The Who, What, and Why of Climate Refugees

By Rebeca Camacho, Tenzin Chomphel, and Jasmine Moheb

While the science of climate change remains a heated debate at the forefront of international policy agenda, the reality of people being displaced from their homes due to environmental conditions is a hardened fact. The World Bank has concluded that by 2050, 143 million people will be displaced directly due to climate change. Countries that are especially susceptible to environmental disasters are those coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as they will lack the technology and preparation necessary to overcome challenges that are brought forth by environmental changes, such as rising sea levels and water scarcity.

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Small-Scale Fishing in India

By Annam Raza
Contributing Writer

When nomadic humans first began to settle down, they exchanged their wandering lifestyles for more sedentary ones. This settlement did not occur in one place; these so-called cradles of civilization sprang up all across the world, from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East to the Andes in South America. They did all have one thing in common: they tended to form near bodies of water. As a result, alongside hunting and agriculture, fishing was one of the primary ways to obtain food. As societies advanced, fishing became a specialized skill, creating a community and culture around it.

Fast forward to modern day: industrialization rapidly expanded fishing, and technological advances meant that small-scale fisheries were eclipsed. Our newfound ability to catch large amounts of fish, back when there was a relatively pristine ocean, led to overfishing, depleting the ocean of its once plentiful resources. In the 1800s, we almost hunted whales to extinction. By the 1950s, Atlantic cod and herring, as well as California sardines, suffered a similar fate. The privatization of fisheries led to unequal distributions of marine resources, but despite this, the small-scale fishermen, entwined with history and culture, continued to fish. It was all they knew, but in a fishing market saturated with competition, this created a cruel self-perpetuating cycle: impoverished fishermen would harvest too much from the sea, making overfishing worse, but they had no alternative forms of livelihood.

Today, overfishing is one of the biggest problems faced by marine conservation, alongside pollution and climate change. Commercial fishing needs to be assiduously monitored, as its methods result in large amounts of by-catch and rapid depletion of resources, but the same does not apply to small-scale fisheries. Although they do contribute to the problem of overfishing, the solution is not to shut them down; the livelihood of 12 percent of the world depends on them, and they employ 90 percent of the world’s capture fishers and fish workers. Fisheries and aquaculture are the source of 17 percent of the animal protein consumed in the world and up to 50 percent in some Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Asian countries. Although small-scale fishers supply most of this food, their own families are often too poor to afford food. To overcome this paradox, as well as reduce the impact of small-scale fisheries on overfishing, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) collaborated with governments to develop a set of ‘Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication.’ One particular emphasis within the guidelines stands out: the role of women in fisheries.

Women are severely overlooked in fisheries, despite making up a significant percentage of the work force – almost 46 percent, according to some statistics. They are involved in pre- and post-harvesting work, as well as other forms of aquaculture such as collecting mollusks using hand nets, and managing households when men are away at sea. Despite their quiet (but clearly significant) contributions, they are rarely economically remunerated, and relegated to a lower socioeconomic status. By neglecting to include them in development and support systems, policies reduce their chances of breaking the cycle of poverty, but their importance in households is undeniable.

One of the strategies to curtail overfishing focuses on this importance: instead of urging men to find alternative forms of employment, women should be offered microcredit, providing them with resources to find food, and money, elsewhere.

What is micro-credit?

Founded in 1983 in Bangladesh, Grameen Bank decided it would extend small loans to impoverished people without collateral, a credit history or proof of steady employment. 95% of the bank’s loans are to women, although they are not necessarily gender specific. Although intended to help alleviate poverty in cities and agricultural communities, this theory could easily be adapted to suit coastal communities.

