Fish: our tasty, slimy, and nutritious friends are disappearing. Fast. Since the rapid industrialization of the fisheries industry is hardly regulated, a lack of enforcement mechanisms means marine ecosystems are being scoured freely to keep up with the global demand for fish. Overfishing and bottom trawling by large, heavily industrialized fleets is destroying the physical environments of fish and preventing marine ecosystems from replenishing keystone species, essential to the food chains relevant to all marine life. Ironically, the large-scale fishing industries are not benefiting from their own greedy practices, as they are destructive beyond the rate of replacement necessary for their own profit in a given area. Entire coastal areas are rendered lifeless as large vessels fly flags of convenience from countries with few fisheries regulations and avoid legal recourse. Yet even these massive industrialized fishing fleets, able to move freely with their flags of convenience and exploit new waters are experiencing increasingly lower catch levels, caused by their own harmful practices. As a response to this growing worldwide ecosystemic crisis, the European Union has been debating the terms of future changes to its Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
Realizing that such destructive vessels exist within the sovereign waters of EU countries is disturbing. However, realizing that many times that number of vessels operate internationally is absolutely terrifying. This is particularly pronounced in countries with weak capacities for enforcing environmental laws. The Environmental Justice Foundation has an excellent short documentary on the topic with particular relevance to the developing country context.
Data gathered in 2009 by the European Commission show that 88% of the catches exploited in EU waters exceed their stock’s renewal capacity because of trawling techniques. The same data also show there are 15,744 vessels (18% of the EU fleet) using trawling as their primary method of harvesting. If even the EU, among the strictest of environmental enforcers, is unable to prevent the decimation of their fish stocks, how can the international community expect to tackle the issue at a global scale?
Bitching and complaining has indeed been rampant about the failure of quota proposals for overfished species. At the same time, those in the UK seem obsessed over the idea of regional policy management and a general reduction in overall fishing. Unfortunately, NGOs and European policy makers have failed to propose measures that strike at the heart of the ecosystemic issues I just highlighted. In addition to its current suggestions an effective CFP must set a bold global example by:
– Outlawing bottom trawling and industrialized vessels over 75 meters in length in all cases
– Going beyond the promotion of eco-labeling and create EU-wide policies that prevent any unsustainably caught fish from legally entering European markets
– Supporting the growth of small-scale, locally sourced and operated fisheries and markets
– Actively lobbying outside of the EU for municipalities, national governments, and intergovernmental organizations to recognize that, regardless of the short-term profitability, the global demand and supply for fish must decrease due to changes in policy, consumption ethics and a decrease in fishing practice, not an industry status quo through “free market” liberalization, deregulation, or a primarily economic focus
This is, perhaps strangely, not the first piece I’ve written on the topic of palm oil lately. But a recent NYT op-ed called “The World Bank’s Palm Oil Mistake” caught my attention. The article calls out the World Bank’s IFC for freezing its funding on palm oil projects while reevaluating its strategy for the environmental and social impacts of palm oil production, specifically due to the freeze’s negative effects on Nigerian producers. And while I agree with the author on certain points, his attacks fall short.
Why do we care about palm oil anyways?
In a nutshell, it has a variety of uses and nutritional properties from biodiesel to food products. Its production can be used to diversify and strengthen developing economies. On the darker side, palm oil production has been implicated in severe environmental degradation via deforestation as well as the exploitation of socially marginalized groups.
What’s the World Bank’s mistake?
Because the majority of palm oil production occurs in Asia, specifically Malaysia and Indonesia, the environmental issues arising from palm oil are often Asia-centric and may fail to take the specificity of other nations into account. After all, the funding freeze occurred after complaints from “smallholder and indigenous groups in Indonesia” –a far cry from the Nigerian context. By freezing investment in all countries, producers in Nigeria are put in a difficult economic bind.
But the article’s reasoning lost me right about here:
“According to the bank itself, since its inception, life expectancy in developing countries has risen by more than 20 years. Adult illiteracy in poor nations has been cut in half since 1980. And over the past two decades, the number of people living on less than $1 a day, while unacceptably high, has dropped for the first time.”
An interesting observation that of course tells us nothing whatsoever about causal impacts. The piece then goes on to advocate that, because of this success, the World Bank should focus more on poverty reduction and less on issues such as environmental sustainability. Ignoring this question for the time being, I looked a bit deeper into the research behind these claims. A survey of Nigerian palm oil producers in recommendations to the World Bank revealed the following:
“With respect to a potential environmental harm (widespread clearance of forests, massive CO2 emissions and the theft of indigenous peoples’ lands) three-quarter of palm oil producers surveyed (75 percent) have never noticed any potential environmental harm caused by the palm oil production. In addition, they are not convinced that palm oil production can be a potential threat to the environment.”
