Stories of WhyHunger ally the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), and fishing communities in Sri Lanka. This is the 3rd in a 3-part series of articles on NAFSO and the communities whose rights it defends. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
Part 3: Why WhyHunger Supports Communities Struggling for Food Sovereignty
A few years ago, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan fishermen and their families took to city streets across the four corners of Sri Lanka to protest the Sri Lankan government’s decision to cut a vital fuel subsidy for small-scale fishers, and, more importantly, to remember a fisher leader killed by police two years ago in almost identical protests. Antony Fernando, a 36 year-old fishermen with a wife and two children, was shot by police in 2012 while marching through downtown Chilaw to protest a 30% hike in the price of boat fuel – a shockingly high and devastating increase for fishermen who are just barely getting by.
Back in 2012, the government had raised the price of fuel by 30%, putting hundreds of thousands of small-scale fishing families on the edge of crushing hunger. Boat fuel is one of the main costs fishermen face, and the increase meant that small-scale fishermen essentially had to go out of business because they would have had no way to catch enough fish to pay for the fuel. Fishing families felt like the government had abandoned them to starve.
Rising fuel prices disproportionately affect small-scale fishing families. The big, industrial boats can make up fuel costs with the volume of their catch and their access to export markets. For families whose living is producing food from the land and the sea, small changes in the economy can be devastating. Without the power and support of social movements, these communities would be plunged into poverty or forced to migrate looking for jobs in the garment sweatshops or on the streets as prostitutes.
NAFSO held emergency meetings with community fishery leaders around the country to decide how to respond to these price hikes. The fishing leaders were angry at the government and worried for their communities, and they wanted to organize demonstrations around Sri Lanka to demand the government lower fuel to the older price. During the demonstrations, the police opened fire on the fishermen with guns and tear gas, injuring multiple people and killing Antony Fernando.
Even after these protests and the violence, the government refused to revert to the old price of fuel, but instead offered a fuel subsidy. The subsidy may have kept some families from starving and going bankrupt, but it did not solve the problem. Most fishermen don’t own their boats, so they had to fight with government officials to prove their eligibility for the subsidy, and then in 2014, the government announced they would cut the subsidy, triggering a new round of protests from small-scale fishers.
NAFSO assisted demonstrators again, having received support and protection from organizations and governemnts outside of Sri Lanka, to raise the voices of fishing communities on the fuel issue and to continue pressuring the government to support small-scale fishers in the face of ongoing repression and neglect.
An estimated that 10,000 fishermen and women of NAFSO marched throughout Sri Lanka to protest the loss of the subsidy. Thousands walked through the streets of Chilaw, the home of Antony Fernando, carrying a coffin memorializing the struggles of fishing communities to feed their families with dignity. They stood up for themselves to end their own problems: the systematic marginalization and oppression that produces hunger and poverty.
Social movements like NAFSO build up the power and leadership in the communities so that the most vulnerable in society can be heard and seen and have their rights protected and defended. Social movements are not NGOs or charities. They are based in and led by communities who are traditionally and historically excluded, and create spaces for them to build their own power and dignity so that they can participate democratically. When communities can’t make their voices heard, or when their lives and challenges are made invisible, that is when hunger and poverty flourish, spread, and deepen. When communities are organized, their voices can be heard, their lives can be seen, and their needs are respected as being important.
This kind of courage and intelligence is nourished and strengthened in a social movement like NAFSO. Social movements are rare and special, organizations that make democracy a reality for people that are forgotten, silenced, and invisbilized, and they are so important in the struggle to end hunger. Examples like NAFSO are the reason WhyHunger is dedicated to supporting social movements.