Not only would this help alleviate overfishing, it would also benefit the women. It would encourage them to develop their entrepreneurial instincts, and allow them to be more creative. More often than not, they cannot afford an education, but this would give them the liberty to exercise their intellectual muscles. This, in turn, would strengthen their presence in communities, allowing them to be acknowledged as visible strongholds. It is foolishly optimistic to think it would overcome gender inequality, but it would certainly help reduce it, and having actual capital to work with, their worth would be quantifiable. Over time, as they focus more on external avenues of income, women would be less inclined to have more children, as they would have a concrete reason to have smaller families. This could help address another problem plaguing our planet: overpopulation. The intrinsic education that would come along with learning to manage a small business would hopefully spill over into the awareness of a smaller family being a smarter idea. Over time, this could lead to better education, and eventually, the widespread adoption of contraception, which would again, reduce the population explosion prevalent in so many developing countries

Research suggests that women have better repayment skills, and focusing on helping women is favorable for societal improvement. As they also tend to have longer life expectancies than their husbands, they are usually the dominant gender in old age, replacing the men as heads of households. These schemes often allow for intelligent women that have been overlooked to shine in their own right, while still assisting their community.

This strategy is not merely theoretical; it has succeeded already. In Zambia, 700 women from the village of Mbete turned away from fishing the shores of Lake Tanganyika, as they simply could not turn a profit. Zambian fishermen used to be able to catch Buka Buka (Lates stapperssii) throughout the year, but by the mid-1990s, the fish were only rarely caught between April and October. Alongside this, the steep slops of the lake resulted in erosion and sedimentation loss. The importance of the maintenance of Lake Tanganyika, which provides a livelihood for 7 to 10 million people, resulted in the introduction of a revolving fund in 2009, which enabled those 700 women to receive small loans. Initially, they started by planting rice, but the success of their efforts has supported expanded efforts in poultry farming, vegetable gardening and fishpond farming. They even plant cena and pinecones to alleviate the effects of erosion. An initial investment of $60 has resulted in a yearly return of $279, allowing these women to feed their families and send their children to school.

And this was in Zambia. Modern microfinance has humble roots, but since starting in Bangladesh, it has slowly spread across the world. In 2006, the Microcredit Summit Campaign was founded, and members have pledged to end poverty by 2030. The 2014 summit will be held in Merida, Mexico, but there is a very similar one much closer to home; for the past eight years, a microfinance summit was hosted right here in San Diego by the San Diego Microfinance Alliance. The Alliance aims to educate people about microfinance, and contribute to alleviating global poverty. The change will not be a sudden one, but then again, the problem is not a simple one: poverty is intrinsically entwined with other dilemmas we face on our planet. Yet every step in the right direction will chip away at these issues. Although the victories described earlier do not seem like much, they have the potential to accumulate over time. With respect to overfishing, for each family that is no longer reliant on fishing to survive, there is an equivalent marine life population that manages to stay alive and reproduce. So, in this case, every drop counts.

Image by Christian Ostrosky


Bangladeshi Factory Scene

By Aarushi Gupta
Staff Writer

On the eve of the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr, the conclusion of the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan, Delwar Hossain promised all of the employees in his garment factory in Dhaka an ‘Eid bonus,’ analogous to Christmas bonuses around the holiday season in most Western countries. In a country like Bangladesh, with the third highest population density in the world (behind only Singapore and Bahrain) and extremely low wages, extra money around the holiday season, or in general, is always welcome. Eid came and went, and the mostly female workers in Hossain’s factory did not receive their bonuses. In most countries similar to Bangladesh, with a subservient female population and weak economic status in many industries, this would not have become an issue for Hossain – business would have continued as usual. However, due to the increase in lobbies and unions in Bangladesh for these garment workers, the workers were able to fight for their promised wages. On Saturday, October 12, 900 women went to Hossain’s factory and demanded Eid bonuses from their boss. This in itself is a major deviation from the norm in Bangladesh or any third-world country. But these 900 women went one step further; when Hossain claimed that the factory did not have enough money to give the employees their bonuses, the women locked him in his own office for 18 long hours.

