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.
"Everything the people have comes through struggle." WhyHunger supported the Assembly of the Poor (AOP) through our International Solidarity Fund and went on a site visit to learn from the villagers about their struggle and how they are fighting for food sovereignty. Below is a personal account and pictures from Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau's experience.
When the peasants in Chongtuko village were forced out of their homes and off their farms in 1993, they had nowhere to go. The Thai military wanted their land to use as a training field, and the villagers did not know how to solve their problem. After years of landlessness, they joined the Assembly of the Poor (AOP), a national social movement linking rural peasants and forest dwellers with urban workers and coastal fisherfolk pushing for social justice and food sovereignty. Through AOP, in 1997 they pushed the provincial government to allocate 256 acres of land in the forest for the villagers, who moved in and called their new village Kokedoi.
They set up small farms within the clearings and harvested the wild foods from the forest. They set up a small market along the road, where all of the villagers set up stalls. The villagers, who are peasant farmers and not shopkeepers, had to overcome their shyness and modesty to support themselves in the market. They found out that forest products, which are rare and are hard to harvest, sold really well. Now their market is thriving.
But their success has not come easily. For many years, they faced constant threats and attacks from a logging company that wanted to plant and harvest eucalyptus trees. The company moved in illegally and began to plant industrial eucalyptus on the land where the villagers were growing food and harvesting wild vegetables from the forest. They insulted the villagers and threatened them, and they put pressure on the provincial government to force the villagers out.
The pressure that the villagers were under was so bad that they decided they needed to block the entrance to the forest. In the middle of the night, they moved their entire village – 88 families’ homes – from beside the road to the center of the forest, where the company was trying to cut down the eucalyptus trees. Because of this heroic maneuver, their homes, their fields, and the forest was saved.
It did not come naturally for the villagers in Kokedoi to live in the forest. In fact, when they were first planning their village, some of the families wanted to cut down all of the trees, creating more land for them to plant. But others in the community wanted to protect the forest, and they argued that since so many of the middle class, urban people in Thailand blamed environmental problems on peasants and said that poor people cause deforestation, the villagers of Kokedoi should prove them wrong. They also pointed out that the logging company wanted to destroy the forest, so they needed to protect the forest. They became creative and learned how to sustain themselves from the forest vegetables, the fish that lived in the ponds, and the bullfrogs that lived in the mud and riverbeds.
However, the confrontation with the logging company continued and worsened. At one point, the company even hired assassins to kill the leader of the village, Uthai. Through the support of the Assembly of the Poor, as well as the courage of the villagers, Uthai and the people of Kokedoi survived and held onto their land. They did not give into the pressure, and eventually the assassin actually approached Uthai and told him that he had been hired to kill him but would not go through with it because of the strength and courage of the community. I asked Uthai how he was able to face that danger and what he was thinking. He told me, “I thought about leaving the village, but I realized that this would not solve the problem and would have hurt and weakened the village.” It was only because the people in the village supported him and guarded him that they were able to survive.
They also did it for their kids, to ensure that their children had a good life. If they gave up their land again, they worried what would happen to their kids. Now, they are learning agroecological farming, because chemicals used in industrial agriculture hurt the forest and will kill the forest vegetables. They have traveled to other villages that are members of the Assembly of the Poor, through its Alternative Agriculture Network, and they are experimenting with new crops and new markets.
As I was leaving, the villagers reminded me again the lesson of Kokedoi: everything that they have, they have because of struggle. They showed their flags for the Assembly of the Poor proudly, which hung next to their bustling market.
Hunger is not solved by sympathy or by charity. Hunger and poverty are the results of oppression and powerful interests, and they are only ended when the people who are the most impacted stand up, often in the face of life or death threats, for their human rights and dignity.
“Land is life,” say peasant farmers. Of course, food and water come from the land, but for the billions of peasants who survive from the land, this is not just an abstract statement. Losing their land – often evicted and displaced violently by police or paramilitary gangs to make way for large-scale, industrial agriculture and extractive development projects – means poverty, hunger, and desperation.
