Social protection and sustainable natural resource management: initial findings and good practices from small-scale fisheries

Christophe Béné, Stephen Devereux, Keetie Roelen


How does social protection and other measures reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience among households and communities dependent on renewable natural resources?   The paper identifies and reviews the potential of social protection policies, schemes and instruments. It shows that small-scale fishers and fishworkers are typically inadequately or totally unprotected. While conventions and regulations aimed at addressing these vulnerabilities are in place, evidence suggests that innovative interventions are needed to provide protection from risks that fishers face in diverse contexts.

Small-scale fisheries is used as an illustrative example. The analysis and arguments draws on a desk-based literature review. An overview of different sources of vulnerability and examples of exclusion in the fisheries sector is provided, using a ‘generic’ case study coastal and inland fisherfolk as well as other relevant actors (e.g. processors, traders).

Communities that depend on fisheries are among those most exposed to natural disasters, which occur mostly in South and Southeast Asia where climate change impact is expected to be greatest. Although fishers are not necessarily the most poor, but they are highly vulnerable and often politically marginalised and socially excluded. Fisherfolk tend to receive disproportionately less support and attention compared with other rural communities such as crop farmers and even pastoralists. In part this may be because they are a relatively small group globally, and therefore less politically influential.

The diversity of climate change risks influence a range of vulnerabilities among fisherfolk:

  • Natural/environmental: include climate and weather-related disasters and extreme events (floods, high winds/hurricanes, drought), other (non-climate) disasters (tsunami, oil spill, etc.) and threats to fish stocks.
  • Economic:  including lack, or seasonality, of fishing activities, informal or self employment outside of main social security systems, price volatility, vulnerable to commercial competition, inappropriate international regulations on fishing.
  • Health-related:  include injury, illness (including epidemics such as HIV/AIDS) and demographic risks such as disability, old age and death.
  • Social:  include forced labour of fishing crews and processing factory workers, and child labour.
  • Political: include marginalisation from political processes or policy influence.

While there are conventions, guidelines and action plans which aim to ensure decent working conditions and sustainable livelihoods in the fisheries sector, the paper highlights transformative social protection measures and isolated good practices. These examples offer valuable examples of how social protection can support sustainable natural resource use and small-scale fisheries development for other countries to draw on, including:

  • Humanitarian rapid response is essential to protect lives and, in the longer-term a focus on “building back better” support to rehabilitate fishing-based livelihoods is critical.
  • The right balance between long-term protection of natural resources from overfishing and neglecting needs of fishing communities and their livelihoods, which if unrecognised can lead to non-compliance with conservation-focused regulations.
  • Preferential fishing zones which exclude commercial operators would be a positive response to the threat of competition for small-scale fishers.
  • Informal insurance mechanisms, reciprocity arrangements or solidarity networks within their communities. Formal social protection providers could learn from these mechanisms to design interventions adapted to traditional practices and values of fishing communities.
  • Mobilisation of fishers organisations could address lack of representation in mainstream social security systems.


Béné, C., Devereux, S. & Roelen, K. (2015). Social protection and sustainable natural resource management: initial findings and good practices from small-scale fisheries. Rome, Italy: FAO.