This seems extreme; why would so many workers hold out that long for an Eid bonus? Here’s something to think about: the minimum wage for a textile worker in Bangladesh is equivalent to $38 a month, less than half of what Cambodian garment workers are paid and a fifth of what workers in China are paid. According to The Economist, some 3,000 workers were squished into a workspace “the size of a football pitch”. In essence, they work in small, crowded spaces for less than a living wage – eerily similar to a pre-Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in America. On top of that, many of the garment factories export to well-known, high-end fashion labels such as Benetton, Primark, Joe Fresh and Kik. The workers could have been paid more, if the chain of command had acquiesced to it. However, because they were not paid nearly enough in normal wages, they needed to take matters into their own hands for their bonuses. By demanding their bonuses from Hossain, the female workers displayed the solidarity and unity that a constructive union can bestow upon workers who are in need of labor rights and justice. However, this is just one example of garment workers in Bengal actually getting the justice and somewhat fair payment that they deserve – there are many prior examples that did not end as well for the workers.

The most prominent case of Bengal garment workers not receiving fair compensation is the case of the April crash of the Rana Plaza in Savar, a town 10km out of Dhaka – 550 workers died in the collapse of a garment factory that had shown signs of decay and negligence before it collapsed. Both the owner and the government were partially responsible– as there are no formal building codes in Bangladesh, no compliance measures were taken to ensure the safety of the workers in the factory. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has said, “90% of Bangladesh’s buildings meet no building codes.” Because of the high population density in Bangladesh (the third highest in the world – 1,034 people per square kilometer), the government finds it easy to neglect certain aspects of its administration, which is by no means an excuse – especially for the textile industry, which is Bangladesh’s primary source of GDP, coming just behind China’s textile industry internationally. With such a huge part of Bangladesh’s economy invested in its largest industry, it is important for the government to ensure the workers’ safety and fair payment. A union group, BGMEA, has been established to stand up for the rights of garment workers. However, those in power have also corrupted the BGMEA. Small-time politicians who are looking to get an extra dose of power often sell out to make a few extra bucks, but the collective mission of the labor union is so far more resolute than the few politicians who have corrupted it.

Another reason that the collapse of the Rana Plaza was so effective in unmasking the vast injustices present in the Bangladeshi Garment industry is that the Bangla government actually refused assistance from the United Nations for foreign aid and rescue assistance. Instead, it preferred to have minimal numbers of soldiers and firemen present to rescue victims from the rubble – ultimately, it was up to locals to brave the debris and find remaining survivors and drag the bodies to safety. When these bystanders grew fed up with the police force and began pelting them with rocks and stones, the authorities actually sprayed tear gas at citizens. This blatant use of force against civilians, coupled with the inability of the local and federal authorities to organize rescue missions, also contributed to the uncovering of the Bangla textile industry’s inequities and corruption. The worst part? This is the third such case in the past year, though it is the first where the architects in charge as well as the building manager were successfully arrested.

Compared to the outcome for the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse and their families, the factory workers from Dhaka seem to have nothing to worry about. However, similar building collapses and worker abuse stories are still occurring in places like India and Pakistan, which seems to suggest that there is a bigger force at work. Inept government systems that operate on foreign rents (such as Pakistan) don’t seem to place value on workers’ rights and equality at all. Combine this with the frequent sexual abuse of female workers in the industry (a trend that has not been completely eradicated from western businesses either), and these women’s actions are realized as a supreme act of courage and unity – partly due to the success of the BGMEA in the industry. They successfully ensured that 900 workers received their promised Eid bonuses, but the mission to restore equality and worker rights in Bangladesh will continue.

A great deal needs to change in these countries, especially if textiles or something similar are their primary source of income, Protecting workers should be just as important as protecting their industry and both ideas should be going hand in hand. Unfortunately, this seems to be too idealistic an idea for many countries to grasp. However, with the harsh spotlight on them from the West, there is a possibility that the Bangla government could change policy and implement stronger laws to protect garment workers. This could include anything from infrastructure laws to more proactive human rights laws, but in the state that the industry is in now, anything would help to sew the pieces back together.

Image by Jorge Cortell