The Politics of Patronage and Live Reef Fish Trade Regulation in Palawan, Philippines

By Fabinyi, Michael | Human Organization, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Patronage and Live Reef Fish Trade Regulation in Palawan, Philippines


Fabinyi, Michael, Human Organization


Recent critiques of decentralized approaches to fisheries management have focused on problems related to poor governance. This paper aims to extend such critiques by considering in greater depth local perceptions of governance in the Philippines. Specifically, it deals with a set of regulations addressing the live reef fish trade in the Calamianes Islands. The paper shows how the entire process of implementing a closed season, the fishers' critique, and the subsequent overturning of these regulations exposes the way personalized politics is understood and practiced within Philippine society. Firstly, a background about the live reef fish trade is provided, and how the regulations were proposed and developed is described. The majority of the paper then analyses local opposition to the regulations in terms of local understandings of politics. The paper argues that when negative sentiments towards governance and governments are widespread among local residents, this may hinder successful co-management.

Key words: live reef fish trade, patron-client relationship, Philippines, governance, fisheries management, Palawan

Introduction

Arguments about regulation of the live reef fish trade erupted through the last few months of 2006 in Palawan province in the Philippines. This paper details how the process of regulation was understood, expressed, and contested by different stakeholders, and what this whole process reveals about the ways environmental decisions are made in Philippine political life. On the one hand, proponents of regulation such as conservationists and politicians at the provincial level called for a closed season, saying that such a move was necessary to protect the future of the industry. On the other hand, opponents of regulation such as the live fish collectors, traders, and municipal governments argued that such a move would have a massive impact on their livelihoods and greatly increase poverty in the region. The process of regulation was understood by local fishers as a political process, one which was representative of a pattern in fisheries governance, and more broadly, a pattern of governance generally in the Philippines, that was understood as unjust and inequitable. I show how the entire process of implementing a closed season, the fishers' critique, and the subsequent overturning of these regulations exposes the way personalized politics is understood and practiced within Philippine society.

The practice of devolving some measure of responsibility for coastal management to local and community governments has been a central goal of many fisheries management initiatives in various tropical developing countries such as the Philippines since the 1980s at least (Courtney and White 2000). Such moves towards decentralization were a part of the broad trend towards community based natural resource management and integrated conservation and development projects that occurred throughout the world (Brosius, Tsing, and Zerner 2005; McShane and Wells 2004). In the Philippines, this was marked by various legislative reforms, including the passage of the Local Government Code of 1991 and the Fisheries Code of 1998 (Courtney, White, and Deguit 2002).

Recent critiques of these decentralized approaches to fisheries management have focused on the problems surrounding governance and participation, arguing that participation and genuine co-management has been limited by the lack of any honest attempt to devolve power to local communities (Eder 2005; Lowe 2006; Ratner 2006). In Indonesia, Celia Lowe (2006:151-152) contends with regard to the management of the live fish trade that:

While poor people were the first to suffer penalties, they also assumed the greatest risks, yet were excluded from the highest live fish profits. Laws, as they were written, interpreted, and enforced within the entrepreneurial Indonesian bureaucracy, enriched bureaucrats and their organizations and failed to protect either species or citizens. …

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