Middlemen: a key to ecological management in developing communities

“And now for something completely different,” I’ll return to science…

I’ve recently been working on a project in the background and in the process of finding extra material, I stumbled upon an excellent paper. I was so taken by it, that I wished to make it a feature post of the series in development. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really relevant; climate change wasn’t in the scope of the study (although it will play a role). That said, I’ve decided to review it here instead.

The paper at hand is:

Crona, B. et al. 2010. Middlemen, a critical social-ecological link in coastal communities on Kenya and Zanzibar. Marine Policy. 34: 761-771.

And the story goes…


Many large organisms, or those found in massive numbers, alter their ecosystem through their pressure on resources. Never before has this been better demonstrated than with our own species. We have successfully made physical alterations that are visible from space and are currently working on changing our very climate.

The ironic point, however, is that it is our very environment that is also our life-support system. In the mismanagement of ecosystems, we threaten more than the loss of a few resources.

In Eastern Africa, an example of this is being carried out in developing coastal communities (however, this story is typical of other areas as well). In these communities, traditional small-scale fishing is an established industry, however, fishermen have limited connection to market needs, storage facilities for harvest and collateral on which to rely upon in times of low catch or to repair or replace gear. It is this niche that the middleman fills. In return of guaranteed goods supply, these middlemen provide interest-free loans to fishermen.

Initially, this seems to be an excellent system that supports these developing communities. However, there are a number of spanners in the works that undermine both local economy and ecology.


Middlemen favour migrant fishermen with the loans that are provided to these fishermen as much as 20 times greater than would be supplied to local fishermen. This is largely because the foreign fishermen are regarded as having better equipment and knowledge and thus bring in higher quality catches. The loans for locals are enough to get them by, but not enough to upgrade their gear to compete with the foreign fishermen, thereby largely restricting the small-scale fishermen to the lagoon reefs. The loans also discourage the local fishermen from diversifying their labour in the off-season (ie. traditionally they would work the land when not fishing). This reduces local resilience in years of low catches (which is likely to increase – see below).

By favouring foreign fishermen, the local economy also suffers, as much of the profits obtained from the harvest leaving with the migrant fishermen when they move on.

Bringing in the catch, by Charles Roffey


With the providing of loans, local fishermen are obliged to catch produce for the middleman. As there is a market for almost any edible species, even juveniles, small-scale fishermen will bring in whatever they can, even resorting to illegal methods, such as spear-guns and beach seines, which are detrimental to the local coral reef. Because of their pivotal role in the local market, middlemen also have the potential to cause stock collapse with their power over local fishermen to target species for export markets. The authors highlight an example of this in the Galapagos where sea cucumbers where the target species for an export market, ultimately causing the local collapse of this resource.

By using reef-damaging fishing methods, targeting algal-grazing species – including juveniles (ie. reducing recruitment potential) – and overfishing, these communities of Eastern Africa stand to lose this natural resource. By favouring migrant fisherman and by entering export markets,  they threaten the long term sustainability of their environment and economy for relatively minor short-term profits. I would also add that the damage done to the reefs and modifications made to abundance of many species found in the coral reefs are likely to reduce the ecosystems resilience to change and thus exacerbate assemblage perturbation with the changing climate.

In short, these developing communities are on a fast road to a complete collapse of the resources provided by their reefs which in turn will also reduce recruitment of deeper water (and often economically more valuable) species and surprisingly, this is largely in the hands of an informal and largely independent group of middlemen.

The suggestions made by the authors are the basic principles that I and many others have made in regards to various other ecological and economical situations: 1) the markets and middlemen must favour local producers, 2) diversification will increase resilience, 3) ecological management is the root to economic sustainability.

It may not be the cheap, fast and easy option (as business-as-usual typically is), but it is the most sustainable and in the long-term, most profitable option.


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