At the tip of my running shoe, lying in the dirt, is an empty, crushed, shotgun shell; then another one; and there, in the shrubs, again.
I register the fact, but it’s too hot, in the sizzling late morning Caribbean sun, to think much about it, busy as I am taking notes, keeping out of trouble and looking for shade. I just wondered for a split second what kind of game people hunted around here, with a shotgun.
We’re on a field trip to this tilapia farming complex in the Caribbean. The IDB is financing a loan to increase the competitiveness of the agricultural sector and I have, with me, some of the best and brightest professionals in irrigation, agricultural development, civil engineering and project execution.
The farm manager, himself raised in a successful fish farming family, is explaining to the small crowd gathered along a dirt gulley, the minutiae and political dynamics of fish farming irrigation.
“- You see, there, cutting across the gulley -” he says, in his lilting Caribbean accent, pointing at a 10 feet long corroded thick steel plate,
“- This was wedged into the gulley, 8 feet deep to divert water to the lower parts of the complex by some farmers who desperately needed a supply of water to fill their ponds -”
“- In doing so, it cut most of the supply of water to other farmers, who became infuriated.”
“- Within a few week they were threatening to shoot at each other, across fish ponds…”
“- It became the Wild, Wild West, for a time.”
“- What? Shooting? Here?” -I thought. – These shells on the ground looked pretty fresh!
We are the game!
Silence falls on the crowd as we all go into risk-assessment mode.
We look around for rabid, red-eyed bandoleer tilapia farmers, armed with shotguns, and assess the distance to shelter: our brave air-conditioned mini bus and, its ace-driver.
Luckily, no threat materialises, and we return, relieved, back to the parochial road, until a pick-up truck faces us, blocking the exit.
“You see”, says the manager, they got wind of our arrival and soon sent a scouting team to check us out.”
No one is armed, but we do have to explain what we are doing there, and the farmer, asks me for my business card. Everybody is friendly and professional, but the message is clear: Nobody wanders into this neck of the woods, without a check.
As development professionals, we have all read about how water is becoming a rare commodity, coveted and conflictive. This was the first time I actually experienced it, first hand.
Suddenly it all becomes very real: These farmers live by raising fishes. Fishes need clean water. Take the water away, and conflict is inevitable. We had been struggling with the engineering design of this fish farm irrigation complex for a year now, without finding consensus or a viable technical solution.
And the obvious suddenly came to me: the right solution isn’t technical; irrigation systems aren’t just an engineering puzzle: there are first of all a natural resource policy issue , at the local level, of the most concrete nature: who gets water, in what quantity and quality, when, at what cost.
Water quality is a key issue: the water feeding into the fish farms, located in the lower reaches of the watershed, is used for industry, potable water supply but also receives wastewater, contaminated by urban refuse, highway and mining wastes.
This less than ideal situation has a cost: we now have to consider cleaning not only the effluent from these fish farms, but also the incoming water, affecting directly the investment and therefore the competitiveness of the project, another demonstration that ecosystem services, such as providing clean water by protecting a watershed, provides tangible benefits to humans.
Even in this lovely corner of the world, friendly and charming, violence may erupt among tilapia ponds. This is not a war, far from it; consensus and common sense is aligning policy, politics and engineering into reasonable and practical solutions, but the lesson is clear:
Consensus is fundamental, through dialogue and consultations. If not, hell might break out.
However, I did learn that the shotgun shells, were for hunting fowl, not humans.
A happy ending for a valuable project.
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