This is the third in a series of six stories on the NSOE’s inaugural faculty research symposium at the Marine Lab, on September 29th.

Xavier Basurto, Truman and Nellie Semans/Alex Brown & Sons Associate Professor of Sustainability Science, is broadly interested in how people in small communities successfully organize themselves for collective action.

His talk at the symposium, “Self-Governance for Sustainability in Coupled Human-Natural Systems,” described his work in advancing the understanding of non-colonialist sustainability science: the prospects and limitations of self-organization, or self-governance, for social-ecological sustainability, particularly in the Global South. “Government can make some interventions—or not at all—and whether the community is well-organized or not,” he said, “is going to have an impact on how well the help of the government is implemented locally, and whether there are positive outcomes for the environment or people’s well-being.”

Locals fish in a river

Basing his work on a practical and theoretical understanding of self-governance in, for example, coastal Mexican fishing communities, Basurto uses comparative case studies, field experiments, large-n studies of hundreds of fishing organizations, and qualitative comparative analysis, which studies intermediate sample sizes using Boolean algebra. He also draws on theory by Elinor Ostrom—the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, in 2009—which holds that solutions to complex environmental problems need not necessarily come from central government, but could also come from active involvement of citizens managing shared natural resources: forests, pastures and fishing waters.

Very few national and international policies currently regulate the work of local small-scale fishers. “Most of the science in studying fisheries”—regional- or species-specific fishing grounds and their infrastructure, for subsistence, commercial, or recreational purposes—"comes from Western knowledge,” Basurto said, “and not from the realities, in developing countries, that we face.”

In practice, fishers in small communities come up with their own solutions to challenges, working together to solve important social and environmental problems affecting their daily lives. Basurto’s work illuminates those places.

Born in Mexico City, Basurto is deeply aware of the cultural importance of self-governance and collective action, and of fishing itself, throughout Mexico’s history. Each spring, he brings his class to the village of Punta Chueca, in the Gulf of California, where fishers’ traditional practices--such as avoiding fishing in eelgrass beds, thereby protecting pen-shell clams and other fish--communicate a deep knowledge of local ecosystems.

The talk cited additional studies—local fishers adapting to changes in surface-water temperatures, likely affecting what species they can catch; the differences in yield between local cooperatives compared to those of permisionarios—patron holders of fishing licenses, who buy back the fish for local markets or export. People organizing into cooperatives “tend to have more of a sense of place—a relationship with their communities in their towns, harvesting more local species,” Basurto said.

Another project of Basurto’s, in full collaboration with the fishing sector in Mexico, is the first of its kind: his team built a national database of fishing cooperatives, studying why some work better than others, and working to inform policymakers’ awareness.

At the water’s edge, though, is where Basurto brings a wealth of data and experience directly to his fieldwork. On a recent trip to the Lower Amazon Basin, which he is interested in exploring for future collaboration with Brazilian and Duke students and colleagues, he met with Brazilian researchers who study locally led initiatives by fishers of Arapaima gigas, or pirarucu, the largest scaled fish in the world, which, harvested legally, brings needed resources back to the village.

The area has a strong history of collective action; these local fishers yield a catch that brings in money used collectively on technology, recycling or electricity for a remote Amazonian community. Metaphorically speaking, Basurto said, “This is fish, converted into solar panels, healthy children, abundant biodiversity, and collective well-being.”