This paper is based on interventions carried out by Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI), a CSO, in four coastal communities in Mexico between 2007 and 2017. The purpose of these interventions was to engage fishers in the design, establishment, and evaluation of no-take zones (Espinosa-Romero et al. 2017; Torre and Fernández Rivera-Melo 2018). An additional program, included here as one of our case studies, focused on training men and women from small-scale fishing communities in leadership.
In the following section, we describe each case study by presenting the fishery context, the sustainable fisheries project being implemented, how the CSO approached the community, and the outcomes with respect to women’s roles and participation in collective action. The cases are presented chronologically according to the date when women took the lead to participate in the projects. For each case, we also identify the three dimensions of empowerment described by Kabeer (1999) (i.e., resources, agency, and achievements) (Table 2).
Ligüí is a small coastal town (less than 200 people) within the Loreto Bay National Park (Gulf of California) (Fig. 2). The main fishing activities are clam harvesting (diving) and finfish (nets and hooks). The project carried out was associated with the sustainable fishing of aquarium species (invertebrates and fish) by the fishing cooperative Mujeres del Golfo established in 2000 by eight women. Currently, fifteen women are members of the cooperative and, in 2015, it was probably the only women’s fishing cooperative out of a total of 254 cooperatives in the state of Baja California Sur (Nenadovic et al. 2018).
This initiative was a pilot project, running from 2005 to 2011, which aimed to assess the use of two fishery management tools (quotas and no-take zones) and propose a community-based strategy for the management of aquarium fisheries. COBI and the women’s cooperative worked in close collaboration. During the first year of the project, a female and a male scientist led the project; then after the second year, the project lead was a woman, with a team of male technicians. In addition, the female president of the Mujeres del Golfo cooperative was a recognized and influential leader in the community. This initiative resulted in the publication of an official guidebook on aquarium fishery management by the national Ministry of Environment (SEMARNAT 2012; Germain et al. 2015). At the end of the project, the cooperative was able to assess, capture, process, and market local fisheries resources, and provide jobs for up to 35 people in the community, including the women’s husbands. Unfortunately, 3 years later, the aquarium fishery ended due to a combination of factors including local and US buyers not paying the agreed prices. The new president of the cooperative also received threatening calls, and the cooperative, itself, suffered unfair competition from illegal fishing, increased transportation expenses (the product was sent to the USA by air from an airport that was a 5-h drive away), fishing permits not being renewed, and internal conflicts. More recently, the cooperative has restarted the process to obtain permits, and when asking the CSO for guidance in the process, they mentioned “it is time for us to take full responsibility.”
As mentioned, the cooperative was established by an exceptional leader from the community, who has inspired many and made efforts to pass her knowledge on to the next generation of the cooperative. We also observed how a young woman (early 20s) stood out among the other cooperative members for her empathetic and collaborative leadership style. For example, in 2007, she participated in underwater monitoring (i.e., invertebrates and fish censuses) via SCUBA diving. Previously, diving had not been an activity that women in the community did, so by taking on this task, she demonstrated that women could also participate in these activities. She has also been strongly supported by her husband, he is her diving partner during monitoring activities, and during her travels, he takes care of their child and domestic duties. The Ligüí cooperative has been a significant motivating factor for other women’s groups in Northwestern Mexico, including Indigenous Cucapa fisherwomen and women from five other fishing communities along the Baja California peninsula (Isla Natividad, Isla Guadalupe, Cabo Pulmo, Ensenada Blanca, and Agua Verde). The story of this cooperative has been the inspiration for newspaper stories and a famous national TV soap opera series What we women keep silent (Lo que callamos las mujeres). The episode of this series was called Las Golfas: a derogatory term used in Mexico to refer to a prostitute, and at the same time the nickname for this group due to the cooperative’s name Mujeres del Golfo. The episode tells the story of the cooperative and the women who struggle to be accepted as entrepreneursFootnote 3.
Isla Natividad (2011)
Isla Natividad is a small island (8.6 km2), inside El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, located 8 km from the Baja California coast in the Pacific Ocean, with approximately 400 inhabitants, of which 68 men and 4 women are members of the fishing cooperative Buzos y Pescadores de la Baja California established in 1942. This cooperative and eight others in the region have been recognized worldwide for their successful actions toward sustainable resource management that includes (1) cooperation for the common good, (2) co-management, (3) territorial use fishing rights (TURFs) with 20-year fishing concessions, and (4) a long-term vision for a sustainable economy and environment (Sanchez-Bajo and Roelants 2011; McCay et al. 2014). The main species targeted by the cooperative members are high-value species such as abalone and lobster, and some other invertebrates (snail and sea cucumber) and finfish. The lobster fishery was certified in 2004 by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and was the first Latin American small-scale fishery to receive this certification.
COBI started its collaboration with this cooperative in 2005, establishing two voluntary no-take marine reserves in 2006 which were formalized in 2018 by CONAPESCA as fish refuges. The role of COBI on the island has been, along with other researchers, to foster collaboration with the cooperative and work together to promote citizen science, sustainable management, and marine conservation.
