In the Alchemist, Paulo Coelho’s young hero, a shepherd, travels great distances in search of a treasure only to find at the end of his adventures that the treasure he seeks is in the very spot where he began.
I am reminded of this parable in considering the Maldives and their fisheries. There you are surrounded by pristine seas, a people moulded by the rhythm of the seas, fed by its bounty over hundreds of years – with amazingly the most sustainable method of tuna fishing in the world.
It is not just sustainable in fishing terms but more importantly in terms of the communities that fish – widely inclusive, fundamentally democratic – this is a treasure buried beneath the sands of your lovely islands.
The problem is that nobody is prepared to pay you properly for this sustainable method. They want to pay you the lowest price possible, determined by an unthinking international market that will never pay the real cost price.
So in line with this situation, more and more voices in the Maldives are urging for the fisheries to become more industrial and supposedly more efficient or modern – bigger boats, purse-seine nets and long lines, all fishing methods that sustainability experts denounce as damaging. This, in a state that wants to be carbon neutral in 10 years time and sells itself to tourists on the basis of discerning luxury and quality!
This at a time when consumers in your big tuna export markets are finally being informed about the true cost of unsustainable fishing – causing quite a stir as well as a hurried rush by major companies and major tuna buyers to start greening their supply base!
The Maldives should be jumping at the chance to now show the world how advanced it is with its ‘backwards’ traditional fishing methods. Marine experts the world over, including Dr Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, are openly stating that artisan fisheries are the only sustainable future – not just ecologically but even financially because they do not depend on cheap oil and endless subsidy.
The action plan in the Maldives should be to advertise how different your fishing is and work out a way to get a decent return or premium as against the global tuna market price. (It should also be – in line with reducing costs and moving to a zero carbon economy – looking at ways to reduce the fuel usage involved in the Maldives fishing fleet).
So now is the ideal time to start getting the premium you deserve for your tuna. But we’re back to the original problem – markets won’t pay the correct price and it’s almost impossible to get them to do that.
I say almost: the Maldives is in the best possible place right now to start doing this – but nothing happens without a fight. First you need to value the treasure buried beneath your feet: it’s your skills, your knowledge and your history. You don’t need expensive foreign expertise or newfangled infrastructure investment – you’re basically up to speed.
Second you need to outwit the markets. And to do that there is a tool – it is called Fair Trade.
It’s a proven tool – it’s worked time and time again, with producers of primary commodities all around the world. The whole of the Maldives tuna catch could be sold at a definite and fixed premium that is both above the global tuna price and above the cost of operating.
That’s my vision. I’ve done the maths and there’s enough latent demand in fair trade for this to happen right now in the present. Be warned fair trade is no a charity system; it’s an alternative way of trading. If anything it’s how the future of trade should look. Also it’s not a done deal – it will take time.
What’s in it for me? I’m sitting here in an office in the UK. It’s not my sea, it’s not my history – it’s not my resource. But I am totally embedded in the ethical and sustainable business field here in the UK and know from the inside how real ethical alternatives have broken the mould.
I guess I would hope to get some PR for my company and products but my real incentive is campaign-like: it would be wonderful to outwit the whole big company/supermarketing system that dominates the tuna trade and to establish precedent for other artisan fisheries worldwide.
This is what’s at stake. The end buyer, the supermarkets and brands, would not change, nor would the commercial logic of how they buy and sell their tuna. The thing that would change is that the producer at the bottom of the chain would get a fair price – guaranteed.
Fair Trade is about producers co-operating as a co-operative, it’s about a community of people and it’s about business or trade too. A Maldives Fair Trade tuna project can start at a very small scale. It does not need big investment – just the correct organisation structure at the producer level and a Fair Trade approved category (fish products are not yet authorised), audit process and traceability system.
This is not an all-or-nothing gamble. Fair Trade producers can sell also on ordinary market terms. Normally as the market develops more is sold under the fair trade system, and of course the bigger the customer base, the bigger the sale.
What is really needed at this point is an enthusiastic, forward-looking entrepreneurial Maldives fishing producer group that is ready to make it happen! I’m wondering if there’s anybody out there with a spade and a lot of vision?
Charles Redfern is founder of the ethical food company Organico Realfoods and launched the Fish4Ever brand 10 years ago. Fish4Ever is a pioneer brand for sustainability in canned fish and has been the forefront of the recent debate on sustainable fishing in the UK. He can be contacted at [email protected].
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