Women in a Sri Lankan vil­lage are given a lead­ing role in an en­vi­ron­men­tal project

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - By ZHAO XU

Afact-find­ing jour­ney across Sri Lanka th­ese days might well be ex­pected to take in the coun­try’s mod­ern­iza­tion and its port city con­struc­tion, partly un­der­taken by Chi­nese en­gi­neers and work­ers.

How­ever, the trip I made with other jour­nal­ists in mid-March took us to very dif­fer­ent kinds of places, and ones that were de­cid­edly non­touristy, to see com­mon vil­lage peo­ple whose lives are at the cross­roads of his­tory and moder­nity.

One of our stops was a small vil­lage named Ser­rakkuliya, on the coun­try’s west coast. We were taken there to ob­serve the ef­forts United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gram and its lo­cal part­ners are making to pro­tect the re­gion’s bio­di­ver­sity in gen­eral, and one an­i­mal in par­tic­u­lar — the dugong.

But since the dugong, known as sea pig or sea cow in dif­fer­ent wa­ters of the world, is such a mys­te­ri­ous an­i­mal — so mys­te­ri­ous that none of my in­ter­vie­wees in Sri Lanka had even seen a live one — our team of in­ter­na­tional re­porters ended up talk­ing to peo­ple whose hum­ble ex­is­tence prob­a­bly stood an even slim­mer chance of get­ting me­dia at­ten­tion if it was not for the en­dan­gered an­i­mal.

They were fish­er­men and their wives.

We saw the wives first — six of them were bent over sew­ing machines when our bus stopped in front of their non­de­script bun­ga­low. Inside, shirts and skirts — mostly for chil­dren — hung from a clothes line, and col­or­ful fab­rics adorned one wall.

The six women are from six fam­i­lies out of 10 that have taken part in a UNEP project that en­cour­ages fish­er­men to give up il­le­gal fishing by pro­vid­ing their fam­i­lies with an ex­tra source of in­come — sew­ing. The project is fi­nanced by the Global En­vi­ron­ment Fa­cil­ity, an in­de­pen­dent in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial entity pro­vid­ing fund­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal projects world­wide.

Sew­ing machines are pro­vided to those who join. The bun­ga­low we vis­ited be­longs to one par­tic­i­pat­ing fam­ily, who agreed to con­vert part of their liv­ing quar­ters into the sew­ing stu­dio. The fact that the bun­ga­low sits by the road­side may help when it comes to sell­ing the clothes they make, since most of the fi­nal prod­ucts are sold to fel­low vil­lagers.

One of the woman, Sa­chini Kan­chana, said that her hus­band earns 800 ru­pees ($5.30) a day us­ing a le­gal fishing net, a third less than he could make if he used an il­le­gal net. That means 12,000 ru­pees less a month. The fam­ily of four — she and her hus­band have two teenage chil­dren — live on a sim­ple diet that costs them 28,000 ru­pees a month, she said.

So any way of com­pen­sa­tion must be self-sus­tain­able in the long term for it to have real ef­fect. Bear­ing in mind that the vil­lage is made up of more than 70 fishing fam­i­lies, many others are clearly watch­ing. And re­mem­ber: even if con­tin­ued sup­ply of sew­ing machines is a non­is­sue, it will still take a lot of train­ing and will­ing­ness for all the housewives to go into tai­lor­ing and sew­ing. And if they in­deed do, the where­abouts of a mar­ket is the next ques­tion. Lo­cal NGOs are now work­ing to in­crease sales,

With their sew­ing, the women try to re­coup the in­come their fam­i­lies lose as a re­sult of ad­her­ing to fishing rules; a fish­er­man re­pairs a net.

through their own con­nec­tions. But again, for the busi­ness to be sus­tain­able the prod­ucts would have to be more ap­peal­ing — more de­sign con­scious with bet­ter hand­i­work.

Project man­agers are also hop­ing that a self-gov­ern­ing body among vil­lagers will take dis­ci­plinary ac­tion in the case of il­le­gal fishing. For the mo­ment, they are pin­ning their hopes on the Fish­er­men’s So­ci­ety, a grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tion with a pres­ence in al­most ev­ery vil­lage in the re­gion.

“Th­ese days, with smart­phones, GPS and ev­ery­thing, it is in­creas­ingly hard to cap­ture those en­gaged in il­le­gal fishing,” said Ar­jan Ra­ja­suriya, of the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture, an in­ter­na­tional NGO work­ing with the UNEP on the dugong project.

“Fish­er­men out at sea are alerted even be­fore the pro­tec­tion­ists and the coastal po­lice jump into their speed boat,” Ra­ja­suriya said.

For the past 30 years, Ra­ja­suriya, a co­ral reef sci­en­tist born in Sri Lanka who un­der­went univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion in Aus­tralia, has been in­volved in pro­tect­ing the re­gion’s marine en­vi­ron­ment.

