It is well documented that the Tsunami disaster on December 26th was so destructive that all the fishing harbours in the coastal areas of Sri Lanka were severely damaged and fishing equipment all washed away or irreparably destroyed. In addition, the traditional canoes, nets and fishing equipment that had been laid on the beaches were all washed away. The government and the private sector as well as the NGO sector, together with donors, are in the process of providing the surviving fishermen with some modern fibreglass and mechanised boats in an attempt to restore the economy and the livelihood of fishing communities. However, no agency has shown an interest in restoring the traditional fishing sector by preserving traditional knowledge, folk wisdom, equipment and culture. I argue that the traditional fishing sector that provided livelihood for the poor and the marginalized communities in the country’s littoral, should be assisted not only to restore their livelihood, technology and know-how of traditional fishing but also to bring back the vigour of the culture that embodied the much valued folk wisdom coming down from many generations.
In the 1950s, when mechanised boats, nylon nets, and modern fishing gadgetry were introduced to the fishing communities in Sri Lanka, with the hope of increasing fish output and fish consumption in the country, there were some resistance from the existing fishing communities that such a move would completely destroy the traditional fishing culture, techniques and methods. Although the mechanisation program had mixed results, it had in fact transformed many traditional fishing communities into those that use modern techniques, and the fish output and consumption was tremendously increased. However, the poor and the marginalized communities who could not afford to meet the requirements of the modern fishing industry resorted to traditional fishing and continued to engage in that trade. Although the mechanisation programme in the 1950s was a great blow on the traditional fishing sector of the country, the age-old culture of indigenous fishing was saved, and continued to prosper because of the efforts of the poor people. The beautiful catamaran canoes, with masts and sails on, stilt fishing, fishing with the help of vessels made of logs tied together (Teppam), use of various throw nets and drag nets were tourist attractions in some parts of Sri Lanka’s beaches because traditional fishing and its culture continued in the country. The traditional fishing has attracted a particular brand of consumers who did not like the fish caught using modern methods, such as mechanised boats and trawlers, because such modern technology used various artificial nets (nylon etc.), and fish caught with them are kept for several days in the sea before they were bought ashore for sale.
People believe that such fish have lost their blood in their struggle to life while entangled in nets. Unlike the fish caught using modern techniques, the fish caught in traditional canoes and nets were brought ashore immediately after they were caught. The types of fish caught in those traditional crafts were chosen, selected fish, and the traditional fishermen did not engage in indiscriminate fishing unlike by the modern mechanised boats. Because of the reasons alluded to and comparatively low price of fish caught by traditional crafts, a special consumer group has evolved in the low country beach areas who prefer fish caught by traditional techniques. Those consumers are environment-friendly, very much like the traditional fishermen, who do not use diesel, nylon or artificial gadgetry for fishing. This group could be considered one of the native bio-food consumers in the country. The fact that such traditional fishermen are environment-friendly is evident in the way they keep the beach clean, devoid of debris of modern technological waste. Moreover, unlike modern fishing, which is highly technocratic, traditional fishing depends on folk wisdom and knowledge accumulated over centuries of fishing experience. The culture of traditional fishing with minute details as to selection of logs for carving out dugout canoes, folk-technological knowledge of using special instruments with particular skill that has comedown from generation to generation, and making sails involving unique technological features such as use of various forms of hand sewing techniques, weaving and knotting, and making other paraphernalia such as hooks, traps etc, are quite distinct.
Such technological practices are interwoven with rituals and beliefs in the communities which portray an extremely rich culture. The gender and age based division of labour in carrying out such activities are distinctive features of the traditional fishing culture.
The Tsunami devastation has not only destroyed the various traditional canoes, nets, and equipment of fishing, but also damaged the sites in the beaches and communities where such fishing was practised. Moreover, most of the traditional fishermen who were knowledgeable of such traditional practices have perished in the disaster.
Sadly, the government of Sri Lanka and the donor agencies have not addressed what has befallen the traditional fishing industry. They are either not knowledgeable of the damage to the traditional fishing sector, or not interested in resurrecting the traditional fishing culture and practices. The suggested proposal to distribute mechanised boats to the devastated fishing communities, by the government and the various donors including the EC, will not help solving the problems of fishermen who use traditional fishing methods and technology.
Why revive traditional fishing
It is imperative that traditional fishing which has been affected by Tsunami be resurrected for the following reasons:
a) Traditional fishing is environment-friendly and based on micro level simple technologies. Fishermen are engaged in selected types of fishing, using environment-friendly material and methods. Preservation of such practices will improve the environment of the shallow seas around the country, and such practices will help mitigate the effects of any future Tsunami and sea erosion. (It has been noticed that locations where the sea has been eroded due to commercial exploitation of corals, sea weeds and ornamental fish had been affected by Tsunami more than the beaches where traditional fishing was practised).
b) Traditional fishing is a culture and technology, and it is important to preserve both for posterity. Traditional fishing is practised by a particular group of fishermen, who inherited that knowledge from their forefathers. The traditional fishing culture is interwoven with community practices and rituals that are part and parcel of the overall culture of the fishermen.
The ritual worship of traditional deities in these communities, shows how old and ancient the culture of the fishing communities is. Most of those rituals are performed on the beach at the beginning of the fishing season, invoking the blessings of the deities for an increase in fish output, and protection of fishermen, equipment, canoes etc. In order to preserve the rich traditions of art forms and ritual dancing etc the preservation of fishing tradition is imperative.
c) Traditional fishing is the occupation of a particular group of people who live in communities along the beach. Any blanket solution to the problem of Tsunami devastation, such as provision of mechanised boats, would completely ruin the cultural diversity and community life in the coastal areas. Such a move is a violation of the rights of the traditional fishermen, who have been indulged in traditional fishing for centuries.
We have to be innovative in preserving traditional cultural practices. Such cultures should not be preserved merely for the enjoyment of the future generations and tourists but such conservation should bring about some qualitative improvement and conviviality among the people who practise such traditions. First of all, it is necessary to document the traditional fishing technology and culture that has so far been transmitted through the word of mouth within families and communities using modern technology such as computers, tape recorders and videoing. The collection of traditional technological knowledge should lead to inculcating such practices in the young people living in fishing communities who are the survivors of Tsunami. In order to achieve this task, engineers, anthropologists, communication specialists, and such other specialists should get together and initiate a project where, a training centre and a museum are established to teach, introduce and display traditional fishing technology.
Since income from traditional fishing has been low, it should be able to heighten the interests and enhance tastes of the particular consumer group through propaganda, and liaise with the tourism industry, which also has been badly affected in the area.
Preserve traditional fishing sector
The trained young ‘traditional fishermen’ can display their techniques to tourists in a programme of eco-tourism, who would be taken in fishing expeditions in the shallow and deep seas for a fee.
The proposed programme will be a success, as it will make traditional fishing lucrative and attractive to the young fishermen in the traditional fishing communities. The proposed programme should be organised as a project with financial support from the government, donors and also from the people in the fishing communities. The people should be made the owners of the project, who would manage it through a committee of community leaders. Initially an outside expert, may be a planner cum anthropologist, could facilitate the project by playing an advocacy role, but when the project is set, it should be managed by a committee appointed by the fishing community. Experts such as engineers, anthropologists and communicators should be hired by the community – based organising committee. By making the programme a community-owned one, sustainability of the programme can be assured. However, before the programme is made completely a community-based venture, it should be assisted and managed by an outside body such as the government or an NGO or by a committee of outside experts, who would gradually hand over the management to the community after a few years of successful implementation.