Fading of an invisible map

Following the Map: Micheal fishing on the reefs off Pulobha village in Little Nicobar island. Photo: Vardhan Patankar   | Photo Credit: mail_grjgm

The fishing will be good tonight. The sea is calm, and the ghost crabs explore the incoming tide in an unhurried, almost orderly phalanx. Evenings like this are rare in the Nicobars, where the sea is normally much more boisterous, and Micheal hauls his wooden boat across the decaying tree trunks that litter the beach. It's a quotidian idyll, but it hides a violent landscape of memory. The tsunami of 2004 still scars this coastline, and every quiet wave, every fallen log recalls the devastation that December morning left in its wake.

Memories heal. Reefs and forests recover. And here, in the Nicobars, left largely to themselves, local fishing communities find ways to cope with hardship as they have for generations. Disturbance is a vital part of the dynamic constancy the Nicobar fishers build into their understanding of the sea. Like fishers everywhere, their relationship with the ocean is one of functional utility, but it is a unique kind of functionalism, imbibed with liberal doses of totemic spirituality, superstition and ritualised fear. Tonight Alexander can fish in the reefs with his well-honed harpoon. The moon is just past its first quarter, and Mr. Ton, the Weather Man, who knows and decides such things, has declared night fishing open on the reefs. Yet, if Micheal were to spear a large red snapper at night without the Weather Man's permit, through metaphysical forces too elemental for our post-enlightenment rationality to fathom, his little orchard of banana trees would wither, and he would reap a barren harvest for his solitary transgression.

Bonded with the reef

It has been like this for as far back as the Nicobaris can remember, centuries perhaps. The seemingly featureless surface of the waters is cloaked with a reticulate map of permits and prohibitions, idols and beliefs, ownership and sharing that connect the reef and its rich crop to the fishers of the Nicobar. Navigating this map occupies a large part of the mindspace of the Nicobari fishers, because it determines where he can fish, what species he can legitimately hunt, what gear he can use, what time of day or month or year it is acceptable to fish in a particular reef.

There are locations where no fishing of any kind is allowed. If you do, the myth goes, the giant octopus that protects the reef will capsize your boats. At yet other reefs fishing is only permitted for a single day before the most important village feasts. Here, fishers have to comply with a bewildering set of rituals, and when done, return without once turning back for fear of inauspicious consequences. There is functional utility here of course (Alexander will have snapper tomorrow for breakfast), but it's packaged with a bond that speaks of a shared cultural and ecological history linking the fisher with the snapper, the island with the reef.

Eventually, of course, it matters little what tools you use to manage your natural resources as long as they are effective. Our studies in the Nicobar reefs are showing that, particularly for target species, in reefs that have had some degree of traditional management, fish are more numerous and much larger than outside these areas. This may appear to be a quantification of the bleeding obvious. But it is the clearest proof yet that these traditional management systems, couched as they are in superstition, totemic belief or community decree, appear to have been working well in protecting fish stocks from the dangers of over harvesting. The invisible map of permits and prohibitions is a reef management plan, perfected over generations of use by communities who had little else to rely on.

A map unravels

The map is unravelling. As Micheal casts his line in the darkened reef off Kamorta, he knows that he is among the few who actually pay heed in his village to the decrees of the Weather Man. There will be fishers right now, casting their hooks in reefs protected by the totemic octopus and returning unscathed. Still others will be fishing species supposedly banned and the community will turn a blind eye. The authority of the village elders over brash young fishers is fading. The power of myth is fading as well. These are erosional processes of course, and they are likely to increase as the Nicobars slowly opens up to the world.

The erosion has been recent. A striking finding in our studies is that at virtually all locations in the Nicobars, the decline in traditional marine management began in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. At least part of this decline is due to the scarcity, post-tsunami, of fish once relatively abundant in all reefs. More perniciously however, the tsunami brought with it a large bounty of aid bound up with an entire administrative setup required to disburse it. The tired litany that follows is almost mundane. The replacement of one institutional structure with another. The conversion of an economy from self-sufficiency to subsidy. The insidious incursions of the global market. Good intentions, all. Yet, the consequences for the Nicobar fishers and their reefs are profound. Values change. Communities, once tightly knit, become increasingly dispersed. And the individualism of the market economy is always more attractive than the communitarian philosophies of restraint. So it is only natural perhaps that the fading lines that crisscross the water will soon disappear in an open access melee. The path from there to an empty reef is depressingly familiar because it has played itself out so many times across the tropics.

This is a bleak picture. But what gives us reason to hope is that these systems of management exist still in the Nicobars, where they have long disappeared in most other places. At Tillanchong, Cabra, and Menchal for instance, traditional management is still strong. Totemic octopi still guard these reefs, and the words of the village elders still hold sway over the din of the second tsunami of aid. And as long as there are young fishers like Micheal around, still respectful of the invisible maps they travel, the fishing will be good for many nights to come.,

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 1:14:41 PM |

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