Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fishing for Meaning

When I was younger living on Guam I fished regularly for a couple of months. I would go fishing with some guys from Yap or Chuuk with Hawaiian slings. I was never that great at it compared to my companions, but I also had fun. Sitting on a rock watching the sunrise, with a boat full of fish representing your efforts was always a meaningful moment. As I got more serious about UOG I stopped fishing and other than simple rod and reel with my dad, didn't think about fishing much.
Since I moved back to Guam in 2008 I haven't fished at all, but fishing, most particularly native fishing rights for Chamorros and issues of sustainability have been part of my thinking and activism. I helped draft the rules and regulations for the native fishing rights a few years back. They were submitted to the Department of Agriculture who promptly did nothing with them. Other than callers to the Buzz in the morning, no one seems to consider it a big issue anymore.

In the past year I've worked alot with John Calvo and WESPAC of the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council. I've helped them organize their annual Lunar Calendar Festival. My grandfather and I exhibit Chamorro tools that both the Gupot i Peskadot and the Lunar Calendar Festival each year at the Guam Fishermen's Co-op in Hagatna. WESPAC funded a dozen people from Guam to travel to Washington D.C. last July to attend the First Stewards Symposium. I was fortunate enough to be one of them. I was also fortunate enough to get to travel to Hawai'i in October last year to attend a Fishermen's Festival there and also attend the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement conference. This trip was also made possible through the support of WESPAC.

Although I became interested in fishing issues because of the grassroots activist connections, there was another more analytical reason why I have started following and learning about this issue more. Every position in a society is given social and political meaning by the ideological web that creates it. Because of this a position that appears to be solid and necessary one moment, can shift quickly and mean the complete opposite. In any society some positions are more ideologically potent than others. One of the ways you can test this potency is to discuss it with people who have no actual knowledge about it and see what emerges. Part of the elevated ideological status means that people feel compelled to talk about it, to have opinions about it, even if they don't actually know anything about it. Politicians are a perfect example of this position, and this holds true in almost every society. Even if you do not know anything about what your politicians are doing and how the government is operating, you can still make very forceful statements about your leaders being incompetent, corrupt, useless. You can be sitting in a room with people who also have no substantive knowledge about their government, but somehow a vibrant and lovely conversation can take place, whereby the empty and unfounded statements you all make somehow feel as if they just fell from God's moist lips.

This is, good or bad, the potential power of these ideological positions. People can believe in them based on very little evidence or loathe them passionately based on pure assumptions. These societal roles sometimes switch around in terms of their importance and fluctuate as who matters and is essential at one point, but a problem and holding everything back the next. Public employees, in particular teachers are the best example of this.

I have always found it interesting that the Mongol Empire, that terrible, much maligned chunk of history and the world recognized the importance of teachers, but most societies today don't. The Mongolian Empire exempted teachers from taxes since they recognized that the education they provide to young people is already payment enough for the Empire, nothing else should be required from them. They also provided exemptions for doctors and engineers. But today teachers are treated like public pariahs. You can attack them, make assumptions about them, complain about them being the problem whether it be educationally or economically, and even if all of this is pretty disconnected from reality, it nonetheless feels appropriate, feels real.

Alot of times people will describe this phenomena as them being a "scapegoat" or an "easy target." This is part of the ideological equation but not all of it. Since teachers play such a crucial role in creating the next generation it is actually incredibly risky to scapegoat them or target them. If you simply wanted someone or something to blame, there are plenty other "good targets." Part of the reason why the teacher is singled out is because of the way they can take on potential or perceived blame from the public itself. While everyone might argue that children are our future, this is paired with regular discourse that states that children are running wild, are crazy, aren't the way they used to be, don't understand respect and so on. While it remains the parents who should take on the most responsibility in terms of how children turn out, no one really wants to admit to this. It is much more attractive to blame the teachers, to fault them for your own failures as a parent. This is something that the society as a whole can participate in, and it becomes a productive lie that allows most people to feel better about themselves.

Locally, fishermen serve a similar purpose. It is right for people to feel like the natural world is being lost or we are becoming disconnected from it, but the problem persist as to how that issue should be dealt with, and can it even be dealt with at all? 

When you confront environmental issues on Guam, there are many targets, many ways you can focus your attention and focus your perceptions for who is to blame for the problem. In terms of fish, there is a long list of targets for you to choose from. The US military, recreational water sports, inadequate utility systems, modernization of life in general and how that can cause more erosion and more run off. The problem however is that all of these targets are pretty big. They are all interwoven into the way we see life functioning today. They all represent things that are too big to do anything about. Too big to criticize and too big to try and change. Military, tourism, utilities, cars and roads are all things that ideologically we see as being integral to things being comfortable, prosperous and even viable. As a result even though we should look at how these things affect fish and their habitats, and take action to mitigate the damage, we don't really do so. That sort of ideological journey will most likely reveal far more than people are willing to know and learn. It is much easier to simply seek your troublemakers elsewhere.

