President of Fisheries Group:
‘Sri Lanka’s Fishing Resources Are Controlled By Big Business’
Sri Lanka’s fishermen are a long standing part of the island nation’s culture and economy. But after surviving war and natural disaster, they are now being driven out by big business.
Sri Lanka’s fishing communities were affected by both the country’s long running civil war and the 2004 tsunami, forced to move away from their homes and the watery areas where they earned their livelihoods. Since the ethnic conflict ended, the fishing communities have continued to suffer. Even if they were brought back to their homes, they have found themselves increasingly competing with industrial fishing companies and tourist developments.
For a sector that was living a comparatively subsistence lifestyle, the loss of the opportunity to fish is a serious development and economic problem.
Herman Kumara, the president of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, spoke to The Catamaran about the plight of Sri Lanka’s displaced fishing community and how they can be assisted. His movement, known as NAFSO, represents the interests of the small-scale fisheries sector and lobbies for environmental and human justice.
The Catamaran: What problems does the Sri Lankan fishing community have today?
Herman Kumara: The main problem faced by the fisheries community in the south comes because the coastal and lagoon areas, the anglers’ main resources, are being controlled by business people, who often don’t have anything to do with fishing.
The government is starting a process that actually pushes the fishermen away, under the pretext of establishing a national fisheries policy. The Fisheries Department is basically preparing the ground for conflict between the fishermen and the fishing industry. The fishing industry destroys resources and without some regulations about sustainability, the government is encouraging long-term damage.
The industrial side of fishing is being encouraged while the fishermen are not. In fact, the tourism industry is on an equal footing with the fishermen now. The government pays more attention to foreign exchange brought in by the tourists than it does to the local anglers.
Additionally, as fishing becomes a more dangerous job with lower compensation, it becomes less profitable. So we have also seen more fishing boats being used for illegal activities.
The Catamaran: What is the government doing to resolve these issues?
Kumara: The government has no real vision on this problem. The closest they come is when talking about reconciliation. But this is unsatisfactory because the government alone cannot solve this problem. All of our society must contribute to make reconciliation happen.
The Catamaran: What does your organization want to do about these problems?
Kumara: We would like to see a national policy that is formulated with the resolution of these problems in mind.
The Food and Agriculture Organization [of the United Nations] has developed a set of guidelines around sustaining the security of the small-operator fishing industry. The Sri Lankan government contributed to these guidelines. It covers use of resources, the contribution of women to the industry, the markets and climate change – and those are just some of the aspects the guidelines cover.
The Catamaran: How does the process of reconciliation and resettlement after the civil war impact on the local fishermen?
Kumara: The government needs to keep its promises about releasing land used for government purposes to the people. It is very important to show that the government is doing what it said it would and also that the displaced people can have some hope for the future.
One example where this did not happen is in Panama, where people are still struggling to win their rights. Many from the fisheries community are still living in camps for the displaced.
I also want to state that fishing communities take low precedence when it comes to resettlement. The fishing communities also need justice.