Public Authority through the eyes of a Dead Fish

One of the highlights of last week’s conference in Ghent was a presentation by Esther Marijnen about her research Esther Marijnenin the Eastern Congo, conducted with Chrispin Mvano. Esther is trying to understand how rebel groups (of which DRC has many) see nature – across Africa, there is a long tradition of insurgents setting up bases in national parks. To do this she looked at (il)legal fishing in Virunga National Park (famous for its gorillas, where park rangers were recently shot by rebels/poachers).

She spent time in the area, getting to know local people, including the fishing communities, who realized that unlike most of the conservationists, she is not only interested in gorillas, but also in humans. That trust enabled her to uncover how a commodity supply chain interacts with politics and rebellion.

One way she did this was by jumping in a car and followed a motor bike transporting fish from the lake to the market, for which it had to cross both rebel and government-held territory. She recorded every bribe at Esther list correctedevery roadblock, and added in the costs at both ends of the supply chain, ending up with 25 separate transactions (see pic).

That’s pretty fascinating in itself, but she also uncovered a chain of accumulating political impacts in terms of public authority, via the relationships triggered by the different stages of the fish’s journey.

At the lake (held by rebels), the granting of licenses to catch fish creates a level of legitimacy for the insurgents, building a social contract between them and the fishing communities, who value the predictability of knowing who they have to pay off and how much. This is all accompanied by the symbols of ‘stateness’ – lots of rubber stamps and forms.

Taxation can also create opposition if it is arbitrary or excessive, but the rebels are largely from the local community, and Esther reckons they can judge what is an acceptable level of taxation better than government outsiders. Moreover, while people deplore the extortion by the rebels, often under gunpoint, they say, ‘it is better to be extorted by my brother than by a foreigner’.

Yet, rebels are not the only ones involved in the fish commodity chain. Once the fish arrives in the villages, multiple state services also levy their official taxes. Often not making any distinction between fish that was ‘legally’ or ‘illegally’ acquired. When the fish is being transported the line between legal and illegal becomes even more blurry – government soldiers and the police also demand money at the numerous roadblocks on the way.

While this is an economic disadvantage for the fishermen and the transporters, it also allows them to continue Esther fig 2their business, which becomes very public, and so seen as a legitimate way to gain a livelihood. It also offers them a form of protection. If so many people with public authority are implicated in the trade, it becomes very difficult for the park management to crack down on it.

At the end of the journey the fish arrive at the market and are sold to networks of market women, who are organized in associations (see pic, which reads “mothers united for the good development of our village, Vitshumbi”).


For the academic paper on this, see here.


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One Response to “Public Authority through the eyes of a Dead Fish”
  1. John Magrath

    Fascinating indeed. And brave research too by the sound of it. How much money does the fish seller make in the end after those 25 deductions? Presumably enough still to continue to make it worthwhile to continue doing it but how much?. The academic paper linked is very interesting, but it doesn’t seem to have the fish seller’s story in it or the table of ‘bribes’.