In the rough-and-tumble port city of Machala on the southwest coast of Ecuador, the tides come in and the men… like their fathers and grandfathers before them… go out to sea.
About 5000 fishermen live and work in Machala and most of them are small, artisanal fishermen. They go out in pairs, in brightly-painted boats with about 4000 feet of net, and they fish the 8 miles of protected water that is legally reserved for non-industrial fishing.
It’s hard work. The nets are heavy even before they are water-logged, and the men will generally let them out and pull them back in four or five times a day. The Machala fishermen are looking for corvina (sea bass) bagre (catfish) and robalo (bass) but there’s no doubt that there are far less fish – and far fewer species of fish– in the ocean these days.
In fact, 85% of the world’s fisheries are being harvested at capacity or are in decline—which is not sustainable by any calculation. “Todos menos,” (“Everything is less”) a town fisherman describes it succinctly.
On a good day, two men can pull in $100 to $150 worth of fish – but $50 immediately goes to the intermediaries who sell 85% of all the fish in the Ecuadorian market. Heifer’s project in Machala, begun last year with a 26-family co-op, is working to enable those families to sell directly to customers without the intermediaries –with a new dock, ramp, and restaurant where the women can sell fresh fish, prepared fish, ceviche and their famous fried plantains.
The new Heifer dock is a visible, beautiful sign of progress and the community is proud as a pelican about it.
As male-oriented as the fishing world is, it’s the women of Machala who are fiercely political, organized and focused on change. “We used to feel impotent, but now we know we can break the chain of the intermediaries,” said Rosa Lopez, who started the women’s group Movimiento de Mujeres de El Oro in 2003.
Along with a community banking program, she also established the Clean Food program to support Machala’s artisanal fishing & food sovereignty rights – then last year, went on to start the Coast to Sierra pipeline, bringing fresh fish by truck from Machala to the protein-starved Highlands families living three hours inland – and bringing fruit, vegetables and legumes in the empty trucks back to the produce-poor coast.
Women from Machala have taught their Highland cousins to clean, cook and love the fish – while they are improving their own nutrition with produce from the interior.
It’s a win/win effort improving both nutrition and income in both communities– and the best part is, the people doing the hard work are reaping the profits. “We have our own scales so we won’t get cheated, and we determine our own prices,” said Luis proudly.
Fishing is dangerous work and this close-knit community has learned to look out for each other, to protect themselves from thieving, piracy and even from the giant industrial boats that can take up to 100 tons of sea bass in one sweep through these fishermen’s protected waters.
But the Heifer project’s investment in a spanking new dock has made them feel empowered and special.
“People can see the progress we’ve made and they’re going to be following our example of activism and cooperation,” adds Rosa. “I’m sure of it.”
I’m sure of it, too!