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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

Enforcing environmental laws: a societal approach / Philippines.

Posted By: Bob Johannes - responding to Jennifer Kallie and Autalavou Taua
Date: Thursday, 7 December 2000, at 11:43 a.m.

In response to: 'The role of the village communities' (http://csiwisepractices.org/?read=156) (Jennifer Kallie and Autalavou Taua)


When faced with environmental problems, experts on marine resource management often recommend new laws. Yet most such laws are broken routinely in Southeast Asia, and increasingly in the Pacific islands.

Our management prescriptions often ignore this central problem because biologists (who for better or worse are usually the people who prescribe conservation measures) generally don't know how to deal with it. And social scientists who study natural resource use patterns in the region tend to ignore it, leaving resource managers with nowhere to turn for insight or guidance, in designing management measures that come to grips with it.

The only research I have come across that focuses squarely on the subject as it relates to destructive fishing in the coastal tropics is that of Galvez et al (1989). These authors lived in two Philippine fishing villages long enough to gain the trust of the villagers. This enabled them to learn much about why destructive fishing was routine in the area, how it operated and how the participants viewed it. Published in the proceedings of a conference that focused on one bay in the Philippines, their work has not received the attention it deserves.

The authors described how local fishermen justified their fishing with cyanide or explosives by saying that it was a victimless crime, that without it 'how would our children live?', and that there was no other way of catching certain species. Fishermen also said that trawlers operating illegally in their waters, but towards whom the law turned a blind eye, did far more damage to marine habitats. The benefits of illegal fishing were widely distributed within the fishermen's communities, and were thus often seen by community members to outweigh the costs of environmental damage, bribes and (less frequently) fines.

In addition, fisheries enforcement officers were poorly paid, providing strong incentives to overlook destructive fishing practices in exchange for money, fish of other favours from fishermen. In doing so they considered that they were doing the latter a favour. The military was also reportedly heavily involved in taking bribes, as well as supplying fishermen with explosives. Enforcement authorities considered legal penalties too harsh, enhancing the appeal to fishermen of bribery as an alternative. There were loopholes in the law. Politicians who often financed illegal fishing activities, sometimes forced the release of arrested fishermen in exchange for political support from their communities.

The lawbreaking was not confined, then, simply to fishers. Corrupt practices that encouraged their activities were operating in every key institution in the area except, perhaps, the church. Here, then, is an example of why natural resource management laws and regulations based solely on biological considerations often fail.

Education and co-operative management with the assistance of NGOs can assist some fishing communities find satisfactory alternatives to illegal fishing. But such efforts appear to be too time-consuming, labor-intensive and costly to extend to the majority of fishing communities in the region. We have no alternative but to try and steer most of them away from these practices by simpler strategies.

To help us design such strategies, we badly need social scientists to replicate the research of Galvez and colleagues and to extend it geographically and culturally. It should focus not just on natural resource users themselves, but also on institutions whose corrupt practices encourage their environmental lawbreaking.

The primary object of natural resource management is to influence people. Better understanding of the human dimensions of environmental problems is thus essential if we are to improve our performance.


Galvez, R., T.G. Hingco, C. Bautista and M.T. Tungpalan. 1989. Sociocultural dynamics of blast fishing and sodium cyanide fishing in two fishing villages in the Lingayen Gulf area. p. 43-62. In. G. Silvestre, E. Miclat and T.-E. Chua (eds.) Towards sustainable development of the coastal resources of Lingayen Gulf, Philippines. ICLARM Conference Proceedings 17. International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management, Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines.

For an important perspective on a related form of corruption in the Philippines, see Gomez, E. 1999. Environmental charade. Marine Pollution Bulletin 38(1): 1-2.

Mr Bob Johannes,
Consulting Professional,
Tasmania, Australia


MODERATOR'S NOTE: The writer contributed the above article to the WP Forum. It appeared earlier as an editorial in SPC Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin 7:1-2 (2000) http://www.spc.org.nc/coastfish/

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