S Thavaratnam, chairman of the Jaffna District Fishermen’s Cooperative Society Unions Federation, played a significant role in unionising fishermen in northern Sri Lanka, starting in the mid-1970s. At that time, small unions were established in every fishing village across the Northern Province. As the civil war took hold, however, communication across villages became difficult and the federation was disrupted, and the unions in the Jaffna District functioned as a smaller federation. Thavaratnam became the president of that federation in 1995. He recently spoke with Himal contributing editor Ahilan Kadirgamar, and explained the impact of the civil war on the fishing industry, the problem of South Indian trawlers encroaching on Sri Lankan waters, and the need for more advanced boats. Translated from the Tamil.
Tell us a bit about the tradition of fishing in northern Sri Lanka.
I grew up in a village called Mylitty, in northern Jaffna, which was famous for its fishing industry. Prior to the war, five to six large vehicles of fish were sent daily to the south from my village. A fishing harbour, the only one in northern Jaffna, was built in Mylitty in the late 1970s. Even now, if the High Security Zone [in the northern part of Jaffna] is lifted, I am confident that we can resume the great fishing tradition of my village.
How were your fishing unions established?
Our unionising efforts in 1970s were preceded by a fishermen’s cooperative started in the mid-1950s for northern fisherfolk to export sea products. The leaders of this cooperative gave us a good foundation for organisational work. By the 1980s, our organisation, the Jaffna Federation, had won two international awards for its work. We have 117 sangams [small unions] at the village level, which are divided into nine unions, one in each of the nine divisions of Jaffna District. One representative from each of the nine unions is part of the Jaffna Federation, and we take decisions collectively. Following the 2004 tsunami, through our village-level unions we provided data to NGOs about the losses incurred; we have since remained a source of information about these villages for both the government and donors. Although we were able to address losses relating to employment after the tsunami and other natural disasters, we have not been able to address issues of resettlement and shelter.
In 2003 and 2004, we engaged the government on the need to lift restrictions on fishing due to the curfew and High Security Zones. When there was no response, we mobilised our village unions to block the Jaffna district secretariat for 13 days. This was a non-violent protest and the people of Jaffna supported us – even government employees at the secretariat were sympathetic. To express solidarity with our struggle, fisherfolk in the south of the country, particularly in Negombo, staged a protest. Government officials finally called us for negotiations, and some of our demands were met. Due to our mobilisation efforts, I believe the government now takes our demands seriously.
What has been the impact of the war on fishing communities?
The worst affected by the war has been our fishing community. Our economic life has been undermined. This is not just for those directly involved in fishing – people whose trade is related to fishing, be it marketing fish or producing dry fish, also continue to face economic deprivation. For example, the area currently under the North Valikamam High Security Zone [HSZ] was a major fishery. After 1985, our situation deteriorated due to restrictions, which included bans on deep-sea fishing and limited availability of fuel for boats. The situation became so grave that instead of exporting sea products the government had to resort to imports from other countries.
We have been caught in the crossfire of naval battles as well as air and ground attacks. But in order to earn livelihood, our fishermen continued to go out to sea. Some lost limbs, some were injured, others were brought back dead, some disappeared at sea, and many of our people were displaced. Even today, thousands of people have not returned to their villages, which come under the HSZ in North Valikamam. Many people continue to live in transit camps, and even those who are resettled continue without much support. It is not just about bare shelter; people should be able to resume their economic lives, they should have the freedom to speak, but that has not happened. The war has been over for 15 months, but normalcy has not returned.
What is needed in the post-war period?
Some restrictions on fishing have been lifted after the war. Now we are able to go to sea at night, but some facilities are still unavailable, such as fishing harbours and adequate transportation and marketing of fish. Some of the confiscated boats have not been returned by the navy. Also, due to decades of war, when we were not able to go fishing others exploited our seas and our environment has been destroyed, particularly by South Indian fishermen who have used large trawlers that have made the sea barren. Even if we can immediately put a stop to such destructive fishing, it will take time for the sea to return to normal. Earlier, we could predict where the fish was likely to be in which season; but now, because of the environmental damage, we are unable to fish this way. We have to ensure that such destruction does not happen in the future, and that fishing becomes sustainable once again. For that, we need to educate the younger generation of fisherfolk on sustainable fishing and environmental issues.
Now that the war is over, have you engaged with the fishing communities in southern Sri Lanka or those in India?
Having returned to the sea in recent times, we have now seen with our own eyes the encroachment of our seas by both southern [Sri Lankan] and Indian fishermen. With respect to the southern fishermen, the fishing minister has said his ministry will address the issue by engaging and convincing the southern fishermen not to exploit the seas in the north. This is a very positive message. As for the Indian fishermen, they do not have rights to fish in our seas, but they fish here nevertheless. In order to address this issue, in 2003 we had some discussions with the Indian fishing community. After that, because of the war, we were unable to continue those discussions. Recently, the fishing federations of all the northern districts met and made a decision to jointly engage the Indian fishing community. We are hoping to visit Chennai soon to discuss these important issues. We hope to, in a comradely manner, explain our concerns and resolve these issues.
What are the main needs of the fishermen in Jaffna?
For now, more than 80 percent of the need for small fibreglass boats with outboard motors has been met. However, due to the destruction of the seas closer to the coast, we need large multi-day boats that can go into the ocean for eight to ten days. We need financial aid to purchase perhaps 25 such boats in Jaffna district. We also need four or five fishing harbours and anchoring points for larger boats in the north. Large boats require considerable fuel and lots of ice for storage, and of course food and water for the crew. Therefore, diesel-pumping stations, water-supply stations, ice factories and refrigeration chambers have to be constructed at such fishing harbours. With these multi-day boats we can fish for tuna, which has a very good export market.