Which brings me to my research on the women from the fishing community of Buffeljagsbaai, a rural fishing village close to the southern tip of South Africa, 170km from Cape Town. It is a small, extremely vulnerable community of only 300 people.
Shellfish abalone, known locally as “perlie” or perlemoen, is in high demand, particularly from the Far East. In South Africa, abalone is heavily restricted, but illegal harvesting by organised criminal networks has caused stocks to plummet, dramatically impacting the legal abalone farming industry.
Abalone poaching in South Africa is illegal, carrying severe penalties, but in Buffeljagsbaai the women’s economic dependence and vulnerability means they are regularly exploited by local and outside poachers and coerced into engaging in criminal activities, often with disastrous consequences.
The level of desperation is high. A lack of alternatives, compounded by the lure of easy money, drives many in the community to participate in illegal poaching activities. Many women in the Buffeljagsbaai community have husbands, sons, partners and brothers who are engaged in illegal abalone poaching. Traditional engendered roles consequently entrap these women in supporting these poaching activities by preparing food, cleaning wetsuits, storing catch bags in their freezers and permitting boats to park on their properties.
One of the biggest challenges has been the shift from poaching as a small-scale local activity, to the influx of highly organised external gangs and crime syndicates, destroying local livelihoods and increasing fear and despair. There are strong allegations that criminal syndicates have made inroads into local law enforcement, which only adds to the dangers facing the community. Allegations abound of racketeering and corruption from the local level right up to the highest reaches in government. Ask yourself the question: what happens after abalone is confiscated? You will probably come up with some interesting scenarios in your own mind.
Under the auspices of blue growth policies, the Buffeljagsbaai community land has been earmarked as a prime abalone aquaculture zone, and apportioned to large companies.
However, there has been little local consultation or participation in this process, and there is resistance from the community who want an ownership stake in any future development.
In all, the future looks bleak for the members of this forgotten community on the southern tip of the Continent. The women of Buffeljagsbaai face an ongoing struggle to have their voices heard and their needs met against a backdrop of one of the most divisive and politically sensitive issues facing vulnerable coastal communities in South Africa.
In my research with PescaDOLUS, an independent research and capacity building network on fisheries crime, I have found that the complex drivers of fisheries crime in this community underscore the importance of a law enforcement approach geared at identifying and prosecuting the organised criminals benefiting from these illegal activities.
*Prof Moenieba Isaacs is an academic and researcher with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at UWC. Her research focus is on understanding the social and political processes of fisheries reform in South Africa. She focuses on small-scale fisheries policy processes and implementation.