition is the Mava Foundation whose president, Andre Hoffman, is vice president of Swiss multinational healthcare firm Roche Holding AG, which sells drugs and feed additives for aquaculture.    

Even before these UN and FAO-facilitated partnerships, corporate control of fisheries had already wreaked havoc on the lives and livelihoods of small-scale fishers and their environment, particularly in Asia where 90% of them reside

In India's Chilika Lake, the world’s largest brackish water lagoon, intensive shrimp farming has devastated the livelihoods of small-scale fishers. Their catch has dwindled because the aquatic life in the lagoon is being killed by chemical-laced water discharges from shrimp ponds. 

In Thailand, incomes of small fishers have drastically dropped as corporate expansion of  mussel farms in Ban Don Bay, which has already encroached on the sea, blocked their access to coastal marine resources.

In Sri Lanka’s Jaffna District, hundreds of small-scale fishers and their families are complaining of hunger as they could no longer enter vast coastal and sea areas that have been reserved for shrimp farming. 

With these injustices happening now, it should not be difficult for the FAO and the 197 states comprising it to see how the institution, especially with its recent pronouncements and actions, could eventually become an instrument to shut down the human rights of small-scale fishers. 

If the FAO and governments around the world truly want to help end the marginalization of small-scale fishers and their suffering from unequal power relations, they must stop keeping their gates open to corporate interference. 

Governments and the FAO can do this by leading the way in implementing the Small-Scale Fisheries Guidelines, which identified industrial aquaculture and other large-scale fishing operations, along with destructive developments in tourism, mining, energy and agriculture, as the ones competing with the political and economic interests of small-scale fisheries and abusing the latter’s human rights. 

Small-scale fisher movements were part and parcel in elaborating the guidelines. It is through these guidelines that they will be able to govern themselves and become real agents for the transformation of local food systems to ensure the health of our planet and our people.

READ RELATED STATEMENTS: 

IPC Statement on World Fisheries Day 

Governments must reject corporations’ for-profit hunger solutionsGovernments must reject corporations’ for-profit hunger solutions