In 2011, a group of seven women (fishers’ wives) from the island approached COBI requesting dive training, so that they could improve their knowledge of marine ecosystems and resources. They asked why COBI only trained and worked with fishermen and did not include women. Two female scientists led COBI’s team, which consisted of staff and students of both sexes, conducting the same activities (i.e., diving, monitoring, teaching, interviewing). The women’s initiative was fully supported by the cooperative and their partners. Today, these women collaborate on international research projects (e.g., with Stanford University), monitoring the environment (underwater data collection, data processing, and sharing with national and international researchers), climate change (e.g., installing and maintaining underwater oceanographic sensors that measure pH, salinity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen), and no-take zones associated with the cooperatives. In addition, this group of women has presented the results at national and international conferences (e.g., Caribbean and Gulf Fisheries Institute 2016) obtaining financial support to attend from the cooperative and from COBI, and through fundraising efforts within the community. These women have inspired other women from the island.
Isla Magdalena (2012)
This island (314 km2) is located in the lagoon complex of Magdalena Bay, Baja California Sur, with a population of 200 people, which can increase to 500 depending on the fishing season. The fishing cooperative of the island, Bahía Magdalena, was established in 1985 and has permits for finfish and lobster and a benthic resource (abalone) fishing concession (TURF). The island also has tourism activities such as sport fishing and gray whale watching. From 2008 to 2015, COBI collaborated with the cooperative on the implementation and assessment of a voluntary marine reserve.
In 2012, a group of seven local women participated in the design and construction of a multipurpose community space, using eco-friendly materials. This was built to support the island’s community where hurricanes have, in recent years, destroyed houses and its assembly hall. Few men participated in this project, firstly, because they did not have time due to their fishing activities and, secondly, due to a lack of interest. Therefore, the women who participated not only contributed ideas to the design of the buildings, but they were also involved in the manufacture and mobilization of materials for construction (Murillo and Lejbowicz 2014). Overall, the women never received strong support from the men on the island or from the cooperative because the initiative was perceived as a pastime for the women. Two women from COBI led the project in collaboration with a staff team of men. In 2014, the assembly hall was finished; but in January 2015, the fishing cooperative decided to open the reserve due to economic crisis and stopped working with COBI. The subsequent phases for the construction of a sustainable town were halted, and the team of women did not continue collaborating on the project, returning to their daily housework.
Isla Guadalupe (2013)
This remote oceanic island (253 km2) is located 241 km from the mainland in the Mexican Pacific Ocean. The island is a hot spot for great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) research and tourism. Around 100 fishers and their families live on the island, and by 1952, they had established a fishing cooperative named Abuloneros y Langosteros. In 2005, the island and its adjacent waters were included in a biosphere reserve. During the design and assessment of voluntary no-take zones to protect abalone around the island, a group of eight women were trained in diving and monitoring techniques. Women were also trained to install oceanographic sensors and today continue working closely with the National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) to monitor climate change.
In this case, as for Isla Natividad, two women researchers led the project, setting an example of female leadership. Additionally, the director and rangers of the Biosphere Reserve were women who provided support to female and male community and cooperative members. Today, these women are in charge of underwater climate change monitoring using oceanographic sensors, with the recorded information (e.g., temperature and oxygen levels) being used by the fishing cooperative to decide when to fish and to enhance product labeling.
The leadership program (2013)
This program, designed and implemented by COBI as a Community Leadership Program, was aimed at strengthening human dimensions as well as developing skills and knowledge to allow the sustainable management of coastal resources. The participants also received a coaching process. The applied curriculum included leadership and cooperation courses for the common good, effective communication, negotiation and conflict resolution, fisheries management and organization, basic finances, and tools for the sustainable management of marine resources fisheries. The program was replicated, with adaptations, by two other CSOs (Sociedad de Historia Natural Niparajá and Environmental Defense Fund-Mexico) in the region. By 2017, a total of 13 women and 25 men from 18 coastal communities in Northwestern Mexico had graduated from this program. Each participant developed projects focusing on conservation and sustainable fisheries, including teaching best practices, promoting sustainable fisheries, fostering strong fishers’ organizations, ecosystem restoration, recycling, and alternative livelihoods. One participant shared his experience with this transformative program: “I learned that being a leader does not mean sitting on a throne and giving orders.” In 2017, a new generation of leaders started the program with Gender Equality at Sea as the theme.
Three women from the small town of Bahía de Kino, Gulf of California, who participated in this program went on to start their own cooperative that they described as a “restoration cooperative” with the main goal being the restoration of the clam population in the local estuary. In 2017, they obtained a 7-hectare aquaculture concession, clam seeds, and financial support from the government. In addition, they worked with their family members to reduce illegal fishing and promote beach cleanup activities and plastic recycling campaigns. Another woman from Puerto Libertad (2500 people), with her partner, is implementing sustainable fishing best practices in the finfish fishery and constructing a small processing plant to add value to the catch.
The case studies presented above demonstrate that COBI’s efforts to promote sustainable fisheries have contributed also to the improvement of opportunities for women and men and have changed gender relations within coastal communities. The training courses and qualifications provided allowed women to improve their capacities and skills, as well as establish cooperatives and develop their own projects. These changes were also enabled by the strong presence of women within COBI’s staff team, especially in management positions, and taking part in traditionally male activities, such as diving and monitoring.
In the following section, we will examine the impact of COBI’s actions aimed at increasing the roles and participation of women in conservation and sustainable fisheries through the lens of empowerment developed by Kabeer (1999), and how this supported collective action and gender equality.