Jacqueline Lau

Identity and Molluscs: How Gender, Ethnicity, and Class Shape Mangrove Oyster Harvesting in The Gambia

To address the failures of previous ‘top-down’ rules and regulations that ignored local beliefs and customs, environmental policies increasingly emphasize the socio-cultural dimensions of human–environment interactions. More specifically, research has recognised that identities play a key role in shaping resource use, including in human-mollusc interactions. For instance, the notion that ‘shells are for women, fish are for men’, and subsequent gendered division of labour in fisheries, is common in many coastal communities. However, although a useful first step, treating forms of social difference (such as gender, ethnicity and class) as separate dimensions that produce distinct inequalities and patterns of resource use misses key insights from theories of intersectionality. In this talk, I investigate how multiple identities influence human-mollusc interactions among a group of women oyster harvesters in The Gambia. Oyster harvesting is shaped by the confluence of an aversion to stigmatized waged labour; gendered expectations of providing for one’s family; and a historically informed and spatially bounded sense of ethnicity. Drawing on the concept of contact zones, I then show how new interactions between previously isolated groups of oyster harvesters have broadened understandings of ethnicity. However, these new subjectivities overlay rather than replace old clan alliances, leading to tensions. New contact zones and emerging subjectivities can thus be at once uniting and divisive, with important implications for managing molluscs, and artisanal fisheries more broadly.

Keywords: Gender, ethnicity, oyster harvesting, intersectionality, political ecology.

Figure: Oyster harvesters paddle home after a morning harvesting oysters in the mangroves, Tanbi Wetlands National Park, The Gambia (© Jacqueline Lau).