Understanding migration amongst the traditional fishers of West Madagascar

  • Thursday, 19 June 2008 00:00
Cripps, G. - Blue Ventures Conservation Report


Socioeconomic conditions of Malagasy coastal fishing communities

Madagascar is classified by the World Bank as a low income country, with acute poverty and in 2006 a per capita GDP of 878 US$ PPP (purchasing power parity). The Human Development Index (HDI) for Madagascar is 0.533, which gives the country a rank of 143rd out of world‘s 179 countries for which data are available. From 2000 to 2007, 71.3% of the population lived beneath the national poverty line. Overall poverty is more prevalent in rural areas, where 78% of the population and 84% of poor people live. In eight of Madagascar‘s twelve coastal districts both rural and urban poverty are more prevalent than the national average, ranging from 70.7% (Sava region) to 81.6% (Androy region).

The socio-economic characteristics of most traditional fishing communities in Madagascar are characteristic of tropical coastal poverty:

  • They have large households with a high proportion of children and a high birth rate;

  • Child labour is prevalent and schooling of children is low; household heads are poorly educated;

  • Access to basic health services and drinkable water are poor;

  • Households are often physically isolated from markets, schooling, transport links and other basic services;

  • Livelihood strategies are based on marine and coastal resources that are open-access with no clear owner-ship;

  • There is a high degree of immigration to coastal areas with easily-accessible livelihood opportunities;

  • The natural resources upon which poor coastal people depend are degraded.

Migration drivers

The present migration of traditional fishers is symptomatic of the many challenges faced by poor coastal people in South West Madagascar. On a macro-level the principal migration routes simply reflect a livelihood strategy of poor, resource-dependent people who are moving from areas of high poverty, high dependency on fishing as a livelihood and depleted coastal fisheries to areas of lower poverty, low dependency on fishing and still-productive fisheries. This overarching driver is rooted in a number of causal direct and indirect drivers of migration. Principal among these are:

  • the strong demand for shark fins and sea cucumbers (trepang);

  • the widespread degradation of coastal ecosystems underpinning fisheries in South West Madagascar because of climate change, hyper-sedimentation and over-fishing;

  • and poverty engendered by over-population, resource degradation and the lack of alternative livelihoods to fishing.

In addition to these - the most powerful drivers of migration - traditional fishers also move for other reasons. For example: insecurity caused by armed bandits, to have access to education for their children, to live closer to markets, to have access to fisheries opportunities unexploited by the resident communities, and to settle in scarcely populated sites where competition for natural resources is lower.

Migration patterns

Significant migrations of traditional fishers take place over the entire west and southwest coasts of Madagascar. Here, myriad movements take place, ranging in distance from tens to hundreds of kilometres, and in time scale from short fishing trips lasting a few weeks to seasonal migrations of three to nine months. Some migrations are even definitive, with migrants settling permanently at their destinations. These migrations can be roughly grouped as follows:

  • a recent distant migration of Vezo fishers driven by the strong demand for sea cucumbers and shark fins;

  • a more traditional distant migration of Vezo and Sara fishers in search of better  'traditional‘ fishing resources – fish for their own consumption and local sale;

  • and localised seasonal migrations of fishers seeking better 'traditional‘ fishing resources.

The migration that is driven by the strong demand for shark fins and sea cucumbers typically involves fishers moving long distances north from the Morombe and Befandefa regions as far as Maintirano, and south from the Tulear and Anakao regions as far as Androka. The migrant traditional fishers are of both urban and rural origins.

In addition to long distance migrations several more localised, seasonal migrations take place with the fishers mostly seeking more productive fishing sites. An example of such a migration takes place within the Velondriake community-managed marine protected area in the Befandefa commune, where local fishers move seasonally to the offshore islands of Nosy Hao and Nosy Andragnombala.

Farmers and herders from the interior of the South West, faced with drought and insecurity, have moved to the South West coast to subsist by gleaning for sea cucumbers and octopus. This presents a paradox of a continuing influx of migrants from inland to the coast while traditional fishers migrate away from their villages because of population pressure and resource shortage.

In the North East and far South West Madagascar there are significant movements of people with no tradition of fishing (mostly farmers) to the coast to seek out new livelihoods from fishing. In the North East people began to move seasonally to the coastal villages of Ambaro Bay to fish shrimp in the 1990's. This phenomenon significantly increased the size of these villages.

