Saturday, 9 August 2008

Rodrigues Island, Mauritius: Soaring food and fuel prices eat into poor people’s livelihoods

The fish stock in the spectacular lagoon of the island of Rodrigues is becoming depleted. As a result, octopus fishers like Lima Casmir need to find alternative sources of income.

Agriculture: the engine of growth

The IFAD-funded Rural Diversification Programme has helped Casmir diversify her livelihood. Now agriculture is her main income-generating activity.

"I know that fishing alone cannot give me enough money," says Casmir. "I could not satisfy my family’s needs because there are not enough fish in the lagoon. Now I work in agriculture.”

Near her house, Casmir has a well-kept vegetable plot. She walks through a mangrove to get to the plot where she grows onions, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, cassava, sweet potatoes and maize. "Planting these crops ensures a secure source of income for me. Because I know that when I plant onions I will harvest onions and I can sell them at the market," she says.

"I sell my onions for 18 Rps per kilogram. Last year I had one tonne of onions!" she says. "But it is hard work, you know."

High prices for food and fuel

The main market on the island of Rodrigues is located at Port Mathurin. "Whenever I have enough products, I rent a stall at the market," says Casmir. "The market is quite far from where I live. I have to get up at 3 a.m. to be ready to be picked up by the lorry at 4 a.m."

"I stay at the market until noon, which is the closing time, and I take the bus back home."

Six months ago, Casmir used to pay 40 Rps for a round trip bus ticket. Now that rising fuel prices have also hit the remote island of Rodrigues, the ticket costs double, and she has to pay 80 Rps for the same trip.

Last week, Casmir awoke in the middle of the night, packed 10 kilograms of tomatoes, 30 heads of lettuce and 2.5 kilograms of fresh octopus in baskets and set off to the market. She sold her tomatoes for 200 Rps, her lettuce for 150 Rps and the fresh octopus for 450 Rps. That day Casmir took in 800 Rps.

"I had two baskets. The lorry man charged me 40 Rps per basket. So I paid 160 Rps for my transportation each way and 30 Rps for the stall rental," says Casmir.

"On the way back home I bought 1 kilogram of powdered milk for 150 Rps and 500 grams of dried meat for 120 Rps. In the end, after expenses, I was left with 180 Rps.

"Everything is more expensive now. Before I could afford to buy two baguettes of bread for 6 Rps. Now I can afford to buy only one, for 5 Rps," says Casmir. "This means the children have less bread to eat."

Soaring food and fuel prices have had a negative impact on Casmir's livelihoods. Her purchasing power has decreased dramatically, and at this point in time she cannot raise the prices of her products to compensate for higher food prices because of the fierce competition. As a result, her family has less food on the table and is eating less.

The increase in fuel prices has forced Casmir to sell directly from her house. "I cannot afford to pay so much to the lorry man, so now I tell people to come to the house to buy vegetables," says Casmir. "This means I do not get to see the other women as often as I would like to, and I feel left out."

Once a fisher, always a fisher

Every so often Casmir leaves the house at 5.30 a.m. and sets off for the lagoon to fish for octopus. She takes her son’s boat to go to her ‘office’ — a vast lagoon that opens onto the Indian Ocean. Her office furniture includes the boat and magnificent coral reefs.

Casmir walks the lagoon with an iron rod slung over her shoulder, and when she feels or sees an octopus, she uses the rod to catch her prey. She pulls out the octopus and fixes it to the rope attached to the rod, then continues her hunt. She works without damaging the reef.

She dries and salts her catch. The Rural Diversification Programme has trained Casmir to package dried octopus in a way that complies with hygiene and sanitation norms. It takes her an hour to cut and prepare a dried octopus pack weighing 100 grams, which she sells for 90 Rps. "At heart I am still a fisher and fishing is what I enjoy most, so whenever I get to go out and fish, I feel re-energized," says Casmir.

Challenges ahead

Rising food and fuel prices present a major challenge for poor and disadvantaged people on Rodrigues. The cost of living has almost doubled. Although food riots like those which have occurred in Haiti and Egypt are unlikely in Rodrigues, poor families there struggle to keep enough food on the table. To save on electricity some families are cooking over wood fires and others are using their vegetable plots for subsistence farming. The challenges ahead are to ensure food and nutrition security for poor rural people on the island and to avoid a reversal of the crucial gains made by the IFAD-funded Rural Diversification Programme.


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