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Cornerstones of a Rooted Economy

Can the small fishers of Trinidad and Tobago become pillars of a new economy when the oil- and gas-based economy finally runs dry?

In an increasingly vulnerable world, we're searching for rooted communities—and what we can learn from them. Read more at our blog, Finding Rootedness.


Fisherman photo by Robin Broad

Fisherman selling grouper.

Photo by Robin Broad.

“Have a gas,” a friend chuckles as she bids us adieu from our town of Takoma Park, Maryland.  It is a fitting send-off since we are traveling to Trinidad and Tobago, a country known by some for its gas and oil, and by many others for its raucous carnival. We are headed that way neither for gas nor carnival, nor to loll with Europeans at Tobago’s upscale eco-tourism facilities.

Rather, we are journeying to see the other face of the country, to spend time in communities of rooted small fishers in northern Trinidad.  Just a few hours away from Trinidad’s capital of Port of Spain, the center of carnival frenzy and the ports from which the oil and gas are shipped, our base is the fishing villages of Trinidad’s rugged northern coast where visitors seldom venture.  We want to know: Is an alternative future possible—one rooted in small fishers, small farmers, and the teeming biodiversity of the islands? For starters we want to know: Can small fishers become a pillar of a new economy as this country begins to run out of oil and gas?

“Aunt Patsy,” an avid herbologist and owner of the rambling dormitory-style house where we are staying, leads us down a steep hill from the inn to the fish depot.  We are in Toco, a town at the northeast corner of Trinidad where the Atlantic Ocean crashes into the Caribbean Sea.  The depot, where fishers store their gear and boats, is a narrow white and green building that abuts the beach and a concrete jetty from which the fishing boats come and go.  On the beach, several fishers are pulling large, heavy nets towards their boats—22-footers that are painted white and blue. Others play dominoes on a long table in the open-air end of the building that looks out onto the water.  A graceful heron is fishing for his own dinner off the jetty. 

A few years ago a technical advisor to the former prime minister actually had the gall to say: “Why do we need fish when we have oil?

We are here to meet Kenny, a retired schoolteacher with a graying beard and sparkling eyes who is now president of the local fishers’ association. He introduces us around, and the stories of the fishing life here in Trinidad begin to flow.  We mainly hear stories of people working hard and skillfully and, if they are careful, managing to catch and earn enough to live a decent life.  A fisherman in his early thirties with a winning smile recounts how he had earlier worked on a cruise ship: “I tried it out to see the experience, but I discovered I can make more fishing. I love fishing. It is my passion.  I know that every day is for fishing but not every day is for catching.  You always want to put away things for rainy days.”

Many of the fishers we meet also grow vegetables and root crops around their homes, and they eat a healthy diet centered on the fish they catch and the root crops locals here call “provisions.”

But we also hear of the travails of marginalization in this oil- and gas-based economy: “Oil spills have polluted the fishing grounds,” says one. “The government has looked the other way as some fishermen use nets with smaller holes that don’t allow the young fish to escape,” says another.  “Illegal trawlers from as far away as Japan scoop up huge amounts of fish, depleting the stocks,” says Kenny.  These are stories of a country which, once oil was discovered, largely abandoned its fishers. Did we know, we are asked, that a few years ago a technical advisor to the former prime minister actually had the gall to say: “Why do we need fish when we have oil? …. We could import all the fish we need from Guyana.”  

We cannot help but remark how strange it seems that such a fertile country with such abundant fishing banks is importing so much food and fish.

The large shrimp trawlers from Trinidad’s west coast are nemeses of the fishers. At the fish depot of a neighboring town, Cecil McLean, a wiry and spritely 80-plus-year-old with an easy laugh, tells us more about these. Cecil was an active fisherman in the 1990s when the shrimp trawlers first came across the horizon into the Northern fishing banks from the busy western coast of Trinidad. These large boats dragged huge nets that caught everything in their path—dozens of pounds of prized red-snapper and other fish for every pound of shrimp. But they simply tossed the dead fish over the side of the trawler. Activist Gary Aboud uses more vivid language: “The destructive shrimpers,” he wrote in 2003, “rape and dredge every juvenile species that forms the future livelihood of these villages.”

Cecil and Gary started an organization called Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) to fight the trawlers. “Every month, a group of us went to Port of Spain to complain about the trawlers,” explains Cecil. “We would sleep in front of the ministry buildings.” Finally, Cecil said, the government responded and banned shrimp trawlers on the north coast.  FFOS’s current campaign is against seismic surveys in fishing grounds by oil companies that are significantly reducing fish catches.

Toco depot photo by Robin Broad

Buying fish at Toco depot (Aunt Patsy at right).

Photo by John Cavanagh.

We ask if any U.S. environmental groups had helped in the battle of the fishers to preserve their fishing grounds. Gary Aboud shakes his head in exasperation: “No. I call them the ‘Monkey, Manatee, Macaw Brigade.’ They care about the animals, not the people. Not about the communities.” Gary and others here find it telling that many of the largest U.S. environmental groups have raised their funds with pictures of endangered pandas and manatees and colorful birds; yet most environmental struggles involve local people like these fishers in northern Trinidad who are the best stewards of these resources.

As we gaze out from the depot at the sea shimmering above the coral reefs, and as we watch the fish unloaded from boats now coming in, we cannot help but remark how strange it seems that such a fertile country with such abundant fishing banks is importing so much food and fish.  The land and climate are ideal for farming and the coral reefs and mangroves are still largely intact for fish, an excellent source of protein.  As food prices rise, and when the oil and gas run out in the years to come and export revenues dwindle, people could go hungry if local farming and fishing are further marginalized. Four decades of oil and gas wealth created a badly unbalanced economy.  But there remain enough farmers and fishers, enough wisdom, and enough land and fishing grounds to change course.

At day’s end, we are still chatting with fishers at the depot as the last boat pulls in. Its nets have yielded an amazing diversity of king fish, small sharks, and numerous other species. Aunt Patsy literally jumps with excitement as she buys a small shark and walks home to fry us up one the great delicacies of the northern coast: “Shark ‘n Bake.”  Over a dinner of fish and provisions and sweet wine made from the fruit of one of her many trees, Patsy wants to make sure we understand that small farmers and these fishers could be a cornerstone of a new economy that is more rooted and more sustainable.

“We get it,” we assure her.


John Cavanagh and Robin BroadJohn Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where Robin first lived in 1977-78.

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