This is where fishermen come in. You don't have to know anything about fish, fishermen or Guam's environment in order to see that fishermen must be the one's to blame! They catch fish, if we have very few fish it must be because they are catching all of them!

This is where the ideological potency comes in handy. Fishermen have an important part of tradition locally, but that tradition is not seen as essential. Even if everyone on Guam eats fish and it is a huge part of our diet. We have come to see our food and our sustenance as being part of global system of exploitation, extraction of resources, use of racialized labor, which means that most people eat food that comes from a completely different part of the world. But what matters here is that the fishermen aren't see as being necessary, but actually feel as if they are somehow outside of the ways things are supposed to be. Even if they are a big part of the local economy, because of the way they are marked as local, not necessarily Chamorro, but tied to the local and not part of the circuit of meaning that allows the world to be feel interlocked, they can easily be separated. Most people on Guam don't fish and so the fishermen are seen as "other." As being not just a little different, but fundamentally different.

They exist as those who have a very different relationship to nature. One which relies actually on understanding and interacting with it, as opposed to just taking pictures of it and taking vacations to it. This doesn’t mean that they live in harmony with nature. Fishermen all of races can practice things that are destructive and can damage nature. But nonetheless their occupation requires knowing nature. Because of this fisherman, especially those who actually rely on simple methods to fish, feel like they aren't truly part of the community. This is the same way in which teachers who are part of a union can sometimes feel like they don't belong because of that extra communal membership. Because they are more connected to something you are disconnected from, they are easily interpreted in negative ways. This is part of ideological potency. Negativity spills horizontally. It can move swiftly from one assumption to the next, until the position seems to reek of terribleness. 

For all the talk about how Chamorros or Guam used to be self-sustained and self-reliant, this is absolutely no longer the case. That sort of industriousness faded quite a while ago. Ideologically Guam now sees itself as being necessarily dependent upon the outside world for its sustenance. That is why when discussing these issues we can’t take on behemoths like tourism or the military, since that would disrupt the lifelines by which we get life. As a result those people who continue to live in ways tied to the land and to the sea, they may gain extra social meaning as being exemplary of things long past or things that are noble and praise worthy, but the glitch is that they don’t truly seem to belong to a society where everyone buys food at the grocery store and has no idea where it comes from or how much work goes into growing it, catching it, packaging it, shipping it. They are also seen as outsiders and therefore can be assigned the blame for everything in a way that doesn’t seem to threaten the way people feel and believe life is sustained. 

When I was in South Korea in 2010 and learned about the struggles of farmers there who did not want to give up their land for the construction and expansion of military bases, I saw a similar dynamic. Although the farmer may be celebrated as the root of the nation, its hardworking and tough spirited past, the farmer does not represent the modern present. When looking for places to put bases, farmers with their plenty of land, who don’t seem to contribute much to a fast growing modern economy are ideal targets. Every segment of society has its own ideological weight, and taking land from farmers may seem wrong, but it is much more palatable than taking land from poor apartment complexes in urban areas. But taking land from poor apartment complexes in urban areas is much more palatable than taking land from rich people in suburban areas. Every group, every place has certain values and ideology is the prism that helps us ascribe value and necessity to things. It is intriguing because smallness or outsideness alone do not determine these values. The amount of rich people with the sheer amount of resources they have should mean that if there is any sacrifice to be made, they should be the ones to make it, since they have the most to give up and there aren’t many of them anyway. But the rich are seen as essential to life. They are job creators, they are captains of industry. Without them economies would disintegrate, society would fall apart and chaos would ensue. The poor, the fishermen, the farmers, teachers (to some extent) they are all small in terms of their political power and ideological power, and therefore they are seen as ideological expendable. The loathing a society feels for itself and its inability to understand itself, resolve its problems or change things can all be laid upon them. 

One of the materials that WESPAC distributes to people is a fishermen’s code of conduct. It is a list of 9 things that fishermen should practice and for the most part do practice. I’ve pasted them below, since that was what first got my thinking about writing this post:

Fishermen Code of Conduct:

1. Respect nature and your place in it
2. Seek advice of experts with generational knowledge of the local resources
3. Show regard to spawning seasons and juvenile fish
4. Do not waste. Take only what is needed.
5. Keep safe people, property and resources.
 6. Obey fishing laws and rules.
7. Use proper gear and techniques.
8. Pick up your trash.
9. Share your catch.


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