12 / 1997
The fight for a separate Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka has continued throughout the last decade, affecting all sectors of society. In Batticaloa district, since 1990, thousands have been killed or injured, hundreds detained and probably over a thousand have disappeared.
Also affected are the fishing communities in the district. Batticaloa district in north-east Sri Lanka has a 120-km coastline, three lagoons and 200 irrigation tanks- a large fishery resource. More than a third of the people are involved in fisheries (in the lagoons, sea and inland)and associated activities. Batticaloa is famous for its tiger prawns, which are caught in the lagoons. The district has a majority Tamil population (71 per cent)and a considerable Moor population (24 per cent). At three per cent, the Sinhalese are a minority.
Until 1982, marine fishing was mainly done by migrant Sinhalese fishermen from the south and Mannar, using labour from Batticaloa. These fishermen migrated to Batticaloa for six months during the south-west monsoon and supported a second family there. This tradition declined with increased mechanisation of craft, which made fishing possible during the monsoon and high winds.
In another traditional method of fishing- beach-seine or karai valai- Sinhalese migratory fishermen used to come to the east coast with a skeleton crew and employ up to 60 Tamil fishworkers on a karai valai.
The breaking out of the conflict ensured that Sinhalese migrant fishermen no longer visit Batticaloa. This ended a mutually beneficial relationship. For example, the government has not reallocated the karai valai fishing sites to others. This renders an estimated 3,000 or more fishworkers unemployed.
Soon the temporary settlements of the Sinhalese fishermen started to become more permanent structures and they were provided with a police post for `security reasons’. The migrants then came to be regarded as part of the state’s plan to `colonise’ Batticaloa. They thus became targeted for anti-Sinhala action.
Traditionally, the big traders in fish came from the Sinhalese and Muslim communities. The war has disrupted this. A few traders dominate the Batticaloa market. They buy fish at auctions at the landing sites where the lack of competitive buying has kept prices low.
Due to the problems of preservation and transport, fish is sold almost exclusively in the local market. There are many problems with preservation and transport. One is the shortage of ice. There were only two ice factories. One was staffed mainly by Sinhalese, who had to leave after the violence in the late 1980s. The other factory was damaged.
Transporting anything within and around Batticaloa is difficult. Vehicle movement is restricted and military checkpoints delay shipments. Even from landing sites situated a few kilometres outside Batticaloa town it frequently difficult to access usual markets.
Fishing communities have been affected in numerous other ways. In September 1993, over 36,000 people in Batticaloa were registered with the government as displaced- either living in or outside refugee camps. Among the displaced were many fishing families.
Numerous fishermen have also been killed in the past decade, and their boats and equipment have been destroyed. Further, fishing communities being far from urban centres are sometimes also the targets of security operations and consequent round-ups.
Fishing activities have also been disrupted due to the regulatory actions of the security forces. Security zones have been created in coastal areas and lagoons. There has also been a total ban on using boats with outboard engines, except from a few fishery harbours.
Not surprisingly, over the last 10 years, there has been a fall in fish production. The peak production of fish was in 1982 for marine species and in 1980 for those from the lagoons. The decline in catch since 1983 could be due to the ethnic violence, the degradation and pollution of the lagoons and also to restrictions on marine fishing. The income and livelihood of fishing communities has suffered.
The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has taken a heavy toll. Thousands have been injured or have lost their lives. In addition, many of the earlier community and co-operative organisations no longer function. The relationship between the different ethnic groups has greatly worsened.
Affected severely by the conflict are the fishing communities in the strife-torn areas. Many communities have been displaced. Hundreds of fisherpeople have been killed. Income from the fishery has declined as the hazards encountered in fishing in war-affected areas have increased. Mutually beneficial relationships between different ethnic groups- groups that had traditionally co-operated in the harvesting, processing and marketing of fish- have been disrupted. The situation is likely to improve only with the cessation of the conflict.
Artículos y dossiers
RAJASINGAM, Mano, Fishing to the tune of gunfire in. Samudra Report, 1994/02, 9