Politics & Social Issues

'Five habours under military occupation' - Herman Kumara

Few months back Herman Kumara was living virtually in hiding. He was a target of a state orchestrated smear campaign that portrayed him as the ‘prime culprit’ behind the massive protests staged by angry fishermen. Unidentified men visited his house to query his whereabouts. Unknown vehicles roamed the area. His colleagues who didn’t want him to take any chances forced him to keep a low profile.

But being the Convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) and the Secretary General of the World Forum of Fisher People (WFFP), Herman could hardly stay away from the protests. ‘The protests were totally spontaneous and inevitable’ says Herman. ‘When the cost of living increases and the oil prices go sky high, you don’t need ‘culprits’ to organize protests.’

Despite the threats, Herman refuses to back down. Since its’ inception, he has been the prime mover behind NAFSO, a network of community-based organizations, NGOs, cooperatives and trade unions working on sustainable fisheries in Sri Lanka. ‘I don’t think they have plans to abduct me’ he sounds a little less convinced.  ‘But whatever we do, we are being closely monitored.’

Speaking to JDS, Herman Kumara vividly detailed the plight of the fisher people threatened by expanding tourism industry in the south and how the intensity of militarization curtail the livelihood of fishing communities in the north-east.

JDS: NAFSO has been actively engaged among the fishing communities in the south as well as in the north of the island. What are the parallels and the differences you see between the issues faced by these communities?

Herman Kumara: In a technical sense, main commonality between north and south is that small-scale fisheries remain as the dominant category. High fuel prices and poor income due to poor catch can be also considered as an important common issue.

Having taken note of such similarities, we have to identify the serious differences too. Even three years after the war ended, the northern fishermen still need to get ‘permits’ to go to the sea. Though the procedure may differ from area to area, the authorization remains in the hands of the military. Moreover, most of the areas in Mullaithivu district for example, still remain designated as military High Security Zones (HSZ). So, fishing is not allowed in those areas. But, the northern fishermen claim that southern fishermen are allowed to operate freely in those areas. Such policies have to be seen as clear practices of discrimination.

In Jaffna district alone, there are 21,191 active fishermen engaged in fishing operations. The official records reveal that the fish harvest in April 2012, is 229.3525 metric tons. This is a substantial increase of fishing compared to the war time and fishermen expect to increase it further if the facilities are provided. There are four harbours in Jaffna district while there is one in Mannar district. But all are occupied by the military. So, there is no space for fishermen to operate in those harbours. At the same time, there are more than 25,000 people living in 56 IDP camps in Jaffna district alone and most of them lived in Palali area. Even though all of them used to be fishermen none of them have been granted their right to return, so far.

JDS: In the aftermath of the war, a substantial growth in tourism can be seen and there is a massive drive to promote and encourage Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the tourism sector. How does it affect the livelihood of the common masses?

HK: Tourism itself is not an issue. Issue is the way it’s being implemented while destroying the livelihood of other people. Most of the coastal lands, lagoons, water bodies have now become proposed sites to promote tourism. Some of the most important environmental resources, such as Mangrove forest covers, are in the process of being completely destroyed. For example the government wants to use Negombo lagoon to land sea planes (or Air Taxi service) to transport tourists. The authorities show a blatant disregard to the fact that it may destroy the livelihoods of 3,500 fishermen and 15,000 households.

Apart from destroying the livelihood of those vulnerable communities, such proposals tend to totally undermine the foreign exchange earnings gain through fishing. Negombo lagoon alone earns more than Rs. 150 million from prawns, crabs and fish. This is besides the contribution it makes as a cheap protein source for poor people's food. The amount of reduction of malnutrition by fish production is not taken into account.

The next important thing is the land issue. The government plans to lease out large chunks of land from 35 to 99 years. These land can be coastal, even water catchment area of a reservoir, or very high ecologically sensitive areas (such as Knuckles Range, Kalpitiya islands etc) or bio diversity hot spots (such as Sinharaja Rain Forest area). All the ecological importance of such resources will be lost due to tourism. We talk a lot about precautionary measures to prevent climate change and to mitigate its adverse effects. But when all these plans proceed un-disrupted, what will happen to the long term sustenance of this island?

At the same time, if Air Taxis to land in reservoirs, there needs to be a certain water level to be retained for safety and safe landing. So, when it comes to reservoirs in the dry zone, most of the paddy fields are already drying and dying as people do not have enough water to cultivate. Just imagine the consequences, when there is a necessity to retain water to land air taxis? What will be prioritized? Everybody knows that priority will be given to the air taxi service over the paddy farmers. Can you imagine what will happen to the farmers who are depending on 28 inland reservoirs that have been already identified for Air Taxi landing?

It’s obvious what the government is doing in the cities. They want to create ‘clean-pleasant cities’ by forcibly removing the poor from the cities. The poor slum dwellers should pay the price and leave the cities sacrificing their daily earnings to make cities ‘pretty enough’ to impress western tourists. In this process, people are loosing not only the resources, but their customary and fundamental human rights too.

JDS: Moving back to north-east, many know that the government maintained High Security Zones (HSZ), at least since the early 1990s. Has the end of the war brought any change of policy towards removing such restrictions?

HK: When we consider the number of HSZ maintained in the south of the island during the war, it has substantially reduced by now. But as far as the north-east is concerned, we have to make clear that the situation has not largely changed.

For example, the Palaly area in north still remain as a HSZ and a huge number of people are still live displaced in camps. For decades, their own lands have been made out of bounds to them. They are living in 56 temporary IDP camps under severe conditions, since 1990s. These people have a right to return to their own lands. In the same way, there are number of places in Mullaithivu district that are still being designated as HSZs.

Several coastal areas are still not opened to civilians while in Mannar and Killinochchi fishermen still forced to live under a navy approved pass system for fishing. Important fishing harbours remain under the total control of the navy, while army and navy personnel are very much present in the landing sites of the Northern Province.

Photograph by Manjula Wediwardena | JDS

© JDS