12/12/2007, 00.00
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A “second tsunami” hits Sri Lankan fishermen

by Melani Manel Perera
Fishermen’s rights groups complain about the fate of one of the most marginalised social groups in the country. The government’s development policies favour the tourist industry and prefer agreements with large foreign companies to exploit the country’s waters. This is pushing more and more small scale fishermen into utter poverty. Whilst the government is building highways and hotels, thousands of families are still surviving in temporary shelters.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – A “second tsunami” has hit small fishermen in Sri Lanka, one of the country’s most marginalised social groups. Since 26 December 2004 when the tsunami struck the coastline of the country, another tsunami-like tragedy has hit them; it involves official indifference, red tape, multinational fishing interests and the tourist industry. Three years after the disaster thousands of people are in fact still living in ramshackle conditions, whilst the government is building highways and hotels and planning commercial fishing harbours.

Various NGOs and the Catholic Church have denounced the tragic situation, but many have already given up the struggle. Even many of those involved in reconstruction have had to leave over the past year for lack of building permits and land.

But the National Fisheries Solidarity Organisation (NAFSO) and the World Forum of Fisher People (WFFP) are among the groups that continue to voice the concerns of Sri Lanka’s fishermen at the national and international levels respectively.

Post-tsunami programmes elaborated in Colombo expect free market forces to take care of reconstruction. They tend to promote the tourist industry at the expense of coastal communities who now find themselves displaced once again.

Under current rules housing cannot be built in a 300-metre buffer zone along the coast. This has imposed heavy costs on local fishermen in terms of transportation, fuel and equipment.

They received what is tantamount to a coup de grace when foreign fishing fleets were authorised to exploit Sri Lankan waters through joint ventures with the government.

On top of that the government has increased the size of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) where the state can exercise special rights in exploration and marine resource use.

Last but not list fish imports from the region have cut prices so much that many local fishermen can sustain the competition.

In addition to the marine fisheries Sri Lanka’s fishing industry includes coastal and inland aquaculture. Together they employ some 200,000 fishermen and their families in the country. Out of these some 150,000 are small scale fishermen. Another 30,000 work in deep sea fishing vessels as crew members. The other 20,000 are inland fresh water fishermen. Over all some 700,000 people depend on the fishery sector for their livelihood in a country where the annual per capita consumption of fish is around 14 kilograms

Meanwhile in the capital Colombo alone some 1,300 families are still living in the temporary shelters after losing everything in the 2004 tsunami.

On the east coast situation is even worse since the government has failed to grant land to build new housing. After years waiting many NGOs have thus been forced to leave without completing their plans.

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