“Chas­ing those fish­er­men could be highly dan­ger­ous — many of them are equipped with dy­na­mite, which they also use in il­le­gal fishing. They could throw one at you, and the chances are that you’ ll fall off the boat 30 kilo­me­ters off­shore.”

Dy­na­mit­ing as a means of il­le­gal fishing started as far back as in the 1950s and 60s, with the dy­na­mite ob­tained from lo­cal stone quar­ries, he said. Th­ese days dy­na­mite is of­ten smug­gled into Sri Lanka from nearby coun­tries, In­dia and In­done­sia for ex­am­ple.

Or­ga­nized crim­i­nals, cor­rup­tion and gov­ern­ment in­ac­tion have made it dif­fi­cult to make progress on the is­sue, he said.

“There’s a po­lit­i­cal net­work be­hind this.”

Laks­man Peiris, deputy di­rec­tor of the coun­try’s Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Depart­ment said the gov­ern­ment is do­ing its ut­most to pro­tect the sea, but he ad­mit­ted that cor­rup­tion ex­ists and that stream­lin­ing is re­quired if dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, his own depart­ment and the Depart­ment of Coastal Con­ser­va­tion, for ex­am­ple, are to work closely and ef­fec­tively.

“In Sri Lanka il­le­gal fishing is pun­ished by heavy fines and can in­cur im­pris­on­ment. So I be­lieve that with enough in­cen­tives, peo­ple will grad­u­ally go back to fishing legally.”

Peiris said that in the vil­lage we vis­ited about 70 per­cent of peo­ple have gone completely le­gal with their fishing meth­ods over the past few years.

“The other 30 per­cent are in­volved in both le­gal and il­le­gal fishing — de­pend­ing on the day, if you like.”

In 2009 the coun­try’s 27-year civil war ended de­ci­sively when the mil­i­tary de­feated the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam.

“The coun­try is re­cov­er­ing and tourists are back,” Peiris said. “I met a man who once fished il­le­gally but has now be­come a tour guide, show­ing co­ral reefs to for­eign vis­i­tors.”

As trau­ma­tiz­ing as it was, the war did have an un­ex­pected pos­i­tive ef­fect on nat­u­ral life: wa­ters along Sri Lanka’s north­ern, north­west­ern and eastern coast went undis­turbed by fish­er­men and tourists for nearly 30 years, since those were the ar­eas that bor­dered the war zone.

“Now peo­ple are grad­u­ally com­ing back, and it’s im­por­tant for us to step in from the en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion per­spec­tive be­fore it’s too late,” Peiris said.

We walked to the shore. Two col­or­ful boats waited while one man was sit­ting on the ground re­pair­ing a net — a le­gal one of course. Jump- ing into one boat, I sailed with two fish­er­men to about 50 me­ters off­shore, where some float­ing cages were kept for cul­ti­vat­ing sea bass. About 300 to 500 fish were kept in one big iron cage. Feed­ing is usu­ally done in the morn­ing, and har­vest­ing ]af­ter 12 months of feed­ing. The main rea­son they have been do­ing this is that there are not enough fish to catch from the sur­round­ing sea.

Along the vil­lage road stand co­conut trees: the sa­line soil of coastal Sri Lanka is ideal for the grow­ing of the tree, which re­quires very lit­tle care yet is able to give fruits till the end of its life. The lo­cals weave fibers ex­tracted from the tree leaves into ev­ery­thing: bas­kets, hats, floor mats, win­dow cur­tains and even ropes used by fish­er­men to tie boats.

And af­ter drink­ing the milk, they re­tain the shell of the fruit for fire­wood, or use it as a mini-cover to pro­tect seedlings dur­ing ger­mi­na­tion.

By the time we left the vil­lage, the sun was set­ting, pour­ing a bucket of golden dye into the sea. Not far away, plumes of smoke rose from be­hind low bushes. The lo­cals were burn­ing garbage, I was told.

Yet there seemed to be more garbage in the coun­try­side of Sri Lanka than peo­ple can or would ac­tu­ally bother to deal with — some­thing that re­minded me of China, whose ru­ral parts are also plagued by ex­ten­sive lit­ter.

But this is an is­land coun­try in the sub­trop­i­cal re­gion, so any sight of a dis­carded bot­tle or plas­tic bag is ren­dered even more jar­ring by the other­wise pris­tine beach or the branches of flow­ers that sprout from vir­tu­ally ev­ery­where.

My last sight of the vil­lage was a flock of crows; they were stay­ing for the fish, as they have prob­a­bly done for thou­sands of years.

Th­ese days, with smart­phones, GPS and ev­ery­thing, it is in­creas­ingly hard to cap­ture those en­gaged in il­le­gal fishing.” Ar­jan Ra­ja­suriya, of the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture, an in­ter­na­tional NGO

ZHAO XU / CHINA DAILY

Women’s wear made by the fish­er­men’s wives hang from a clothes­line.

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