Arturo Caballero is introducing major innovations into the organization of one of Mexico's most backward sectors: the fishing industry. Working in the Yucatan Peninsula with largely illiterate fishermen, he is guiding them towards their participation in the creation of a modern fishing industry. This Yucatan work will provide a model for many other groups.
Originally from Mexico City, Arturo studied economics at the National University there, supporting his studies by working first as a library assistant and later as an administrative assistant in a construction firm. After University he went to work on the coffee plantations of southern Mexico and Guatemala as an administrator, later moving into international banking. At the Mexican Institute for Foreign Commerce he set up an information bank on foreign commerce that was later copied by a number of other Latin American counties. Throughout his years in private business and finance, he has consistently also worked to strengthen the organization and commerce of the rural sector. In the 1970s, he set up two innovative export programs: shipping cocoa to China and bananas from small farmers in Chiapas to the U.S. His ability to understand and communicate with rural communities, moreover, was severely tested in the mid-'70s when he successfully persuaded a group of campesinos who had invaded lands to leave peacefully, thereby avoiding an imminent and a probable violent eviction by the army. Arturo's love for the Mayan peninsula of Yucatan began in the late '70s when he was appointed regional delegate for the Rural Development Program. Later he became regional coordinator for a training program that was principally focused on municipality personnel. For the past five years, however, Arturo has thrown himself into and become a key figure in renovating the fishing industry in Yucatan. His wide experience in government and finance allow him to bring to bear a special set of skills not common in the private voluntary sector in Mexico.
The fishing industry in Yucatan, claims Arturo, "is like a Mayan glyph." At first glance it seems impenetrable, incomprehensible. With time, one begins to understand each part, and how each one interacts with the other to form a whole. Yet it still remains a mystery, even to the most knowledgeable on the subject. As Arturo says, one must work at "unthreading the reality." Arturo proposes that if the fishing cooperatives of the state of Yucatan are to become dynamic and viable they must first rid themselves of their common enemy: corruption in all its multiple masks and faces. Not only will this give them a stronger self-image and the consequent respect of others, it will also have practical implications enabling them, for example, to get credit more easily. Combating corruption is part and parcel of creating strong links of solidarity both within and between groups. Training them in modern fishing techniques is another matter. Here Arturo has introduced a major innovation by persuading the Fishing School of the Ministry of Fisheries that illiterate fishermen can be trained in action rather than in the classroom and that they can take oral rather than written exams. The Fishing School Boat (Barco Escuela) has been a major success story, enabling coastal fishermen to obtain their diplomas of mid-sea fishing without having to sit in a classroom. Finally, Arturo is spearheading an innovative approach to capital investment in the fishing sector. He has negotiated an agreement whereby the recently trained fishermen from the boat school and a prominent private sector enterprise will enter into a joint venture to exploit new fishing areas off the Yucatan coast. With government credits and private sector investment this is the first time that the private and the social fishing sectors have participated on an equal basis.
Mexico has over 11,500 kilometers of coastline and over 300 species of fish and shellfish. Yet the average Mexican consumes only three kilos of fish annually. To a certain extent this is due to culinary tradition, but for the most part it is a result of the fishing industry's poor production and distribution efficiency. Perhaps more than any other sector, the fishing industry has been riddled by corruption at all levels. Both bankers and ordinary citizens have a rich repertoire of stories of malpractice–ranging from banking fraud to nonpayment of credits made to fishing cooperatives to the private sale of new boats provided under official credit schemes. Two other major problems affect the fishing industry: lack of training for poorly educated, often illiterate fishermen, and lack of capital investment. For the most part, small-scale fishing in Mexico is dominated by small offshore boats. The changeover to more sophisticated mid-sea vessels implies greater knowledge of technique and longer absence from land. Such changes, moreover, often run into persistent cultural resistance. The unavailability or very high cost of credit for small-scale fisheries producers is another major barrier to change. Even when fishermen make the move to more sophisticated boats, they may have to pledge virtually all their catch to their lenders. It is into this complicated and problematic world that Arturo is introducing a set of innovations he hopes will improve the lives of Yucatan fishermen and in turn provide a model for other states.
Arturo's first principle is to be rigorously cautious in choosing the groups with whom he works. He is extremely careful never to identify himself with a group suspected of shady dealings. He wants each group with which he works to become a role model. Once the corrupt fishermen see that it pays not to be corrupt, he says, "then they will start to copy us. But first I have to prove the point." Part and parcel of his anti-corruption strategy is strengthening the fishermen's sense of collective importance. Hence all decisions are taken by and discussed in assemblies; everybody is aware of his responsibilities within the group and is called on to comment publicly and justify his actions. The second stage of the strategy is educational, not only in the formal training received in the boat school, but also at the request of the fishermen themselves, through literacy classes. With increasing self-respect and social participation comes the desire for new knowledge of new skills to permit even greater participation. The third stage of Arturo's strategy is to increase his fishermen's productivity and to help them market more of their produce more profitably. Arturo has already attracted the funding and built a filleting and freezing plant. Now he is initiating a new cooperative venture between the private and the social fishing sectors in Yucatan with equal participation and benefit for both parties. Some of Arturo's ideas are beginning to spread beyond Yucatan. He is now advising fishing cooperatives in the northern state of Tamaulipas on establishing a boat school.