Social Capital Helps Ecuadorian Fishermen Achieve Collective Vision

Posted by Heifer Sacramento On Sunday, November 24, 2013
This is one in a series of articles contributed by Heifer Sacramento volunteers reflecting on their experiences from visiting Heifer Ecuador projects in 2013. 

The 2013 Project Visit to Ecuador was rich and multi-faceted. It provided our volunteer visitors profound experiences, insights, and inspiration.  One theme that stood out for me, common to all three projects we visited, was that of social capital-- one of the five components of Heifer’s newly developed theory of change. Pierre Ferrari, Heifer president and CEO, writes that the World Bank defines social capital as ‘institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society's social interactions.’ Through the impact of social capital, Heifer project participants are able to have sustainable development and prosper economically. I’d like to share my experiences that exemplify this idea with reference to The Artisanal Fishing Project, the first stop on our tour.  (Italicized items reference components of social capital.)
For generations, thousands of families in and around Puerto Bolivar, a town located on the Pacific Coast near Machala, Ecuador, have derived their sustenance and livelihood from fishing the waters of this beautiful port surrounded and protected by mangroves.  In modern times, their way of life has become more difficult in several ways.  For one, the resource poor fishermen require loans to outfit themselves for fishing. But they can only qualify for loans at high interest from lenders, who act as predatory middlemen, that require the fishermen to sell their catch to them at lower than wholesale prices.  For another, large-scale fishing corporations, whose boats are supposed to remain eight miles off shore, routinely encroach on the supposedly protected artisanal fishing grounds, causing a decline in the fishery.  If that weren’t enough, the small scale fishermen even have to deal with incidences of piracy.
Ecuadorian artisanal fishermen cast nets with high hopes for sustaining their way of life.
Heifer is supporting the development of collaboratives of fishermen and their families to encourage collective action along with fairness and equality of access for the resources they have traditionally depended on for food security and income.  We learned of an ingenious approach whereby Heifer has provided seed money administered by the local Movimiento de Mujeres de El Oro, to support the empowerment and social inclusion of women in the community as full participants in the Artisanal Fishing Collaboratives. These women-- wives, mothers and daughters of the fishermen-- have chosen to use grant funds to provide low interest loans to fishermen within the organization to purchase needed equipment and supplies. Provision and repayment of these loans is a seen as a viable expression of the Heifer cornerstone value of passing on the gift. As loans are repaid, additional fishermen can access resources and new members can enter the collaborative and, in the long run, new collaboratives can be formed.
The collective has also chosen to use funds to construct a pier and adjoining meeting facility. The overarching goal is to promote community organization and solidarity in working to achieve direct access to the market and fair prices for the catch with the eventual elimination of the middlemen. Objectives to reach this goal include fostering a collective voice to influence local government, holding commercial interests accountable to the letter of the law, and promoting the health of the fishery and mangrove forest.
Our experience with the fishermen was definitely hands on; in fact it was 'all hands on deck.' The Heifer volunteers joined two-man crews on their small boats for a day of fishing.  In between casting and placement of the 1,000 meter nets and hauling in the catch (given a bit of good luck), our crew, Hector and Umberto, told us about decreased catches, piracy, concern for the health of the mangroves with their importance to the ecosystem and expressed antipathy for the middlemen with colorful adjectives. In spite of these challenges, the men had high hopes from their participation in the collaborative.
Celebrating the gift of life one fish at a time.
Following our day of fishing, the community hosted a celebration complete with delicious food and dancing, which was preceded by formal expressions of gratitude and dedication to a vision for a brighter future. Marlena Flores, a primary organizer of this event, made an eloquent speech that touched me deeply. She said that before her involvement in the collaborative she was treated more like a maid rather than a wife and a woman with a say in her life, and that was how she saw herself. Now, after two years with the collaborative, she sees herself and is seen as a valued member of her family and community and knows that her efforts can make a difference in fostering and sustaining healthier, happier lives for all.
“Social Capital” is an abstract concept, but essentially, it references a collective vision, along with new beliefs and ways of thinking and acting that make change possible. Combine that with solutions, systems and structures created through interdependence and synergy, add ongoing support from Heifer’s 12 cornerstone-based training and education, and you have a recipe for an improved standard of living within stronger and more vibrant communities. – John Brewer


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