A number of small-scale movements of artisanal fishers take place on the Northern coasts of Madagascar that are determined by the seasons and the weather patterns that they bring. These fishermen are targeting large pelagic fish and shark, while others free dive for sea cucumbers. In contrast to the traditional migratory fishers of the West coast, the migratory artisanal fishermen have only recently come into being. Their boats are equipped with outboard motors; they have substantial nets and in some cases are equipped with compressors and scuba gear. They are often employed by wealthy urban bosses and themselves come from urban centres. As money-driven operations they strip-out local resources, targeting particularly sea cucumbers, sharks, lobster and sometimes even turtles. Traditional fishers cannot compete with them and must often stand aside and watch the pillaging of their resources. It is chiefly along the Northern coast of Madagascar that artisanal fishers move itinerantly along the coast or according to the seasonal weather conditions.

The fishers of South West Madagascar have a long tradition of migrating and are widely seen to be a semi-nomadic people. Historically migration served as a safety-valve to over-population and diminishing resources in a particular area – when the resources were no longer adequate to sustain a village's growing population people moved to previously unexploited areas that were either uninhabited or more sparsely populated. Many of today‘s coastal villages were so established, with the general direction of Vezo fisher movement being northwards. Many Vezo - or ―fisher- villages are made up of people of diverse ethnic origins. One becomes Vezo by a way of living rather than through inheritance of ethnicity through a bloodline. Nor do the Vezo have a tradition of sea tenure or fishing rights. The semi-nomadic nature of the Vezo probably reflects their origin of being a poor people moving to the coast to seek a livelihood and source of subsistence that was unavailable elsewhere; with moving being an indirect mechanism of natural resource management.

Migration dynamics

However, rapid population growth, widespread degradation of coral reefs and related marine ecosystems, and the relatively recent arrival of external commercial markets have drastically changed the characteristics of Vezo migrations. The number of migrants travelling long distances has increased dramatically in the last five years and is at unprecedented levels, both in absolute and relative terms. 68% of migrants surveyed in 2009 had never migrated before 2004; moreover 64% of their parents had themselves never migrated. A large proportion of the population of the migrants‘ villages of origin are now migrating; for the villages surveyed in this study this was estimated to range from 15 – 60% of the village population (for Lamboara and Ampasilava respectively). Results show that a majority of today‘s young male migrants do not return home to their villages of origin.

Migrant fishing activities

Surveys of migrant fishermen from the South West in this study show that most practice shark and sea cucumber fishing as primary activities. 90% use jarifa nets to fish for sharks either as a primary or secondary activity; while 70% fish for sea cucumbers as a primary or secondary activity.

Management measures and conflicts

There are no existing national laws governing fisher migration in Madagascar per se, nor has the government developed any specific policy towards fisher migration. However, migration is increasingly characterised by conflict between migrants and resident communities. The increasingly large numbers of migrants settling in the islands of Belo-sur-mer and the Barren Isles – in particular since 2005–2006 – have been particularly contentious. In 2008 these recent conflicts caused the local authorities to create new by-laws in order to protect the biodiversity of both archipelagos. These actions by local government do not form part of a coherent national or regional policy towards migration and are not supported by any efforts to provide migrants with viable alternatives to visiting prohibited areas.

Fishing and coastal resources are open-access to traditional fishers under Malagasy law and furthermore there is no village tradition of marine tenure or explicit management of access to marine resources on the West coast of Madagascar. Nevertheless, much of the effective management of migrants' actions has traditionally taken place at a village level. Migrants are pushed out of a fishing community if they use destructive fishing methods that the community does not accept, particularly when the migrants have no family ties with the resident community. Some villages have taken management actions by asking migrants to pay for the right to fish from their villages. In these cases there is little conflict between residents and migrants.

Traditionally resource use has been governed indirectly through faly, a societal taboo based on ancestral beliefs and laws articulated by village elders. An example of this that is particularly pertinent to the current migration is the faly of not living on the Belo-sur-Mer isles. Historically migrants considered faly as inviolable; they would never have even considered breaking them. But the sacredness of faly is being increasingly eroded by the growing numbers of migrants arriving and by many of the drivers that have driven the fishers to migrate. This disrespect of local faly has not only caused deep offence to the residents, but has also implicitly weakened their control over their local marine resources. Many leaders from resident communities expressed this to be the single most serious problem created by migration.

