Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Auction Lease System in Lower Burma's Fisheries, 1870-1904: Implications for Artisanal Fishers and Lessees

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Auction Lease System in Lower Burma's Fisheries, 1870-1904: Implications for Artisanal Fishers and Lessees

Article excerpt

In a survey of Burma's fisheries at the end of the colonial period, U Khin argued that expansion of the fishing industry was of great importance because it involved three distinct interests: the revenue of the state; the welfare of the large community engaged in the industry; and the needs -- considerable in a country where fish was the main accompaniment to the staple, rice -- of a large body of home consumers. [1] Unfortunately, in the past, he added, the policy of the Government had been criticized for being "inordinately, if not exclusively" dominated by the first of these interests:

Mr A.M. Bown [then the Special Fishery Settlement Officer for Burma] remarked in 1929: "Burma takes from her fisheries now one-eighth as much as the Land Tax, and gives back nothing". More or less the same opinion had previously been expressed by the Indian Industrial Commission in 1916. None the less disparaging were the remarks made by Mr J.S. Furnivall in 1933: "Fish is a staple diet of Burma and fishing is one of the chief industries. But up to the present nothing has been done to develop the industry and, except as a source of revenue, it has been almost wholly neglected". [2]

Further on, he made the point that, while the Government of Burma had been a leader in fishery legislation within the Britain's "Indian Empire , one cannot escape the conclusion that in all these activities Government was almost exclusively pre-occupied with the question of security or improvement of the fishery revenue". [3]

This paper is concerned with the nature of that "revenue raising" attitude in the first period of fishery legislation from the early 1870s to the turn of the century. It seeks to evaluate the social impact of legislation formed under these conditions -- in particular with regard to its effects on artisanal fishers and those with "traditional" financial interests in Burma's inland fisheries. It will show how in Burma, as in the other provinces of British India, legislation and the administrative arrangements made as a consequence of that legislation could fundamentally re-shape the organization of the fisheries to the detriment of the fishers and the advantage of new local capitalist forces.

The Burmese Fisheries

Burma, with her extensive inland waters ... possesses rich fishery resources. Her inland fisheries have been worked to a considerable extent since the early days, and ngapi [fish preserved with salt] was an important article of early commerce between the Mon country and the Kingdom of Ava. [4]

Given their importance, how were these inland fisheries worked? The several reports which we have from the colonial period provide an overall picture. [5]

An extensive system of perennial rivers throughout the country was the key to the Burmese situation; but it was the heavy rainfall of the southwest monsoon that brought the bonus of the creation of the most valuable fisheries, the inn. Those monsoon rains caused

the rivers to flood the low-lying parts of the valleys. The extensive shallow-water area occurring annually provides innumerable breeding grounds and a sufficiency of rich pasturage for the growing fry and the adults alike. [6]

Of Burma's many rivers, the Irrawaddy was the most important in fishery terms: it produced 70 per cent of the freshwater catch from the inn created along its course and the rich fisheries of its delta: aing (deeper sections of the natural drainage channels); gayet (depressions in large cultivated areas); and ton (narrow straits between islands in the delta). All told, U Khin distinguished six natural types of inland fisheries through the country: the main channels of rivers; seasonally formed riverine lakes -- inn, aing, gayet; estuaries, including ton; inundated paddy fields and low-lying areas within the flood line of rivers; perennial lakes and tanks; and irrigation canals and distributaries.

This broad spectrum of fisheries used a wide range of techniques and equipment: some practised bunding and baling, despite the destructive aspects of these methods; estuarine fisheries employed fixed engines and a variety of fixed and unfixed nets, as well as hooks and lines; and special methods were used in shallow or narrow waters such as paddy fields and irrigation channels. …

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