Wednesday 13 October 2004, by Alex HILL, Feroz Mehdi

“The standing crops are minus cotton
The spinners have gone, the wheels are rotten
Today the market place is deserted
And my heart like salt has melted”

- Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Sindhi Poet

Strong winds greeted us in Ibrahim Hyderi, a coastal village of fisherfolks on the outskirts of Karachi. This was the second day when the fisherfolks had been advised not to go out in the sea for threats of a possible cyclone. ‘The past three days of rainfall has been more than what usually happens in three months.’ Says Mohammad Ali Shah, Chairperson of the Pakistan Fisherfolks Forum. Such natural calamities have a devastating effect on the coastal and Delta communities already crippled by the skewed development priorities of successive governments of Pakistan.

Damned by a battery of dams built on the upstream, the flow of the Indus river, country’s primary source of fresh water, in the Arabian sea has become a trickle. Waters that once delivered silt to the estuarine fishery nurseries, fed lakes and supported agriculture in the region have been greatly diminished, or have ceased completely. The consequences on the local Sindhi communities are devastating. Wells and other potable water sources have become undrinkable, forcing communities to purchase all of their drinking water from outside. Farms have been abandoned as the crops dried up and salt poisoned the soils. The once thriving small-scale coastal fisheries have all but collapsed as the mangrove stands have disappeared. The end result is a landscape barren of opportunity.

Not many years ago the Delta region of Sindh, Pakistan was a thriving economy. The Indus River, Pakistan’s lifeline, flows from the Tibetan Plateau to the Arabian Sea . All along its 3000km course communities depend on the Indus River for their livelihood. In its final reaches, the Indus River spreads out into a fan-shaped delta of meandering creaks and channels where over 130,000 people rely on the region’s diverse and unique eco-systems.

One visit to the Delta coastal areas of Thatta and Badin Districts says more than volumes. Once a thriving port, the town of Keti Bunder now looks haunted and devastated. This area was home to a vibrant network of small-scale coastal fisheries and farms, but the economy that once supported the town has fallen apart. With no freshwater left in the rivers and wells, the town and surrounding homesteads no longer have access to drinking or irrigation water. The farmers inland have mostly packed-up and left since the elevated salinity levels made it impossible to grow crops.

Farmers who turned into fisherfolks have another problem to face in this neo-liberal world order, the multinational fishing industry. Offshore trawlers, operated by foreign companies, continue to harvest tons of fish from the deep seawaters. However, as stocks continue to decline, these trawlers have been encroaching on the 15-mile coastal zone that is reserved for small-scale fishing and fish breeding.

As one villager put it, “What are we to do when the land and waters become a desert? Where should we go, and how can we feed our families?”

Add to that the effect of the ongoing tensions with the neighbouring country India with which Pakistan shares its borders. Poor fishermen are easy target and victims for the Border security forces of both the countries.

Many fishermen are spending time in jail in both the countries. ‘We have been on the forefront for the cause of the fishermen who are arrested by the Indian Navy’ says the General Secretary of the PFF Saeed Baloch. A month ago he was mandated to retrieve the bodies of three fishermen shot dead by the Indian Navy. Along with their counterparts from India who are equally harassed by the Pakistan Navy, the fisherfolks form an important voice in the movement for regional peace called the Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy.

The movement built by the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum seems to have an effect. By using militant and popular forms of making their voices heard through public demonstration, blockades and court arrests, it has caught the imagination of the Pakistani media. And even the politicians are listening. Lately the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has expressed her concerns for the fishing community of Sindh and even the President Musharraf has hinted on setting up a Commission to look into the matter. Added to the popular methods of mobilization, the PFF has also embarked on a campaign to provide scientific studies to the root causes of the problems faced by the Deltaic communities. An international conference held in Karachi on October 7 and 8, 2004 marked the beginning of a series of studies to find out the causes of the problems. Supported by the European Commission and Alternatives from Canada, this exercise gives an added political advantage.

Pakistan Fisherfolks Forum was formed in 1997 and has a membership of over 12 000. ‘The success of this movement comes from the bottom-to-top approach. Its membership at the local levels sets the priorities through a series of consultations’ says Shah. Indeed the PFF members are present in nearly all the village communities in the Delta. The latest cyclone fizzled out in its strength but the heavy rains has caused immense damage to the communities. The PFF members are working day and night to get them relief and providing transport for relocation. ‘We are with the fishing communities in all aspects of their life. We have a strong membership ready to jump into relief work whenever the need be.’

On November 21, the International Fisherfolk day, the PFF is planning a massive get together and aims to bring over 5000 people from the community in a Forum it is organizing in Karachi.

The writers are both Project Officer for Asia at Alternatives.

À propos de Feroz Mehdi

General Secretary, Alternatives International *

Feroz Mehdi is one of the founder member of Alternatives. He has been working on projects related to the countries in South Asia. He has also been working in education programs in Quebec and Canada organizing conferences and contributing to publication of newsletters and other documents of analysis and information.

Since 2007 he has taken the job as General Secretary of Alternatives International. The federation of AlterInter has 9 member organizations from Canada, France, Brazil, Israel, Palestine, South Africa, Niger, India and Morocco and its Secretariat is in Montreal.

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