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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Stories on how WhyHunger is building solidarity with fishing communities in Sri Lanka. This is the 2nd in a 3-part series of articles on NAFSO and the communities whose rights it defends.

In 2013 and in 2015, I traveled to Sri Lanka to meet with and learn from the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) – one of WhyHunger’s grantees – as part of my work at WhyHunger to accompany social movements. NAFSO is a social movement of small-scale fisherfolk who face many obstacles and challenges to produce food for their families and communities and to protect the oceans. I traveled to the fishing village of Kalpitiya and its nearby islands, which sit at the opening to a large lagoon, to meet with fishing families and learn about their struggles.

Driving through Kalpitiya’s streets and alleys – past the tin roof shacks, the lean dogs, the small, beaten boats and the meager food for sale – was hard. Sitting on a porch and listening to the plight of fishermen and their wives – seeing the tension and anxiety on their faces – was even harder.

The fishermen of Kalpitiya told me about how the coastline and the 14 surrounding islands were being grabbed by developers, both foreign and domestic, with plans to build 39 tourist hotels, numerous golf courses, an amusement park, and an airport. About 86,000 people live in Kalpitiya, and fishing is the main livelihood, where 1 out of every 5 people is a fisherman. But these new plans threatened to put an end to fishing and to the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.

Since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the government of Sri Lanka has pushed neoliberal development policies hard by supporting new garment factories, industrial agriculture plantations and the construction of tourist resorts throughout the country. The sentiment of the community is clear – the government’s development plans do not focus on what the people need; they focus on what can bring in the most money for the elite.

According to a report that came out last year, The Global Ocean Grab, one quarter of the Kalpitiya peninsula and the islands that surround it have been grabbed by Sri Lankan and foreign investors, and more than 2,500 families have been evicted from their lands and been denied access to the fisheries.

P1040450The beaches of Kalpitiya are where fishermen launch their boats, cast their nets and dry their fish. If you ask the fishermen what they need, they will talk about needing better nets, affordable boat fuel, good schools for their kids, and owning some land so they can build a house for their family. They don’t need a tourist resort, much less 39 of them. But because the beaches are more lucrative for tourism than for small-scale fishing, many fishermen are being pushed off of their land and fishing grounds – legally and illegally.

“Now I can’t work in the place I stay. They are not renewing my license [to fish with nets from the beach],” says Neil Susantha, a beach net fishermen from Kalpitiya. “I had a license for 4 years. Now I have to work at someone else’s place. I think it is because they are planning to build a hotel. According to a letter from the Fisheries Minister, if we are eligible to obtain a license, it should be given to us.”

Even without the threats of land grabbing, fishing families face so many hurdles and obstacles in Sri Lanka. “I started fishing when I was 11 years old,” says Ravi, a fisherman from Kalpitiya. “I did not go anywhere to work, I didn’t go to school. I have been fishing since I was a child.” Ravi’s four children are all married with kids and all living with him, and his sons fish with him every day. Because of the size of his family, Ravi is one of the lucky fishermen in Kalpitiya: “When my sons and I go fishing, we bring 1,500 hooks. Some people are only going with 500 or 600 hooks.”

Small-scale fishers in Sri Lanka, because of their traditional ways of fishing, preserve the oceans and fisheries. Ravi says that they can only catch the small fish, so they don’t upset the ecosystem. Small-scale fishers know that preserving the ecosystem is critical to their ongoing livelihood. “I won’t engage in illegal fishing,” Ravi says.

But it isn’t easy work. They start fishing at 1:30 am, returning by 5:30 am and cleaning the fish until 11 am. They sleep and eat, and then they go fishing again in the evening from 5:30 until 9:30 pm. “My wife manages the price and looks over everything. She is my right hand.”

Fishers like Ravi say that if the government’s development programs provided more support to small-scale fishing, they would be able to feed the country, create wealth and protect and steward Sri Lanka’s coast and oceans. Instead, the government forgets them, ignores them, then kicks them off their land.

Social movements like NAFSO emerge when communities decide to rely on themselves to solve their own problems. Fishing communities throughout the country, like those in Kalpitiya, are members of NAFSO so they can fight land and ocean grabbing and other problems they face.

At the local level, the communities of NAFSO stage demonstrations and organize community meetings to pressure local officials to defend their rights. At the national level, the small-scale fishermen of NAFSO developed a bottom-up, technically sound and comprehensive national fisheries policy written by fishing communities for fishing communities, and they have been working hard with the government to implement it at the national level. Most importantly for the fishermen of Kalpitiya, this proposed fishing policy would protect the human rights of small-scale fishers to access the fisheries and coastal land. But it would also address many of the other issues that fishermen face: it would eliminate the damaging nets and fishing gear used by the big, industrial boats; reduce foreign imports of that undercut and hurt small-scale Sri Lankan fishers; and increase local production and processing of seafood, to ensure that there is work and opportunities for all communities.

