Mexican Fisherwomen’s Coop Stands Up for Gender Equality and the Environment

Local women are restoring an ecologically important lagoon that provides for their livelihood in Oaxaca's Zapotalito community.

In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the Pastoría Lagoon once provided food and income to thousands of fishermen and women who looked to the waters for fish, prawns, and mussels. But in the last few decades, the lagoon’s health has deteriorated. Species have died out or migrated away. Many of the families who depended on the lagoon have also left.

“Here in our lagoon, we do not have fish anymore,” says Cirila Martínez, a fisher from the community of Zapotalito. “We had a huge amount of prawns but now they are difficult to find, and the mussels are not edible.”

Members of the Mangrove Fisherwomen Cooperative in Oaxaca’s Zapotalito community manually dredge the canal that connects Pastoría Lagoon with the Palmarito Lagoon. The exchange of waters between the two lagoons can help increase oxygen levels in Pastoría.

Pastoría Lagoon is part of the coastal lagoon complex known as Chacahua, which was designated a Ramsar site. Decades of dredging and other infrastructure projects and contamination from agricultural runoff have severely compromised the lagoon’s health. Fish populations, which many locals depended on for their livelihood, have plummeted.

Cooperative members on their way to work on their dredging project. “We can do the same tasks as a man. We have already proven it with our work in the canal. There, we only use shovels and it is hard work,” says member Cirila Martínez.

Martínez belongs to a group called the Mangrove Fisherwomen Cooperative, founded in 2016 by 20 women dedicated to gender equality in the fishing industry. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, women make up nearly 20 percent of the global fishing sector, though their contribution is largely overlooked. In Mexico, 12 percent of fishers are women, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

In Zapotalito, some women, like Cristina Arellanes — president of the cooperative — used to fish with their husbands. However, many men have left the community to find work elsewhere, forcing the women to continue their activities on their own or find a different source of income. Now, these women are taking it upon themselves to look out for their lagoon — and restore the ecosystem that provides their livelihood.

The Pastoría Lagoon is part of the coastal lagoon complex known as Chacahua, which was designated a Ramsar site by UNESCO’s Convention on Wetlands in 2008. The ecosystem serves as a nesting and breeding habitat for fish, shellfish, migratory birds, and crocodiles, while its extensive mangrove forest alleviates hurricane and tsunami impacts along the coast, prevents coastal erosion, acts as a carbon sink, and filters polluted waters. Globally, mangroves are in decline. An estimated 50 percent of mangrove ecosystems have disappeared over the last 50 years. According to The Mangrove Alliance, these ecosystems could disappear completely in the next century without adequate intervention.

Pastoría’s degradation began in the 1970s, when the government started infrastructure projects to keep the canal connecting the lagoon to the sea permanently open. Scientists have warned that this type of work threatens the integrity of lagoon ecosystems as they modify the natural hydrology.

Deterioration continued as upstream tributaries were diverted and dried up to support single-crop plantations and large-scale agriculture. These farms also use large amounts of pesticides — chemicals that make their way into the water system and eventually contaminate the fish and mussels in the lagoon.

Since 2001, the government has carried out dredge works to mitigate the damage to the ecosystem. However, these efforts have been ineffective and riddled with corruption. According to the Ministry of Treasure and Public Credit, Conapesca — the government entity responsible for the contract —spent more than double what was initially budgeted for the project. This year, government officials finally reconnected the lagoon to the sea through dredge works. However, its level is not deep enough. Without continuous efforts and an integral plan, the canal is likely to shut down again, explained Antonio Guzmán, municipal director of tourism and fishing.

Brigida Martínez, a member of the cooperative, holds a photo of the prosperous years of the restaurant managed by the cooperative.

Brigida Martínez, 56, at the restaurant that is now temporarily closed due to a lack of customers during the pandemic.

Virginia García, 45, is one of the few women in the cooperative who continues fishing with her husband. The couple is forced to cross the entire Pastoría to reach the Chacahua lagoon where the conditions for fishing are more adequate. The cost of the trip makes fishing a difficult job to sustain.

Cristina Arellanes Martínez, 35, president of the fisherwomen’s cooperative, sits in front of her house with one of her daughters. The organization has faced some hurdles in recent years, including a drop in membership.

In 2019, the United Nations published an article about how women are more likely to take action to restore ecosystems since they are the most affected by climate change. The Mangrove Fisherwomen Cooperative are a clear example.

But the organization has faced some hurdles. Since its founding in 2016, the cooperative’s membership has decreased to 12 as local fish populations have plummeted. The cooperative also closed its restaurant where it sold fresh fish caught by members.

Still, in recent years, the cooperative has begun a series of environmental projects to restore the lagoon. The fisherwomen have received training by the Fondo Semillas, a nonprofit feminist organization, on project development and environmental issues. They have gained knowledge from interacting with other empowered women in Mexico and other countries through a variety of collaborations such as the Mar Fish Project.

The women of the cooperative also monitor the water quality and contamination levels in their mussels. And in 2019, they started digging to reopen the canal between the Pastoría lagoon and the Palmarito lagoon. Restoring the connection of the two lagoons will facilitate water exchange, increase oxygen levels, and allow easier access to fisherwomen and men as the fish are restored.

“We can do the same tasks as a man. We have already proven it with our work in the canal. There, we only use shovels and it is hard work. But we did it,” says Martínez.

Of course, community-based restoration projects will go only so far in a system that’s stacked in favor of large-scale farms and corporate interests, and in which certain communities are left out of important decision-making processes.

Oaxaca has the second highest Afro-Mexican population in Mexico, but these communities — including Zapotalito — have been ostracized throughout the country’s history, as they were not recognized as an ethnic group. This lack of recognition has led to the violation of basic human rights, such as access to clean water.

While some progress has been made on this front as well, Afro-Mexican rights continue to be violated. In 2019, following a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in which the women of the cooperative took part, the Mexican government finally recognized Afro-Mexican communities as an ethnic group. Yet, the inhabitants of Zapotalito — and the other four communities along the lagoon — continue to wait for real solutions to the environmental and social problem they face daily.

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