Well, unfortunately, just because I don’t notice my CO2 emissions from flying in a plane doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’m being a bit harsh (note that the Nigerian method of production is generally less wasteful than others) but only to illustrate the point that there seems to be an inherent bias in a methodology that surveys palm oil producers. So, while I’m sympathetic to the argument that it’s unfair to lump Nigeria in with Indonesia on the basis of social marginalization, the existing research doesn’t hold much water. Just like advocates can be accused of greenwashing and blackwashing to lobby for environmental causes, facts shouldn’t be exaggerated to make the opposite case either.
Prioritizing the issues
This brings us back to the question of whether poverty reduction should come before environmental sustainability or vice versa? The author lambasts the World Bank for pandering to lobbyists and becoming “captured by environmental extremists” who put the needs of the environment before those of the poor. Yet both poverty and environmental concerns should go hand in hand to avoid creating negative consequences on one another. I think this is the strategy the bank is attempting to adopt by reevaluating its investment policies altogether. Is it a little drastic to freeze all investments completely? Perhaps. Should they take more regional specificities into account? Definitely. And should they keep funding Nigerian producers? Sure, contingent on increased clarity about the environmental effects of doing so. Palm oil has been a great engine for growth in Malaysia and Indonesia and, if given the chance to be farmed sustainably, it could provide the same opportunities for Nigeria and others in the region.
[Photo credit: the author]
I know, I know….Marx is terrifying! Thanks in part to Fox News. But seriously, it seems that any literature with the slightest reference to the old philosopher with the tweed suit and shaggy beard still makes goose bumps crawl on to the skin of the mainstream. Nevertheless, I say we should venture into the haunted house of Marxist cultural theory and search for some mental tools for development practitioners to keep in mind, particularly the idea of commodity fetishism. Its defining characteristic, for our purposes, is that the world’s current practice of labor, trade, and market relations creates a false reality and this has damaging sociological impacts. It might seem broad to extrapolate these ideas to development, but it is important to challenge our assumptions and perspectives.
So what is commodity fetishism?
Celia Lury tells us that: ‘Marx used the term fetishism of commodities to describe the disguising or masking of commodities whereby the appearance of goods hides the story of those who made them and how they made them.’
Applied to contemporary culture, some seriously weird things are commodifed (even Marx’s corpse) due to a variety of factors that determine value from labor to transaction costs to preferences. If we stick with an anthropological interpretation, Marx provides the challenge that, in the absence of natural and direct producer-consumer relations, we buy into another level of commodity fetishism that heavily impacts our psyche through our distant versions of monetary exchange for physical products in particular. All of this causes a distorted and falsified reality. Support for this can be seen in contemporary advertising in particular. According to Axe body spray, scent takes on sexuality, power and voice, pretending to have additional objective use value by exhibiting the human traits of attraction that the product apparently heightens
So how does this relate to international development?
Unfortunately, these concepts of commodity fetishism in contemporary culture link consumption with international aid. Here’s just one type of example to illustrate the point:
The institution of development aid is supposedly responding to challenges that threaten human welfare, particularly for the world’s poor. Aid has truly globalized, with multinational institutions, massive NGOs, and government agencies working worldwide with presence felt virtually everywhere on the planet. Consumers (reminder: you and I) fund these development actors through institutions they either directly or indirectly support and even through conscious personal donations of capital. Aid itself, is commodified. A great example that illustrates this line of thought can be see here in the Product RED campaign.
The way international aid discourse is portrayed through media, television advertisements, and other visual stimuli such as logos is damaging public perceptions about the realities of poverty, oversimplifying vastly multidimensional human development problems, and doing so through the medium of consumption culture to an overwhelming degree. This approach in part decontextualises livelihoods and reciprocates ineffective policy approaches to development both at the production and consumption ends of the commodity spectrum.
Most importantly perhaps, it is essential for development practitioners to think about the psychological impact that Western goods (from the Coca-Cola in a rural village to the NGO land cruisers) and services (from the physical presence of your typical expat in the field to imagined impact as policy makers for ex.) have on communities in developing countries. An additional problem is that the international aid industry is exporting its ideals surrounding consumption en masse with a particular relevance to cities in the global south.
What do we do now?
The point here is to challenge our normal way of thinking with another paradigm. If we understand the ever-changing manner of our global systems, it can hopefully result in more conscious and informed choices.
For example, promoting local sourcing of necessary resources in your community by directly buying your groceries at farmers markets is a start. For the development practitioners…begin deconstructing the context of the work you do in the developing world and examine the various impacts you have. Talk to others and spread the importance of critical thinking. Advocate for specific changes in the treatment of commodities through speaking to your politicians. If there is to be systemic change addressing these issues of consumption, equality of opportunity instead of equality of outcome must be both promoted and lived. Marx’s lens of commodity fetishism is a useful, and often misunderstood, lens that allows for materialism to show its true colors as the opposite of idealism and we must act on that which it reveals.