Existing national fishing regulations bring little governance to the fishing activities of migrants for two reasons. Firstly, the local authorities do not have the capacity to enforce them and their application is negligible. Secondly, the existing national legislation effectively does not govern the primary activities of most migrants – shark and sea cucumber fishing. In other respects migrant fishers do break national laws, as do most traditional fishers, for example by using fine nets and killing marine turtles. However, they see many of the national fishing regulations that should affect them as being disconnected with the realities of their daily existence and long-standing fishing practices.
The majority of traditional migrants are not competing directly with resident communities for the same fishing resources. The vast majority of migrant Vezo fishers on the West coast target sharks using deep-water gill nets and sea cucumbers by free-diving. The non-migrating Vezo Sakalava communities – the primary resident populations in most of the destination areas, for example Belo-sur-mer and Maintirano - do not have a tradition of practising these techniques (with the exception of some permanent fishing  communities in Maintirano, they themselves of migrant origin); indeed migrant Vezo from further south introduced residents to the offshore marine resources of the northern areas, along with the practice of spear-gun fishing. The conflict over marine resources stems more from residents seeing the Vezo migrants intensively harvesting "residents‘ resources", and often earning  considerable income from them, whilst bringing little or no benefits to the local communities.

The Belo-sur-mer and Barren Isles are high conservation priorities and migrant fishers have undoubtedly caused some damage to the ecological condition and biodiversity of these archipelagos. Besides removing keystone species such as sharks and sea cucumbers, they have also, for example, been responsible for decimating colonies of nesting sea birds, introducing rats and harvesting nesting turtles. Conservation planning and actions have been taken to establish marine protected areas around both archipelagos. For Belo-sur-mer these plans are more advanced than the Barren isles, with the government of Madagascar affording legal ―temporary protection‖ to a marine extension of the Kirindy-Mitea National Park in 2008. For the Barren isles these plans are nascent, although conservation activities have been carried out in the region for a number of years. Activities have included the establishment of a community association to protect the marine biodiversity and the passing of laws by local authorities to protect the island biodiversity. The current trends of human migration are incompatible with attaining these conservation objectives and substantial stakeholder consultation will be necessary if conservation actions in either archipelago are to be successful and sustainable.

Socio-economic importance

In 1998, six years before the migration began to take on its current size and importance, published research judged that it was through migration to Andriamitaroke that fishers of a typical migrant village, Ampasilava, earned the major part of their annual livelihood. Furthermore, they were not able to meet their basic living needs by only fishing in their home village. All of the drivers of this migration (ecosystem degradation, fishery depletion, over-population, poverty, external demand for shark fin and trepang) have intensified over the intervening decade. Conservation management measures that seek to limit the damaging impact of migrants on marine ecosystems in destination areas must take into account the socio-economic importance of migration.

There is generally little leadership of the migrants at the places of destination. Migrants are commonly disparate groups with, on the one hand, little voice for participating in dialogue with the resident authorities, and, on the other hand, a law unto themselves, freed from the social norms of their home communities.

Prevention of fishers‘ contemporary migrations would exacerbate localised population pressures, contribute to further exhaustion of already dwindling natural resources in the villages of origin, and mean that certain migrants would struggle to feed their families. Since migration is a manifestation of the many socioeconomic and environmental difficulties fishing communities face, there is a critical need to address the underlying drivers of migration rather than have a migration policy per se. The causal, inter-linked drivers - over-population, lack of alternative livelihood opportunities to fishing, lack of local environmental management frameworks, widespread resource degradation and resultant poverty - need to be addressed directly as a prerequisite to attempting to manage the traditional fisher migration.

The establishment of a regional network of locally-managed marine areas would be a practicable step towards tackling these problems. This would:

  • empower communities to effectively manage their own marine natural resources;

  • facilitate the formalisation of community marine resource tenure currently lacking in South West Madagascar,

  • enable effective communication and conflict mitigation between migrant and resident communities;

  • and most importantly, form a community structure around which population growth could be tackled and alternative livelihoods catalysed.

Only such localised solutions – expanded to a regional scale – would make tackling the multitude of problems that cause migration, as well as the conflicts that it itself engenders, possible.