Fish, Food Security, and Violent Conflict

Fisherman in Lake Victoria
Fishing boats on Lake Victoria. Photo: Soaring Flamingo / Twitter

“If you’re interested in conservation, you’d better be interested in conflict.”

So argues Dr. Tim McClanahan, one of the world’s most highly cited fisheries academics. Fisheries have the potential to provide vital protein to food insecure populations, but paradoxically many riparian communities are food insecure. While Sub-Saharan Africa has been increasing fisheries production and fish exports to Europe and Asia, domestic fish consumption decreased by 15% between 1990 and 2002.  Lake Victoria, one of the largest lakes in the world, is simultaneously home to over 500 fish species and bordered by communities where 65% of households are food insecure.

To better understand these relationships, I spoke with Dr. Tim McClanahan, a coral reef ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Dr. Cullen Hendrix, director of the Environment, Food and Conflict (ENFOCO) Lab at the Korbel School at the University of Denver. Dr. McClanahan focuses on the role of Marine Protected Areas in biodiversity and fisheries, climate change, and fisheries sustainability in coral reefs. Dr. Hendrix’s research explores political economy, food security, climate change, and political violence. 

Food insecurity may be a key catalyst for armed conflict. For example, in 2008, rising food prices fueled resentment among Syrians that eventually boiled over into a devastating civil war. Conflict in turn fuels food insecurity, and post-conflict nations which face food insecurity are 40% more likely to regress back to conflict within 10 years.

Fish and Food Security

What is food security and why does it matter?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines food security as “physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets…dietary needs for an active, healthy, and rewarding life.” According to Dr. McClanahan, food security looks at the total system and the relationship between food, people, and environment. Abundance and stability of food supply are central to food security, which contributes to protein and food diversity.

Food security is essential to human wellbeing. The challenge of sustaining food security, measured as 2,100 calories per day, “must be met over and over, day after day, in order to pursue any other goals,” stresses Dr. Hendrix.

Insecurity may induce desperate behavior. “When people feel insecure, they do things that are often not in the long-term interest of sustaining resources,” according to McClanahan.

It is difficult to shape behavior in favor of resource sustainability when someone is struggling to meet daily needs. In Kenya, poor fishers with few employment alternatives are more likely to continue fishing in spite of declining catch.

What is the role of fisheries in food security?

Fish contributes to food security both directly and indirectly. It is a vital protein source and high in healthy fats. It also provides employment for many of the world’s poor. Poor fishers generally sell the larger, more profitable fishes and reserve small fishes for home consumption. These small fishes are consumed whole, providing more nutrients than larger fishes. Around Lake Victoria, Nile perch (a large, white-fleshed fish) is typically exported, while dagaa (a small minnow) is consumed locally. Consequently, McClanahan argues that to maximize food security, a fishery must maintain diversity rather than having monolithic systems that prioritize production of high-profit fish.

Food security has not historically been a priority in fisheries. Rather, overall fisheries productivity was the top priority. The assumption was, “If you optimize resource extraction, the rest will take care of itself,” says McClanahan. But it doesn’t work out that way. Integrating food security into fisheries management introduces a social component, “addressing a greater concern about equity and fairness,” he says. This ensures that fish harvests actually reach populations in need.

If fisheries are an important source of food, why do some fishing communities face food insecurity?

Sometimes, the answer is simply a lack of fish. And lack of fish profoundly hurts the poorest, most food insecure populations. Global catch reconstructions by Thara Srinivasan and Rashid Sumaila showed how overfishing negatively impacts food security. They estimated 10 million metric tons of fish were lost in 2004. Translating that loss into calories, overfishing undermined food security for 20 million people in countries where undernourishment already exceeds 5% of the population.

Both Hendrix and McClanahan contend that food insecurity in fishing communities results from a combination of localized fish or food scarcity, lack of access to markets, and few alternative livelihood options.  Low levels of education and rural isolation mean many of the world’s poor face limited employment options which makes them less resilient to food scarcity and hence more likely to continue to fish amid scarcity. Isolation also results in lack of market access, meaning lower profits for the rural poor.

Men and women also play different roles in the fishing sector and contribute differently to food security. In East Africa, where McClanahan focuses his research, men are more profiteering and trade on a larger scale while women contribute to food security on a local level, feeding their families and communities. Overlooking these roles can have ramifications for food security. In fact, Geheb argues that men’s exclusive control of the Nile Perch fishery is responsible for malnutrition around Lake Victoria. 

Food Insecurity and Conflict

How can food security be a cause of conflict?

Food insecurity has the potential to catalyze or deter violent conflict depending on the context, and often in indirect ways. Dr. Hendrix describes three ways food insecurity may cause conflict:

1) Appropriative conflict (literally fighting over food),

2) Making participation in rebel movements more attractive to young, hungry people, and

3) Generating grievances that may be directed at governments that do not intervene to provide food

Here are some instances of these mechanisms:

  • Some claim that fighting over fisheries resources has more to do with assumptions of scarcity and subsequent unjust management than groups literally fighting over fish. McClanahan argues that the perception of fairness in fisheries management is one of the most important factors contributing to violent conflict over resources. Low fish stocks provide a foundation for resource conflict, but the perception of inequity is the real trigger. This may amplify frustrations when an external group partakes in unsustainable fishing practices, such as dynamite fishing in Tanzania or in the case of corrupt governance: “If you can’t eat because someone else is paying off the government, then that creates    frustration.”
  • In Somalia, decreasing livestock prices during drought increased the likelihood of engaging in conflict because it decreased opportunity costs and made the benefits of joining armed groups more attractive. This mechanism is highly context specific. In Sierra Leone, the promise of food was effective at recruiting combatants, but not in Burundi or Colombia. Between 2010 and 2012, Al-Shabaab strategically destroyed food sources, but the effort backfired and reduced their support base.
  • Food price spikes in 2008 were fundamental grievances that catalyzed the Arab Spring across Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. They were also the focus of anti-government riots in Syria. However, the actors in these scenarios were not among the most poor or food insecure. Those suffering from severe malnourishment are not likely to engage in conflict. Dr. McClanahan believes that spikes in food prices may signal a threat to the middle class, resulting in protests over high food prices.  

How do conflicts cause food insecurity?

The inverse relationship is much more direct – conflict clearly results in food insecurity. Hendrix uses the example of Syria to illustrate this point: “…food prices and food price inflation may have been a contributing factor to the initial uprisings against the Assad regime, but the conflict itself has generated real hunger….” This is due to common elements of violent conflict, including destruction of land and infrastructure, decreased mobility, and denial of food. To illustrate another case, between 2010 and 2012, conflict and drought in Somalia resulted in famine which caused over 250,000 deaths.

However, the impacts of conflict on fisheries, specifically, are more complex than impacts on other sources of food security. In some cases, fisheries have actually rebounded during conflict, such as after the Eritrean – Ethiopian war or the classic example of thriving fish stocks in the North Atlantic during World War I. On the other hand, conflict reduces a State’s enforcement capacity, exposing waters to external exploitation or illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. A study of 123 countries found that it takes over eight years following a civil war for fisheries to rebound.

The relationships between fisheries and food security, and between food security and conflict, are complicated and context specific. However, these systems do not exist in isolation. Food security must be explicitly prioritized in fisheries management in order for production to reach undernourished populations. Food security can also support stability, economic growth, and resiliency to conflict. Without exploring these linkages, natural resources and those who depend on them may suffer.