|Conflict over Natural Resources in South-East Asia and the Pacific (United Nations University, 1990)|
|5. Conflict over natural resources in Malaysia: the struggle of small-scale fishermen|
ROUGHY 40 per cent of the world's total fish production comes from Asia and for many years, the great proportion of this catch came from the vast number of small-scale or artisanal fishermen who live by the coastal water. The contribution of these fishermen, estimated in 1982 in the ASEAN countries alone to number 2 million (or 10 million including their dependents), to their national economies and the protein food needs of their countrymen has been enormous. In 1982 for example, it was estimated that the fisheries contribution to the economies of Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand was US$3.2 billion. Nevertheless, the economic positions of small-scale fishermen have never been stable. The low productivity of traditional fishing gear, the control of the market by middlemen, the seasonal nature of their income, their chronic indebtedness; all these problems have plagued small-scale fishermen for a long time and prevented them from reaping the full rewards of their labour.
In recent years, their precarious economic positions have worsened as a result of new threats and today there is a real danger that unless strong policies and measures are undertaken to counter the new and old threats, small-scale fishermen will be left out of the mainstream of economic and social development, and reduced to being the poorest of the poor in their countries. The new threats to small-scale fishermen, most visible in the ASEAN countries, are due in large part to the adoption of the policy of export-led growth through increasing foreign and local capitalist investment by the governments of the region in the 1970s and 1980s
In the larger national economy, the export-led growth strategy of ASEAN governments has resulted in misguided infrastructural development, the clearing of swamps, and the establishment of industrial areas close to traditional fishing grounds, thereby destroying fish spawning areas and denying fishing communities easy access to the rivers and seas. The depletion of fish stock available to small-scale fishermen has been further aggravated by the consequences of other types of economic expansion. As an example, the Sungai Skudai in Johore, Malaysia, is so heavily polluted by the untreated discharge from 30 factories that hardly any aquatic life forms can live or propagate for a distance of more than 6 miles upstream. Water pollution all over the ASEAN countries is also being caused by the excessive use of fertilizers, insecticides, and rodedicides.
Within the fishing industry itself, the rapid development of heavily capitalized, export-oriented large-scale fishing operations has had adverse consequences on the well-being of small-scale producers. Invariably, the large trawler fleets of this 'modern' fishing sector have competed directly for the fish resources of the coastal waters worked by small-scale fishermen, to the detriment of the latter. As a result, a clear pattern has emerged of diminishing catches by small-scale fishermen. In the Philippines, it is estimated today that 98 per cent of the fishermen produce 50 per cent of the total catch whilst 2 per cent of fishermen engaged in large-scale industrial-type fisheries net the other 50 per cent. In Thailand, large capitalist enterprise fisheries now produce 65 per cent of the total catch while small-scale fishermen net only 35 per cent.
Although the fact of marginalization of small-scale fishermen throughout the Asia-Pacific region has become quite indisputable, it is still important to know how exactly this process has taken place so that the lessons learnt can be applied to help traditional communities dependent on other types of natural resources avoid the same fate. What are the forces at work that have undermined the interests of traditional producers? What has been the role of government in the transformation of the fisheries industry from one based on smallscale producers to large-scale ones? How has fisheries as a natural resource been affected by the transformation taking place within the industry? This case study will answer these questions through the use of a historical approach so as to show how conflict over a crucial natural resource has been generated over a long period of time and the impact of the conflict on the interests of various parties. By focusing on a single country- Malaysia and examining the role of government through a study of administrative policies towards the fisheries sector, it is also hoped that a clearer understanding would emerge of the reasons why national governments behave as they do towards natural resources and the communities that exploit them.