Gender Roles in Marine Resource Use in Madagascar

9 May

Recently,  2003 alumna Merrill Baker came to Smith to give an ES&P Lunchbag presentation on the research she has been doing in Madagascar on women’s participation in resource management. Baker, currently a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley in the College of Natural Resources, gave the audience a glimpse of the gender roles involved in the Malagasy’s artisanal fishing practices, and explained how marine conservation projects play a large role in the regendering of these practices.

Baker spent 27 months carrying out this research by conducting surveys, doing interviews, and doing participant observation throughout 19 different villages in Madagascar. She found that the women’s traditional method of earning their livelihoods—fishing by foot—was being restricted by various marine conservation projects, and that as a result, the women’s economic contribution and societal status decreased compared to men’s.

On the surface level it is very easy to accept the marine conservation projects’ methods of protecting the reef. They figured that they could feasibly protect and preserve the reef by simply keeping women from treading upon it so frequently. Some of the projects even recognized that they were disrupting Malagasy life and attempted to institute various trainings for the locals in hope that they could earn their livelihoods in other ways. But these trainings did not address the underlying issue of unequal gender roles. Since they consisted of fiberglass-boat building for the men and basket making for women, the trainings therefore enforced the unequal gender dynamic by supporting the men’s role as dominant fisher and primary economic contributor.

In Tsimalaho, a region on the southern coast of Madagascar, the locals had significant management power and were able to monitor the reef themselves. Although women in this region seemed to believe they played an important role in the management procedures, Baker didn’t see their participation as equal to the men’s. While the women would cook, clean, and dance at important events, they played no role in the official monitoring of the reef (though the men did). In other regions where the locals did not have the same management capacities, women resorted to more clandestine methods to retain their economic contributions and societal status. Baker questioned the Malagasy women as to why they didn’t participate more significantly in the management procedures, and they responded that a) women were not allowed to participate, b) women did not know how to carry out management-type responsibilities, and c) women held a general acceptance that “that’s just the way it is.”

Baker concluded her presentation by pointing out that Malagasy women have been catching fish on foot for hundreds of years, and that the marine conservation projects should refocus their efforts. As potential solutions, Baker suggested the implementation of new or different trade regulations, a certification scheme, or more meaningful participatory management. She highlighted the necessity of working creatively within the cultural norms without replicating gender inequality.

The many ways that gender roles are affected by conservation efforts reveals how complicated conservation work is. The land and sea obviously must be managed very differently, and depending on who is doing the managing and how, there can be very different ramifications. As attempts are made to protect a natural resource so precious as the reef, the many different societal impacts must be taken into consideration.

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