The sea belongs to everyone, and everyone must look after it

Mexico | Quintana Roo | Isla Mujeres

Manuel Mendoza is a lobster fisherman: he’s been working in this profession since 1968 in Quintana Roo, in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. His story shows how a community can get organized autonomously, with no government help.

«When I was a child, my grandparents worked at a lighthouse. They harvested coconuts and hunted crocodiles and turtles to eat. In the Sixties, Cubans started becoming interested in bartering: we Mexicans from the Cancùn area would give them our lobsters in exchange for coffee and biscuits. This is how the tradition of lobster fishing began.

At the beginning of the Sixties our community had 120 lobster fishermen. Now we are only 80. It was the Gilberto hurricane, in 1988, which caused this drop. It swept away the coast and scared thousands of people who ran away leaving everything behind, even their debts with banks which we – the only 40 fishermen left in the community – had to pay back. It was not easy and it took us seven years, without getting any help.

Very slowly, we got up again and tried to sell whole, live lobsters. Today, we export to Malaysia and Hong Kong. Despite the hurricanes which make our work hard, production has been kept constant: about 100 tons a year.

In order to achieve this goal, we had to write down some rules. In our bay, we are independent and fish with our own equipment. Fishing lobster is like catching butterflies, because the animal must be kept alive. This is why we do not use nets or scuba tanks: we dive relying on our lungs alone. We have spontaneously subdivided the bay into a grid: we now have 80 sea “portions” which each one of takes responsibility for and looks after carefully. According to our rules, if anyone comes and works in my area with no authorization, they can be evicted from the community.

We work with the government: we created a fishing cooperative in 1968 and I have been its president for 25 years.
Usually, laws do not include provisions which are adequate for us: this is why we do not wait for authorities to take care of us and the area where we live. This is something we have to do ourselves; I am the only one who can take care of my sea portion. For instance, the law allows the use of nets, while our cooperative rejects it.

I took part in a Slow Fish network meeting for the first time in 2012, during Terra Madre. I like the campaign, and theoretically it works. However, it is very difficult to implement it in reality because each country has a different culture. We all face conflicts within our own countries, but nobody cares about solving their own problems first, and they get involved in those of other people instead. The meeting was very useful to get in contact with other people like me and find out about their experiences. I bitterly realized that we share similar problems too: the sea belongs to everyone, but it is polluted. It is the largest dump in the world! When I am in the reserve, I find rubbish from all over the world. You can see rubbish when it lies on the ground, but it becomes invisible when it is thrown at sea: this is the difference.

Governments invest mainly in farming because they can understand its value and manage it more easily. In contrast, nothing is invested in fishery and the sea. Nobody supports us fishermen. All governments in the world do the same. I understand that farming is in a state of crisis, but they could invest at least a small percentage in the fishing sector. I firmly believe that governments should start from each individual community. If the government created infrastructures and offered aids and communities did not make use of these, it would be a different story. Governments are like fathers and should give their people all they need to grow up strong and healthy.

I believe we should change our perspective on fishermen and their work. Lobsters, for instance, do not belong to authorities. We can survive thanks to lobsters, so it’s up to me to must take care of them and raise them as if they were babies. This is why I cannot overexploit this resource: I must use it rationally, because governments change from one day to the next and they all think differently. But me, I keep on living in the same country and on the same land, and my children and grandchildren will also live in the same country and on the same land. We must think of those who will follow us.

When I talk about these topics and I tell the results achieved by our cooperative, people look at me in a funny way. Sometimes they even accuse me of lying! But I invite all to come and take a look for themselves at the balance we have achieved: it has taken us a lot of hard work, and we are now learning to communicate what we have done».

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