The Fisherfolk of Karachi: a Parable of Pakistan

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Ali Shah (16 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Mohammad Ali Shah, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum

KARACHI — We are taking the fishermen’s measure of Pakistan’s distress here in a fishing village that goes back to antiquity, that fights the present-day odds with spirit. The fisherfolk all around us are the sea-level “canaries” in a shrinking and severely polluted fish-farming system, centered on the Ibrahim Haidri neighborhood on the south shore of Karachi. Make of it what you will that the young men repairing nets and wooden boats for a day’s work tomorrow on the Arabian Sea don’t look out-of-luck yet. And they have a notably serene and good-humored leader in Mohammad Ali Shah, who is giving us the awful litany of threats to their way of life.

The city of Karachi (pop. roughly 20-million) dumps 500-million gallons of waste into its harbors every day — “into the bowl of our livelihood,” as Mohammad Ali Shah puts it, and that’s just the beginning. “Land grabbers,” whom we’d call developers, are encroaching on their land, as fish factories at sea are gobbling their catch. Two of the allied activists fighting the “land mafia” that has targeted their mangrove forest were murdered this past May. Fishing families suffer the cold war between Pakistan and India acutely, in the periodic arrest (and long arbitrary sentences) of fishermen who stray across territorial borders. And on top of everything, says Mohammad Ali Shah, nobody seems to care — certainly nobody with much political power. Pakistani politics, he instructs us, is an inside brokers’ game that shuns “people power.”

In short, we are looking at what seems a hopelessly broken system — a metaphor for all of Pakistan, perhaps. And yet the people talking with us seem anything but hopeless. The air about them suggests solidarity, savvy, global awareness — the “resilience” that Pakistanis seem to count as their last card. It counts, too, that fishermen paint their own boats in Pakistan (as teamsters paint their huge trucks) with brilliant floral designs, colorful splashes in their workplace at sunset.


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