Women in a Sri Lankan village are given a leading role in an environmental project
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
Women’s wear made by the fishermen’s wives hang from a clothesline.