Fish-Workers in Sri Lanka Struggling for Life and Livelihood

By Rev. Thomas John 1-06-2011

In the wake of the horrendous tragedy of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami everyone agreed that recovery was vital. But how would that take place? One coastal community in Sri Lanka still working on recovery efforts is now asking: What will take priority -- sustainable traditional ways of life, or the pursuit of tourism at any cost to the environment and local communities?

Sri Lanka's national tourism master plan, under which the country of 20 million people is grooming itself to host 2.5 million tourists by 2015, calls for 12 destinations to be developed as luxury resorts to which tourists will arrive by seaplanes that will land in lagoons and backwaters in hard-to-reach places. But what about the people who already live in those places?

One of those places is the Negombo Lagoon, a sensitive and beautiful ecosystem that is also the livelihood of 3,500 fishermen. The Ministry of Ports and Civil Aviation has already started excavations to construct a base for seaplanes to take off and land there. This project would mean that the Bay of Mada Bokka (Mud bay) in Negombo Lagoon, one of the richest breeding areas for prawns and a habitat for different varieties of migratory birds, will soon be destroyed, and the social and cultural life of the fishing communities affected. In fact, it would impact 15,000 households in 35 villages, who all depend on the income of the Negombo's fishermen.

More than 8,000 fishermen, with their wives and children, protested for ten hours last November 17 around Negombo lagoon and on Colombo-Negombo's main road against the proposed seaplane project for tourism. A local grassroots group, the Alliance for the Protection of Negombo Lagoon, successful in forcing the government to halt construction temporarily, acknowledges that "this is a temporary victory," but vows to "continue our struggle till the project is cancelled."

There have been several human rights violations against those protesting the project. Mr. Aruna Roshantha of Sri Lanka Island Fishermen's Trade Union and Mr. Marcus Anthony Fernando of Negombo Lagoon Fisher People's Union, who were engaged in a peaceful demonstration against the project, were arrested on November 28 and charged with conspiring and inciting people against the state.

Mr. Anthony, who was released on bail later, movingly describes the threat to his community's environment and way of life: "Negombo Lagoon is our source of life and livelihood. It is just like our mother. God has given Negombo Lagoon to us to feed our people through the resources of the lagoon. So, it is our responsibility to protect and sustain it for future generations. We will not give up our struggle, as God is always with the poor and marginalized."

The Presbyterian Hunger Program and its Joining Hands Partner network in Sri Lanka, Praja Abhilasha, the National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO), and the Catholic Church leadership are extending solidarity with the local protests against the project. Praja Abhilasha strongly believes that peace and prosperity in "this teardrop-shaped island off India's coast, rich in natural beauty and cultural splendors" can be ushered only by following a developmental path that is ecologically sensitive and committed to peace with justice, and that respects human rights and empowering local communities. Essentially, it is a prayer for shalom.

portrait-rev-thomas-johnRev. Thomas John, a Presbyter of the Church of South India, is the Companionship Facilitator of the Joining Hands partner networks in Sri Lanka and India.

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