We are in a little place called San Juanillo, on the pacific coast of the Nicoya peninsula in northern Costa Rica. It was only a few generations ago that this village was founded by a group of ex-loggers, whose jobs had been forfeited by a government wishing to present its international image as forward-thinking and conservational. The group settled here to begin life anew as fishermen. The village grew, prospered and stabilized, but it did not take long for forces from the wider world to catch up with this micro-paradise.
Two mega-forces are often cited to explain why the fish stopped coming in. It couldn’t have been the long-line fishing fleet made up of a dozen boats not much bigger than a bathtub. Artisanal (small-scale) fishing is known to be the most efficient form of harvesting, with the least amount of by-catch (undesirable species caught and killed in the process and wasted entirely). No one in these types of systems gets rich off fishing – the scale does not allow it – but they are able to sustain a living and build communities.
The first force was and is competition with large commercial net-boats, often sent from countries across the world that the locals have never heard of. The second force is the ‘red-tides’, huge algae blooms which are said to be bigger and more frequent now than before, at least by the judge of living memory. These tides are said to be rooted in commercial ‘run-off’, agricultural waste-products which are contributing to the destruction of coastal marine environments and lakes across the world. These two forces are far beyond the control of the community, but they allow us to examine many aspects of the interconnected worldwide economy as they affect us all.
The over-harvesting by well-financed net-boats is a direct consequence of a simple economic philosophy of ‘catch more fish, make more money’. Of course the locals would exploit this principle if they had the power to do so, but the competition of the big players for the limited stock has caused fish stocks to plummet around the world, worse than would be expected from the effects of pollution. Perhaps cooperation toward preventative measures a generation ago could have prevented this economic game from becoming so dangerously zero-sum (for me to win you must lose). However, the utility of blaming the past is slim, and even if we can point to those responsible, we do not expect them to help fix the problems they created.
The ruinous effects of the world’s agricultural run-off is a consequence of the same phenomenon – the most food produced with the least effort applied. It is easy to douse your fields in cheap pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers. The fertilizers produce giant blooms of algae which smother the shallows, and the ‘cides’ simply kill what they come into contact with (the cides are all designed to kill on land, so it is no surprise what happens when they enter the water ecology). It is easy to drag huge nets with big boats and throw away the undesired portion of the catch. By-catch is said to average around 50% of all commercial catches, totalling over 27 million metric tonnes a year, according to the FAO. It is even more when boats targeting small species use nets – like the shrimp-boat problem here – because everything bigger gets caught in the net as well. It takes more effort to contain your farming so that you do not produce pollution, and it takes a lot more effort to selectively fish. The economic incentive as it stands is to exploit as much as you can (avoiding the publicity of the environmentalists – which sometimes forces companies to change their ways, at least temporarily), and let others deal with it.
The others in this case are the people of a small village who are just trying to make a living. There are no more fish to catch, and the subjugation has begun. The most important part of the Costa Rican economy is tourism, mostly from the English-speaking world, and consequently most of the jobs available in a small beach-front place like this are to work for the foreign-owned resorts and restaurants that cater to foreigners in the dry season. I call this subjugation because there is no choice here. The locals do not have the capital to create or sustain their own economies, and there is no welfare to provide food without money. With kids to feed and no fish to catch or land to farm, submission to the foreign-driven economy is the reality the natives face.
This capitalistic musical-chairs system has more than just sad subjugation as a consequence. Those who do not get a chair when the music stops must still eat. Westerners are surprised when they get robbed in a paradise like this, or when they see the armed guards in the market, sub-machine guns in the bank lobby, military-style protection at the ports and marinas, even in a country that doesn’t have a military. But they should not be surprised or confused, this is how the system works. The consequence here is mirrored everywhere – a military system to protect the capital of the few against the peasants. In the west this subjugation is not to foreigners per-se, it is subjugation of the poor to the rich, who might as well be foreigners, as they seem to live in a different world.
The solutions are apparent to those of us working on them, but they are explicitly antithetical to the system causing the problems. Those of us working on the problems in marine ecology know the fish are not coming back anytime soon. We know the rivers are polluted with chemicals and human waste. There are long-term solutions to these environmental problems, but they will not relieve the hunger here in this generation. We know more money is not necessarily the answer, especially because the kind of money that one gets from working a seasonal job at a restaurant will not pay for the types of infrastructure needed to create new, sustainable ways of life.
We may not be able to produce much more fish in a polluted body of water (and practically all bodies are becoming or are already polluted enough to impede ecological sustainability). But we can farm fish, and we can grow food in ways that do not require us dumping huge quantities of chemicals onto the ground and inevitably into the water. These solutions are ‘high-tech’, and expensive, but other options are not evident.
Our agriculture is ruining the soils, and the water-tables underneath that soil and the water bodies that those tables drain to. Our agriculture is depleting the minerals our bodies need to function (if they are not in the soil they are not in the food, and if we rely on food for nourishment then they are not in our bodies). To many of us in the field, sustainable farming in a world of 7 billion persons means taking it off of the ground, bringing it into contained, mechanised systems which utilize science and engineering to its fullest capacity, feeding the most people with the least waste – because sustainability requires waste to be accounted for. Aeroponics, hydroponics, and aquaponics are the solution to agriculture – not more chemicals on our rapidly depleting farmable land. Fish farming and alternative sources of protein cultivation are the solution to commercial fishing, which seems by any measure doomed to failure, perhaps within the lifetimes of people reading this article.
In this system these solutions require money, but this is mainly because capitalism requires capital for things to be done – a system presumed to present incentives has become the largest barrier to advancement, since those most affected by the missing chairs have the least ability to enact the technical solutions to these problems. Those taking away the chairs are not stock-piling them, they are burning them. Those missing a chair lack the ability to build their own. In a place like this the game is clearly visible, but the masters are not here to witness the peasant communities disintegrate. There will be no tourists here if there are no chairs to sit on, and in this situation people turn to wolves, countries turn to chaos, and us westerners change the channel when their stories are presented on the news, for they are unappeasing to the senses. We feel safe from this phenomenon in our home countries as long as it seems that there is a possibility of one day acquiring a chair, but the music is sometimes hard to hear in the shiny cities, or above the lawn-mowers in the suburbrs. Some of you reading this may be surprised and confused when you head out to find a chair and find that chairs are no longer available. You shouldn’t be surprised, for this is how your system works. If you have a chair now you must use it to create more, now, before yours gets taken away. The people here didn’t really know they were playing this game, but now it is clear to them that their system includes the entire world, and those running the show are those controlling the economic factors that trickle down to them. The musical-chairs is created by a made-up, limited-supply of capital, which drives a zero-sum competition to exploit the earth as fast as possible – before others do. These people didn’t know they were competing with the rest of the world, but they now understand that the way out of this sick game is the cooperation of the rest of the world. They had to reach the point of desperation before this concept became clear – hopefully we can learn from their example.