Friday, December 15, 2006

Film Review: The Right to Survive

“The Right to Survive”

Turtle Conservation and Fisheries Livelihoods

Directed by Rita Banerji and Shilpi Sharma.

Produced by: International Collective in Support of Fishworkers.

This is a long needed film – one that highlights the alienation of local people in the name of conservation. But it is too long and quite difficult to keep track of what battle is being fought where. We had to view the film twice and take extensive notes to figure out what it was about.

The film tells us that there are 3 main turtle nesting areas on the Orissa coast and 3 classes of fishing being used in these areas:

Gahirmatha – motorized and traditional fishermen

Devi – trawlers

Rushikulya – traditional fishermen

Gahirmatha – It was never made clear in the film if the motorized fishermen are fishing illegally in the Core Area of Gahirmatha. This area isn’t just a turtle sanctuary but is also a nursery for fish stocks. And by the film’s own admission over-fishing has seriously depleted fish catch in these areas. So advocating fishing here albeit by traditional fishermen who have minimal impact, is really shooting oneself in the foot – if we want to sustain fisheries in our rivers and seas, we need such Protected Areas where fish and shrimp can replenish themselves. This becomes especially urgent as recent Food and Agriculture Organization reports state that unless we do something about it, by the year 2048 fishing will be an extinct occupation.

Rushikulya – This area seems to function as an example of how conservation and fisheries can work together, like keeping the trawlers from Andhra Pradesh out and local groups rescuing baby turtles. But this situation is not highlighted enough or even identified within the film as an example to the fisheries sector or the Forest Department.

Devi – Here there is no protection, it is subject to intensive trawling, and the trawlers refuse to use the Turtle Excluder Devices (TED). The identified offenders were the day trawlers. The simple, large-meshed trawl guard to keep turtles out of the nets was ingenious but was only shown for a few seconds in passing with no discussion and left the viewer asking for more.

Although the use of these guards could make day trawlers turtle-friendly, the film left its initial accusations hanging: that day trawlers messed up the livelihoods of the traditional fishermen and that fish stocks were rapidly depleting. After making the statement that protection of fish resources will automatically protect turtles it is perplexing that no conclusions are made. When everywhere else in the world TED efficacy is identified as a way of minimizing the impact on turtle mortality while maximizing fish catching potential (with a loss of only 10%), here we have a trawler worker saying he loses 90% of his catch using TED. In the absence of any rebuttal, his words can only be taken as the gospel truth. It is curious that a tried and tested device such as TED is dismissed as causing such significant losses, and the trawl guard which has not been tested is being promoted as a turtle-friendly device!

Several vital points were passed over, especially the protection of the moving turtle congregation and alternate livelihoods for the Gahirmatha fishermen. Turtle conservationists Aarthi and Kartik’s opinion that we still have plenty of time to be creative and change methodologies could be deadly for the unique phenomenon of the Orissa Ridley arribadas. Considering that we know little about sea turtle biology and the fact that the average size of adult females coming ashore to lay eggs is getting smaller, the demise of the arribada could even spell the death of the species. Seeing tens of thousands of turtles come ashore should not make us complacent about their future. On the human side, the rising tide of suicides among the Gahirmatha fishermen further underlines the need for urgent action. Unfortunately the film didn’t stress this urgency.

Who are the main losers if the various ports and oil rigs come up? Do trawlers stand to lose along with turtles and traditional fishermen? The film did not mention the likely fall-out of these developments and who will be impacted. While the unstated purpose of the film is apparently to revoke the Central Empowerment Committee’s strictures on fishing in the turtle nesting sites, the film missed a crucial opportunity to focus the fight against a common enemy – Big Industry. Perhaps this should have been a key argument that might even unite the trawlers, traditional fishermen and turtle conservationists.

The bottomline however, is this: just because industry is a bigger threat to turtles does not absolve the responsibility of the fishing community (be they traditional, motorized or trawlers) to nurture fish stocks for the future by respecting Protected Areas for the vital function they have been established (including sea turtle conservation).

Although well-shot, the visuals have no story within themselves and merely illustrate the narration making it unexciting and pedantic (how many ‘boats on the sea’ shots does it take?). The graphics are good and effective. The editing has little rhythm - paying more attention to the rhythm of the narration rather than the inherent rhythm of the shots. The questions left unanswered, the missed opportunities for pushing arguments, the lack of any definite conclusions makes the film seem unfocussed, vague and results in more confusion than clarity.

“The Right to Survive” could have been a seminal documentation of the problem but unfortunately falls far short of the stated goal “attempts to provide a solution for tomorrow”. This may have been a more effective 30 minute film.

Co-written with Rom Whitaker