NAFSO also works at the global level, joining forces with other social movements from other countries, because small-scale fishers are facing the same problems all over the world. NAFSO is a founding member of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), a global social movement of fisherfolk organizations. The WFFP had a major success this past year, when the United Nations adopted the Voluntary Guidelines on Small-Scale Fisheries. These Voluntary Guidelines are a major new human rights instrument which protect the fundamental human rights of small-scale fishermen, who account for 90% of the 140 million people engaged in fisheries world-wide. Though often overlooked, supporting, protecting, and defending small-scale fisheries is one of the most important ways to end hunger and create food sovereignty.

Through its Global Movement Program, WhyHunger supports the efforts of fishing communities through the existing infrastructure of social movements like NAFSO. Our support and allyship with NAFSO not only shows our solidarity with the struggle to achieve food sovereignty and end hunger in Sri Lanka, but also strengthens their work as a global movement to ensure the universal human right to food for everyone.

Social movements like WFFP and NAFSO are an inspiration to all of us at WhyHunger, both as individuals and as staff members of an organization that is dedicated to creating a dignified life for all. We believe that defending the rights of fisherfolk and pushing for a transformation of fishing are vital to ending hunger, poverty, and climate change and for achieving food sovereignty.

Near the end of my meeting with the fishing families in Kalpitiya, I asked them whether they were hopeful they could protect their fisheries and defend their livelihoods, because they were in a very difficult situation. One of the leaders told me that their families would always survive, because, he said, “People don’t want hand-outs. People need to have their own plans, projects, and resources, and they will find a way.” In that moment, I saw clearly that social movements are changing the world, even if it is just one step at a time. Social movements continue to inspire and challenge all of us to support and be a part of that change, however we can.


The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) has hit the road in New England. The Who Fishes Matters Tour aims to unite fisherfolk to create policies that will "lead toward a healthier ocean, working waterfronts and a thriving food system." 

Why is this tour important? Niaz Dorry, the Executive Director of NAMA, says we need to protect small-scale fishing in order to ensure fair jobs, good health, strong communities, and sustainable environments.:

"We believe there is a direct link between who fishes and the health of our ocean, marine ecosystem and commercial fisheries. Fisheries managers and policy makers are deciding on the rate and limits to consolidation and accumulation of fishing power within the fishing industry. Considering fishing is done to feed our food systems, we need to apply lessons learned from what happened when consolidation and accumulation of power happened to farmers who bring our land based foods to our table. In the end we realized that who farms matters to the health of our food, biodiversity, economies and communities."

Shannon Eldridge of Chatham, MA tells her story:

Check out more testimonial videos by fisherfolk here.

WhyHunger is pleased to be partnering with Andrianna Natsoulas, long-time food sovereignty activist and author of the forthcoming book Food Voices: Stories of the Food Sovereignty Movement.  For the past year, Andrianna has been on a journey across the Americas to capture the stories of people working towards and living a just and sustainable food system. Below is the latest highlight of her work.

Maria (Mentinha) do Livramento Santos is a fisher woman from Curral Velho, Ceara, Brazil. She was born and raised in a fishing family. Maria is a community leader and an active member of the Associaçao Communitaria de Marisqueiros e Pescadores (Community Association of Shellfish Harvesters and Fisherfolk) of Curral Velho.

“Since 1997, there has been a huge struggle to protect the mangroves. These empty areas are the salt plains. The shrimp farmers wanted to take this entire area. They wanted to take all the people who were living here out, but they could not. We are traditional fisherfolk and we know that this type of development is not good for us.

“We organized the community to fight and defend our land. It was very dangerous. We united, we fought and we were strong. When we began the fight, we did not have a formal association. After we started fighting, we started the association. The main purpose of the association is to defend the fishing area and the mangroves, because then we defend our port, our beach, our community. If they invade our beach, our community is over because the livelihood of our community is based in the mangroves. I believe in the fight. We need our freedom. We need our food security.

“The men, women and children all organized to defend what is ours. If they take our territory we cannot have access to the sea, we cannot fish and we cannot feed ourselves. The main problem is that they cut the trees. If they take the mangrove trees, the crabs, oysters, shells, and fish will all be gone. If we have no mangroves, none of the resources will be there. By cutting the trees, the environment heats up and all the fish die. We lose our seafood. Besides that, there is the problem with the chemicals they put in the shrimp farms. When they harvest the shrimp from the farms, they let the dirty water go into the estuaries.

“We had a major conflict on September 7th in 2004 and 30 fishermen went to the shrimp farm company, called Jolé Aquicultura.We said to them, ‘do not invade our community anymore.’ There was a group of between 20 and 30 fishermen, including teenagers. The shrimp farm hired hit men. We couldn’t have any dialogue with these people, only bullets. During a protest, they shot seven people from this community. Nobody died. They caught some teenagers and threatened to pull out their teeth with knives to try to make them tell them where the other protesters were and what the plans were.For me, it was not the first time I was threatened with death. In 2003 and 2004, they tried to kill me and my husband because we always fought to defend the mangroves and protect our community. We keep fighting these big projects, but we never think of dying. If we think about the danger, we can’t fight. I like to say it is from fear that courage is born.

“What keeps me fighting is the heritage our parents left us, our main source of income – the mangroves. What keeps me fighting is the belief that we can win.”


Welcome to WhyHunger’s Connect Blog featuring stories, projects and articles from the community-based organizations, organizers and social movements that are building the movement for food justice.

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