Lobsters, Conflict and the ‘Invisible’ Work of Women in Coastal Ecuador

© Rod Mast

Editor's note: This blog is the sixth post in our “Gender + Conservation” blog series.

The Galápagos Islands may be the site of Ecuador’s most famous marine reserve, but I think the reserve where I work is even more special.

Indeed, the Galera-San Francisco Marine Reserve on Ecuador’s western coast has more species of fish, corals, jellyfish and mollusks than the Galápagos. It also protects the largest colony of black coral in the world. And, importantly, it is home to lobster and other fish that sustain local communities.

Unfortunately, like so many other places around the world, overfishing and destructive fishing practices have wreaked havoc on local marine ecological diversity, threatening the health of the ecosystem and local livelihoods. This reserve, supported by the government and local communities, aims to reverse that trend.

Since 2010, CI has worked with local organizations and lobster fishermen to support more sustainable fishing practices through the establishment of conservation agreements between Artelangosta (the fishermen’s organization), our local partner Nazca and CI. We quickly saw results once the association governing the agreement was established: lobster populations grew, fishermen support for a lobster no-take area increased and the use of destructive fishing gear (small mesh nets) dwindled.

But this success also brought trouble. Fishermen not involved in the project also noticed that lobster populations had recovered and that the fishery was now more profitable. Conflict, including violent altercations, ensued between the association members and the newcomers. Lobster populations plummeted.

As a result, we re-evaluated the project and developed a more holistic approach that focuses on diversifying household income sources. This time, we aren’t just concentrating on lobster, but on responsible fishing practices more broadly. These efforts include reducing human pressure on the coastal fisheries and incorporating new community members into conservation initiatives.

As part of this new vision, we started to reflect on who we collaborate with. Unlike in many other fisheries around the world, this fishery value chain is comprised of nearly all men — from fishing to processing to marketing. The handful of women who are currently involved with the association joined because their husbands, brothers or friends invited them, and they were interested in knowing more about conservation and being involved in the fishery.

With the goal of diversifying income sources and wanting to better understand the social dynamics of marine conservation, we knew it was also important to understand the different roles and responsibilities of men and women in the community and in the association.

Along with our local partner organization, I talked with men and women throughout the community. We found that women:

  • Play a vital role in the dynamics of the community, often encouraging their husbands to go fishing and distributing food among households when needed.
  • Have little voice in decision-making processes in general. Their work is also undervalued in the community — by families, leaders, and even women themselves. Because women’s contribution to the family (through domestic work and food provision) is largely unpaid, it is virtually “invisible.”
  • Want to have a role in the fishing value chain; however the women who are involved in the lobster fishing association have difficulty paying the fees and lack support from their husbands.

Another troubling finding was the underlying presence of violence which permeates the community structure. There is violence reported among fishermen, between fishermen and their wives and from mothers to children. This violence affects the activities of the project and ultimately undermines the good governance of natural  resources and of the marine reserve.

From this we have come to understand that we must consider social issues more broadly, adequately involve all fishermen in decision-making, understand power dynamics and seek out advice from local organizations with domestic violence expertise so that people can get the help they need.

We have begun working with women in the community, providing training on cooking and crafts (for sale to locals and tourists) and creating a small fund to finance their activities. Through this work, they have been able to generate additional income, promote the role of women in the association and support the conservation activities related to better management of the marine reserve.

Throughout this work, it has been important to keep consistent dialogue with the lobster fishery association, and to continue explaining how important it is to have women as members to encourage good governance.

We recognize that shifting this culture is a long process — not a short sprint, but a marathon. However, recognizing women’s roles as natural resource managers is central to the success of the Galera-San Francisco Marine Reserve. Without their involvement and support, effective conservation will not be possible.

Montse Alban is the ecosystem service manager for CI Ecuador. Learn more about how CI is working to make men and women equal partners in conservation.