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'It's the small-scale producers who feed the world – promote and protect them'

Written By Freedam to the nation resettlement of IDPs on Thursday, October 3, 2013 | 10:17 PM

Herman Kumara talks about his work to safeguard the future of Sri Lanka's fishing communities and the threats to his personal safety in doing that work

herman kumara
Fisheries advocate, Herman Kumara. Photograph: Nafso
How did National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (Nafso) start?
I was the training and admission officer of Caritas Sri Lanka from 1991-1997. During my time there, my director asked me to organise fishing communities under one wider network, through which I would arrange charitable activities such as sharing boats, front campaigns and undertake advocacy work. My superiors then became unhappy about the fact that some of my work meant going against government policies, so they asked me to keep quiet and discontinue my involvement with the network I had been building. I decided that I wanted to pursue this work, so I left Caritas in 1997 to set up Nafso.
Why is protecting fishing communities in Sri Lanka so important to you?
I began my work in the fisheries field because they [fishing communities] were – and still are – one of the most marginalised groups in our society. In Sri Lanka, we still have a caste system, and fishermen are considered to be among the lowest and most oppressed in our culture. They are often uneducated, and while they are very knowledgeable about their own industry, they don't necessarily understand the social, economic and political matters that affect them. We wanted to bring these people into the mainstream and create a dialogue, while helping them to understand the key issues affecting their livelihood.
What kind of work do you carry out day-to-day, and how has this changed from when Nafso first began?
When I first started the organisation, I had to study and analyse materials that would help me to educate both individual fishermen and fishing organisations. I prepared policy documents, organised certain agitations, did field work and research into topics such as deep sea fishing legislation. Nafso still does all of these things, but I now have a team who carry out the work with me, and we have expanded our areas of concern to include areas such as human rights, natural resources, environmental justice and economic development. Here we make decisions collectively, working from the bottom up instead of the top down. We're more in touch with people on every level, and encourage them to be a part of the activities we plan and decide.
What effects has Sri Lanka's political unrest had on its fisheries?
During the civil war, bans on deep sea fishing were put in place as well as limiting fuel for fishing boats, which then led to the government resorting to importing, rather than exporting, sea products. Fishing was banned completely in certain areas and only allowed between certain hours in others, and the high-security zones implemented to prevent conflict saw thousands of fishermen displaced and without a livelihood. This, followed by the tsunami in 2004, affected the trade very badly, with an estimated 32,000 fisher people being killed in the natural disaster.
What are the biggest threats currently facing the country's fisher people?
Sri Lanka is trying to attract more investors, so the country needs to provide more facilities that cater to their needs such as harbours and roads, which are big infrastructural changes. The country is trying to draw 2.5 million tourists by 2016 and 4 million by 2020, which is putting pressure on the fishing industry as the coastal areas are unable to be used by fisher people. Added to this, a number of top level ministers and politicians receive commission from the private companies fishing and parking their vessels in Sri Lankan waters, so they don't care that the livelihood of their own fisher people is under threat.
After anti-government protests led by fishing communities in 2012, you were pursued by the authorities. What happened?
Last February, the government announced a spontaneous 50% increase on fuel prices. Protests against this took place because fishing communities believed this was a serious threat to them, and that they would be unable to survive as a result. The government sent the police to curb the protest, which led to the death of fisherman Antony Warnakulasuriya, who was shot by the authorities. When discussing the events in parliament, the minister for fisheries Rajitha Senaratne purposely mentioned my name, stating that I was the culprit of the protest and subsequent killing of the fisherman. Politicians then began spreading rumours that I had run away from the country, when in fact I was in Rome attending meetings on agricultural development. They tried to prevent me from returning home, but I wanted to come back and respond to those who had made allegations against me.
What's your vision for the future of your organization?
We want to the fishing industry to have a sustainable future, and to have a policy that can be put in place across the country. We submitted a document of this nature to the fisheries ministry and officials in 2004 with 450,000 signatures. We are fighting to change the situation for fishers, and believe that they should have the ability to own waters and be its custodians. We also want to educate on environmental issues to build the best possible future for Sri Lanka's fisheries.
What, to you, is the future of development?
Research tells us that it's the small-scale food producers who feed the world, and not big industries. We need to promote and protect them, and the environment, to ensure they continue to be able to do this. Our government is getting behind mega-scale fishing reserves but this will not help to sustain future generations and provide food for the population.
What do you think makes a good leader?
A good leader should have comprehensive knowledge of what's going on, the ability to analyze the situation and to think strategically about the future. He needs to bring people together towards pursuing their convictions, and lead them in the right direction which will empower people and create a better future for society. He should guide them and focus on the collective, building the community, the society and its future. You have to sacrifice a lot of things, listen to others and fight against the evils which exist today.

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