“Give a Man a Fish, Feed Him for a Day; Support a Fishing Community to Defend its Rights; Change the World”

Stories of WhyHunger Ally the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), and Fishing Communities in Sri Lanka.

This is the 1st in a 3-part series of articles on NAFSO and the communities whose rights it defends.

Part 1: Resilience, the Struggle for Human Rights, and a Decade of Hardship

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There are hundreds of thousands of fishing families in Sri Lanka, and they rely on the fish they catch to feed their children and earn a livelihood. They fish from small boats, using nets they cast by hand. In some cases, fishermen cast their nets directly from the beach and work cooperatively to bring in the day’s catch. Women and widows earn a small living by drying and selling the fish that is caught by these small-scale fishermen. They live from the sea and want to be able to catch enough fish for their families and neighbors and earn a fair price at the market. They are connected to the sea and the many lagoons along Sri Lanka’s coast, and they want to take care of the ocean that provides their livelihood.

But Sri Lanka’s policies have made it and continue to make it impossible for fishers in Sri Lanka to survive and feed their families.

In 2004, thousands of fishing boats along the southern coast of Sri Lanka were destroyed in the tsunami, along with homes, nets, and the lives of too many fishermen. Communities in southern Sri Lanka are still rebuilding from the tsunami almost a decade later, but support from the government that was promised for new boats, new nets, and rebuilt homes was either too little or it never came. Widows with children were impacted worst of all, because they had little or no way to support their families once they lost their husbands.

When the 30-year civil war ended in 2009, fishing communities in the north had their lands taken by the military. They were forbidden from fishing, because the military said they were a security risk, and they watched as foreign fishing boats fished in their waters and tourist hotels sprouted on their beaches while their families went hungry.

Then, in 2012, the government raised the price of fuel by 30%, a sudden price hike that fishermen all over the country could simply not afford. There was no way for them to fish when their fuel costs were that high, meaning that they had no way to feed their families or earn a living.

Communities Taking Action

So in June, women in fishing communities led a four day hunger strike continuing to protest the rise of the price of fuel . And in October, fishermen in the north of the country submitted to a petition to the government to stop Indian boats from fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters and damaging the ocean floor with their “bottom-trawling” gear, while fishermen in the south of the country demonstrated in front of the Fisheries Ministry to protest Chinese trawlers that are also fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters and destroying fishing grounds with their bottom trawling.

And on October 10th, thousands of farming and fishing families launched a week-long, 400-mile march and “Awareness Caravan” across the island nation of Sri Lanka, to protest the new “Seed Act.” The caravan culminated on October 16th, World Food Day, in a march of thousands of farmers and fishers carrying banners and signs and featuring an altar displaying traditional Sri Lankan seeds and food. This proposed seed law would privatize seeds and outlaw seed-saving. According to the fishing and farming families who rely on traditional seeds, the law would criminalize their livelihoods and pave the way for increased land-grabbing, pollution and poverty by industrial agribusiness.

Human Rights and Food Sovereignty

These actions and demonstrations were supported by the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), a national network of fishers’ organizations in Sri Lanka that works for food sovereignty and the right to food and against the damaging policies of “development” that hurt small-scale food producers the most, including farmers and farmworkers.


NAFSO also provides direct support to communities, what they call “survival programs,” like small boats for fishermen and seeds and tools for families to start small, sustainable food gardens. NAFSO also provides widows with basic supports like chicken coops and baby chicks to provide healthy food to their kids and earn a living. NAFSO also provides support to community leaders in the fisher organizations. They provided training and support in organizing to the families of the town of Negombo to stop a government plan to build large seaplane dock, meant as a transportation hub for tourists, right in the middle of the lagoon the community relied on for fish. NAFSO helped them to organize support from religious leaders and local politicians, and with NAFSO’s support, the leaders from the community stopped the project and saved the fishery. WhyHunger is proud to support NAFSO and to be in solidarity with the social movements of fishers and farmers of Sri Lanka.

But direct support to communities and even protests and demonstrations against unjust and destructive policies and projects cannot solve the problems that food producers face in Sri Lanka. Fishing families face hunger and poverty because the model of “development” does not value small food producers. The real solution is creating and advancing a new paradigm of development, centered in the human rights of food producers living off the land and the sea.

Advancing this paradigm of food sovereignty is why NAFSO has spent over a decade working on a global policy for small-scale fisheries at the United Nations. Through the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), NAFSO was able to pass the Guidelines on Small-Scale Fisheries (VGSSF), which gives new human rights protections to small fishing communities that have never existed: small-scale fisheries are recognized as being critical to ensuring food security and governments are recognized as having a responsibility to protect them.

NAFSO recently translated these Guidelines into Tamil and Sinhala (the two languages used in Sri Lanka) and traveled to different communities in Sri Lanka, training over 150 leaders in these new rights. Even though these Guidelines are “voluntary,” social movements like NAFSO are using them to push their governments toward food sovereignty. NAFSO’s work, and human rights instruments like these Guidelines, prioritize small-scale food production over profits, and the rights of the most vulnerable over the profits of the most powerful. Only transforming our priorities to recognize the rights of small-scale food producers, not charity or welfare, can end hunger and poverty.

Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau