Forced to sell the roof over their heads

Compensation supports fisher families during a ban on hilsa fishing in Bangladesh – but a visit to a family in Govinda exposes the harsh realities of income loss.

A hilsa, the national fish of Bangladesh. Inadequate government compensation during periods when fishing is banned has a harsh economic consequence for families (Photo: BBC World Service Bangladesh Boat, Creative Common, via Flickr)

I recently visited Govinda, a small fishing village in Chandpur, Bangladesh. This is one of my regular visits to the Bangladeshi countryside to listen to and learn from the fisher communities. My interest is in how to tackle the drivers of overfishing and sustain fishing livelihoods. What I learnt this time gave me much to think about.

My visit could not have been timed better. The first week of March marks the annual Jatka (juvenile hilsa) week, which aims to raise awareness among fisher communities about sustainable management of hilsa fish – the national fish of Bangladesh.

The village is adjacent to one of the areas demarcated by the government as a hilsa sanctuary so the communities are prohibited from fishing in March and April. That meant I was able to meet fishers who were sat idly, waiting for the end of the no-take season.

What would you do?

I spent most of my stay with Hafez Howlader's family. Hafez-sahib, 69, is a soft-spoken man of few words (sahib is a polite title or form of address for a man in South Asia). He has a long white beard and maintained one facial expression throughout – something between tired and angered. But his family's hospitality was indescribable. 

Hafez Howlader, a fisherman in Govinda village, Chandpur (Photo: Essam Yassin Mohammed/IIED)The family lived in a small house made of corrugated iron sheets, with two small rooms, and an even smaller cooking space. After spending a few minutes introducing myself and talking about the weather, we started talking about how the ban period had impacted their livelihoods.

Although the government provides compensation, the family started tallying a number of challenges raised by the ban. They said the compensation was inadequate (their receive 40kg of rice per household for four months), there was illegal fishing, embezzlement and so on. They were familiar complaints.

Every time I go to fishing villages, I prepare a few unconventional questions, sometimes beyond the imagination or expectation of the fishers. This time, hoping I would learn something new, I asked Hafez sahib: "If you were the prime minister of Bangladesh, what would you do to address these challenges?"

For a moment, I thought he was going to laugh, but he didn't. He continued tallying the same problems.

Trapped in an endless cycle of debt

But then his wife interrupted. Tazia Begum, 59, had stained teeth, dyed red from years of chewing betel nut quid, but came across as eloquent and not shy to express her opinions.

Keen to make herself understood, Tazia grabbed my hand and walked me to their backyard. With the help of an interpreter she pointed to the ground and told me: "There used to be a separate room here. Alamin [her son] and his family used to live here."

Sounding a little upset, she added: "We had to dismantle it and sell the corrugated metal sheets to pay off our debt. Now our son and his young family have to share the space with us."

Alamin Hawlader and his young family (Photo: Essam Yassin Mohammed/IIED)
 
I knew that fishers faced problems associated with indebtedness, but I had not until that moment realised the gravity of the problem. 

Compensation, which is mostly provided as rice and other alternative income-generating activities, is not enough to offset the short-term economic cost of the ban period. Fishers also need to prepare for the next fishing season, which includes buying and repairing fishing nets and boats, and so on.

These factors force many fishers to seek loans from both formal and informal sources.

Fishers mostly rely on aratdars (middlemen) and Mohajons (big money lenders) for microloans. Fishers who borrow from aratdars must hand all their catch to the money lenders who then decide its price. They take up to 50 or 60 per cent to service the debt and the rest is given back to the fishers in cash.

Tazia Begum (Photo: Essam Yassin Mohammed/IIED)Fishers who already have debts are expected to repay their loans even during the ban period, resulting in illegal fishing activity. It's a vicious cycle.

Looking beyond just fishing

Even though the Bangladeshi government has been trying to tackle the problem of over-fishing by addressing fishing-related stresses, the drivers of overfishing are much more complex than just fishing.

Through the support of the Darwin Initiative-funded project we have long argued that to liberate fishers from the cyclical debt trap, a suitable and affordable microfinance system needs to be introduced and tailored to meet the needs generated by a fishing ban.

This must include a 'grace period' that protects fishers from repaying capital or interest when the fishery is closed, which would in turn boost compliance with the ban. Well-thought-out microcredit could gradually liberate hilsa fishers from their cyclical debts.

This would not only enable the fishers to comply with the fishing regulations but also (and hopefully) they would not have to sell their roof to pay off their debt again.

Essam Yassin Mohammed (eymohammed@iied.org) is a senior researcher in IIED's Sustainable Markets Group.