Sri Lankan women make their voices heard


Fisherfolk fight government to protect their livelihoods

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

A few of the women who were instrumental in the seaplane project attended a conference in January about the Chinese Port City showing how they celebrated when their advocacy stopped the government from irreparable harm to their fishing grounds. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — In a culture where women often go unheard, the fisherfolk women of Sri Lanka made certain their voices were loud and clear.

Their David and Goliath story began in 2010 when the Sri Lankan government, as part of its plan to attract more tourism and conference business, decided to build a seaplane project in the Negombo lagoon. The project was created after Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced his development program.

In the initial stages of construction, chemicals began to pour into the lagoon poisoning fish and vegetation as well as endangering areas where fish spawned. Poisonous chemicals like mercury were showing up in the fish. The fear was that the environmental harms would be devastating and irreversible.

“The government’s plan to build hotels, spas and tourist attractions, did not consider the fishermen who were already facing poverty and depended on these beaches and lagoons for their survival,” said Valery Nodem, Presbyterian Mission Agency associate for international hunger concerns. “The Presbyterian Hunger Program has been accompanying efforts like this one in the country for more than ten years. As ministries of the Compassion, Peace and Justice area [of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)], our partnership with communities in the U.S. and around the world is built around a crucial principle: Listening, walking with and empowering people.”

About 15,000 fishermen and more than 3,000 families depend on the affected lagoon for their livelihood. The small-scale fisherman felt helpless. They worked sun up to sun down fishing to support their families without the time or the resources to fight the government. Wanting to help in some way, the fisherman’s wives began educating themselves on the project and a rebellion was born.

With the help of faith leaders and partner organizations like NAFSO (National Fisheries Solidarity Movement), the women began a campaign to bring attention to the environmental and economic hardships the project would cause.

In Sri Lanka, men are the head of the household and make decisions for the family. Women care for hearth and home. When the women told their husbands they wanted to fight the project, most of the men rolled their eyes and gave their blessing, believing nothing would happen. The government thought so too. They were both wrong.

After developing basic materials on the project, the women began to travel to the small villages around the lagoon to raise awareness of the impending harm and rally people to action. Letters were sent to the president with no response. Then a series of protests began.

The movement gained speed. In October of that year about 2,000 fishermen, faith leaders, environmentalists, social activities and trade union members met at the parish of Kurulu Kele in Colombo and prayed for God to protect the mother lagoon and their livelihoods.

On November 18, more than 8,000 fisherman and local villagers non-violently occupied the area surrounding the lagoon, bringing business to a complete standstill. Hundreds sailed boats into the lagoon to physically block the construction process. Men and women laid down on the road. Women stood in the water for hours shouting, praying and singing. The protestors made it clear that they were not there to mediate. The only option was the complete withdrawal of the project.

Quickly believing they were losing control of the situation, defense minister Gotabya Rajapaksa, sailed into the lagoon on a Navy boat filled with men and guns, threatening to shoot the protestors.

Herman Kumara, convener of FAFSO, said that the protestors opened their shirts and said, “Shoot us, we are ready to die today. We are doing this for our children.”

After more than 10 hours the government agreed to suspend the project. The protestors refused to leave until the construction barge was moved.

“These women are amazing! Their testimonies and stories fill me with great hope and encouragement for them as well as for the global community of faith,” said Mienda Uriarte, coordinator for PC(USA) World Mission’s Asia and the Pacific office. “They responded from a genuine, authentic call to protect the natural resources entrusted to their care. With no economic standing and no status in the community, they stood unwaveringly in their position of powerlessness against a government and wore their courage like the badge of honor it is. We should all be so bold when faced with insurmountable odds.”

This group of women that no one took seriously at first remain mobilized and are now engaged in an active resistance against the Chinese Port City under construction on Colombo’s waterfront. They were part of a conference in Sri Lanka in January, where concerned religious groups and NGOs came together to discuss China’s rapidly advancing presence in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea.

Asked if their husbands would be involved, one of the women smiled and said, “They only know fishing.”

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