Small-scale fishermen call on government to stop trampling their rights and the environment
by Melani Manel Perera
On World Fisheries Day, the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement accuses the government of protecting big fishing companies at the expense of small-scale fishermen and fish stock. The group appeals to President Rajapaksa.
Tangalle (AsiaNews) – More than 1,200 small-scale fishermen met in the town hall in Tangalle, southern Sri Lanka, to demand that their rights be respected and illegal fishing be stopped. The gathering was sponsored by the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) and took place on Saturday, World Fisheries Day (pictured). The theme was “Towards sustainable fisheries in Sri Lanka, through ensuring the people's victories while protecting rule of Law”. The meeting was held in front of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home in Tangalle, and he was clearly the target of their demands.

Ansan Fernando, a fisherman from the village of Balapitiya, chairs the NAFSO general council, said “We are very unhappy and discouraged to see the law go to hell in our country. When President Rajapaksa was Fisheries Minister (in 1997), we demonstrated against the use of illegal gear. At the time, he said that once elected president he would eliminate the problem. He was elected in 2005, and we are almost at the end of 2009 and his promises have still not been fulfilled.”

For years, Sri Lanka’s small fishermen have been fighting against invasive fishing gears used by large fishing companies because they have a devastating impact on the marine life as well as on the livelihood of entire families who rely on fishing to survive.

In 1996, the government adopted a law that banned illegal fishing gears. On 21 July of this year, the Supreme Court extended the law to the whole country. However, the “problem is that officials, especially police, do not enforce the court’s decision,” Ansan Fernando said. “We ask the president: Where are you? Why don’t you deal with this issue?”

Fishing is largely done by small-scale operators, who complain that most government assistance goes to big companies. “All we are asking from the president is to protect our sea, fish and waters, and the capacity of small-scale fishermen, who are the majority, to earn a living, and thus uphold the order by the Supreme Court against illegal nets,” Ananda Peiris, NAFSO leader in Trincomalee, said.

For the members of NAFSO, the Sri Lankan government is pursuing policies that discriminate against them. Small-scale fishermen have seen parts of the coastline closed off to build hotels and restaurants. This has restricted their access to the sea since they cannot put in at big ports.

In his address, Herman Kumara, general secretary of the World Forum of Fisher People (WFFP), spoke about threats against fishermen, which come on top of the problems and discriminations they already face.

In recent months, fishermen in Negombo, Mannar and Colombo have in fact been mistreated by security forces.

“With the end of the war, we went into the streets to celebrate. But kind of freedom did we gain when people cannot earn a living to support themselves or live without fear and trust, or freedom of expression?” he said.