So, it is not a surprise that these same peasants often put their own lives on the line to reclaim land for their families.
This past week, two members of the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) were killed in what the MST calls an “ambush” by the state police and private security hired by a logging company. Vilmar Bordim (44, married with three children) and Leomar Bhorbak (25, whose wife is nine-months pregnant) were both residents of the MST encampment in the state of Parana, where 1,500 families live on public land desired by the logging company Araupel.
Vilmar and Leomar gave up their lives so that their families could have some land, because land is life.
The MST organizes landless peasant families to nonviolently occupy unused land in accordance with the Brazilian government’s constitutional obligation to ensure agrarian reform for the people. The MST has successfully put over 250,000 families back on the land to produce healthy foods and live in peace.
April 17th is celebrated as the International Day of Peasants’ Struggles by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina, which the MST helped to found in the 1990s. It was originally designated to mark the Massacre of Eldorado dos Carajás, on April 17, 1996, when 19 members of the MST were killed during a nonviolent occupation. This year is the 20th anniversary of that date, and still the struggle continues and peasants sacrifice their lives.
April 17th is not meant to be a sad day, however. It is a day to honor sacrifice, but it is also a day to celebrate victory.
Recently, thousands of families in the community of Paanama in Sri Lanka were able to reclaim their land after 6 years of constant struggle amidst threats and intimidation. Their struggle began in 2010 when armed men shot at members of the community, chased them away, and burned their homes. Then, the military moved in and the government claimed it as their land, intending to build tourist resorts on beachfront land.
The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly told the people that large-scale, corporate-led tourism is the only way to develop the economy and create jobs for the country. The government continues to support this policy, and land conflicts have flared up all over the country as land and beachfront are taken from the people for tourist development.
But the people in Paanama remained steadfast in their fight to reclaim their land, even though they were living in camps and threatened by violence.
They petitioned their local government for their land back, but when those politicians did nothing, they shocked the country and voted them out of office. Then, the peasants took their fight to the national level and to the courts, voting out the old President, Rajapaksa, and pressuring the new President, Sirisena, to return the land to the people. But even after the new President promised that the land would be returned, the people were blocked at every attempt to access their homes. They joined national movements for food sovereignty like the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) and the Movement for National Land and Agrarian Reform (MONLAR), and they peacefully occupied their lands and continually asserted their rights to their homes.
Finally, in late March of this year, the courts ruled that the people should have full access to their lands.
An organizer with NAFSO told me that through their 6 year struggle, the people of Paanama have been transformed. They think for themselves and trust their own democratic choices. They reject the government and its policies that support corporate-led tourism at the cost of the people, and they say that they can do better for themselves farming and fishing on their land and water, using agroecology and traditional ways to produce food. And they say that even if tourism is really the best way to develop the country, then they can do it themselves; they don’t need land grabbing to bring in tourists.
Throughout this weekend and the week of April 17th, WhyHunger stands with La Via Campesina and countless other organizations to recognize the struggle of small-scale food producers to create a better world. We encourage others to get involved by visiting the websites of Via Campesina and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance to learn more.
On Thursday, March 24, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor of the influential hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, passed away after a decades-long struggle with diabetes.
A Tribe Called Quest (or just “Tribe”) broke new ground in hip-hop in the early 1990s with clever, fun, Afrocentric lyrics and a conscious love for culture and community, layered over jazz beats. One of Tribe’s remarkable achievements is expressing the positivity and wisdom of our cultural traditions and our ancestral knowledge without sugarcoating what is often a harsh and difficult reality. And though WhyHunger has never had a formal connection to A Tribe Called Quest, their music in many ways reflects our organization’s values of making a better world and lifting up the voices and the realities of everyday people.
And though Phife was often the sidekick to Q-Tip, the group’s more famous frontman (their third member, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, was the DJ), he was the one whose blunt and honest lyrics grounded the group in real life and everyday struggles.
In fact, I first learned about the problems in our food system from their songs “Ham n’ Eggs,” when Phife celebrates African and Caribbean food culture and raps about healthy eating, and “Award Tour,” when Phife puts his diabetes front and center in his rhymes, immediately removing any stigma: “Mr. Energetic, who me sound pathetic?/when’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”
Yet, while there have been many articles expressing gratitude and offering memories of Phife and his contributions, there have not been many that really address diabetes, the cause of Phife’s death. Diabetes is a major health crisis: it affects one third of the population and is the seventh leading cause of death. But it is also a major political crisis because it means that our national food policies are failing so many: Phife struggled to manage his diabetes and was literally killed by junk food. As both a long-time A Tribe Called Quest fan and a food justice activist, I wanted to write a piece to talk about this health crisis and offer my own kind of tribute to Phife.
Phife will be one of an estimated 240,000 deaths due, at least in part, to diabetes in the United States this year. 30 million people have diabetes, 90 million Americans have pre-diabetes, and one million more people are diagnosed with diabetes every year. Diabetes disproportionately affects people of color and low-income communities: Black, Latino, and Native American communities are about twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes (the kind caused by malnutrition and obesity) than are non-Hispanic whites; and low-income communities are more than twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes as communities with median incomes above the poverty line.
While we often think of nutrition and health in terms of personal choices and lifestyles, the diabetes crisis represents systemic malnutrition on a national scale, meaning that we need to think about systems. Our food system is structured so that healthier food is often the most expensive while the most affordable food is also the most highly-processed, unhealthy, and addictive. Moreover, healthy food often isn’t even available – there just aren’t any grocery stores or restaurants that have healthy options – in many low-income communities and communities of color.
When communities don’t have access to nutritious, affordable food, it is extremely difficult to be healthy and extremely easy to develop diseases like diabetes. Phife’s situation was actually different - he inherited the much rarer Type 1 diabetes instead of developing Type 2 diabetes – but he also inherited a city (New York City) whose food system is very much structured by racism and classism, like most of the country.
One major reason that the food system remains so structurally oppressive is that agribusiness companies and their lobbyists have heavily influenced our national food policy to ensure that they can continue to profit from their processed food products. In part, these companies get away with selling such unhealthy food because they sell it to people who are already marginalized and oppressed in US society and have little political power to fight back.
In Beats, Rhymes, and Life, a recent documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, Phife confessed that he was “addicted to sugar.” As a rapper and lyricist, Phife knows the meaning of words, so when he likens junk food to an addictive drug, we should pay attention. In fact, journalists have uncovered how the largest agri-foods companies use chemicals to manipulate our taste buds and use the latest advertising and marketing to manipulate our brains into buying their product.
And these same companies have used lots of money and extensive lobbying to make sure our federal government supports them.
NYU professor Marion Nestle recently wrote about how drastically agribusiness lobbying and political influence impacts the food we eat:
“If you were to create a meal that matched where the government historically aimed its subsidies, you’d get a lecture from your doctor; more than three-quarters of your plate would be taken up by a massive corn fritter (80 percent of benefits go to corn, grains and soy oil). You’d have a Dixie cup of milk (dairy gets 3 percent), a hamburger the size of a half dollar (livestock: 2 percent), two peas (fruits and vegetables: 0.45 percent) and an after-dinner cigarette (tobacco: 2 percent). Oh, and a really big linen napkin (cotton: 13 percent) to dab your lips.”
With federal food priorities like this, is it any surprise that we have what some call “food apartheid,” and that whether you are nourished and healthy is determined primarily by your race, your class, and where you live?
As a rapper, Phife was known and beloved for being honest and blunt, so it is only right to be honest and blunt about the ills of our food system after his death. His death and his struggle with diabetes urges us to do something about this enormous crisis in the food system.
And, not so surprisingly, even his lyrics offer a pretty clear guide about the kinds of food a national food policy should support:
“Asparagus tips look yummy, yummy, yummy/
Candied yams inside my tummy/
A collage of good eats, some snacks or nice treats/
Apple sauce and some nice red beets/
This is what we snack on when we're questin'/
No second guessin'.”
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.
The 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.