Fishing communities, which are among Sri Lanka's poorest, were the hardest hit by the December tsunami.
According to official sources, more than 60,000 fishing households were displaced, one million fishing nets destroyed and more than 15,000 fishing vessels damaged or destroyed by the tsunami, leaving communities without the means to earn a living and reconstruct their lives.
Since the tsunami, Oxfam Australia and its community-based partners have continued to help fishing communities restore their livelihoods and reduce dependence on external relief by providing nets and mobilising and supporting them to manage their own rehabilitation.
Immediate needs are being met including adequate shelter, replacement of cooking utensils and the provision of verified information which is required to make informed resettlement decisions.
At the same time, Oxfam Australia and partners, including the Koralai Pattu North
Development Union (KPNDU) which is working in Vakarai, are mobilising tsunami affected communities to raise awareness and form groups for collective income generating activities.
While the Sri Lankan government and non-government organisations are helping to replace and repair boats and nets, which is a vital step towards re-establishing livelihoods, many fishing families remain in an exploitative relationship which has held them in poverty for generations. Mudalalis, or local businesspeople, in many parts of Sri Lanka own the boats and nets that fishermen use and by doing so, maintain a stronghold over their economic and social lives.
While an assessment of livelihood needs is currently being conducted in Batticaloa District, Amparai District and Hambantota District, provision of boats and nets to non-boat-owning fisher folk is recognised as a viable means of reducing poverty and dependence.
Of this approach, KPNDU Field Coordinator Nagendram Peramalathevi says: "The people who go out to sea for fishing should be provided with boats because those who owned the boats and the Mudalalis who lost boats have never gone fishing. The fishermen have the necessary experience and expertise in fishing, but lack the required funds. Therefore I feel these boats should be provided to them.Then there is the insurance factor. Mudalalis insured all their property but not the fishermen. All the benefits from the insurance go to the Mudalalis. Even the government I understand is going to provide boats to those who owned them earlier. We are fighting for the rights of the fishermen and the workers."
Mudalalis will often pay the fishermen an advance of 10,000 rupees (AUD $129) at the start of the year and then deduct daily wages and costs for net repairs against the advance. Oxfam Australia Batticaloa Planning Assistant Thangathurai Gayathri says the Mudalali may deduct 15,000 rupees (AUD $193) in all for the 10,000 rupees he advances.
Nagendram Peramalathevi adds: "The Mudalali never give a proper account of the total given or taken. He also doesn't give a proper account of the sale proceeds he gets, but only pays small amounts for the prawns the fishermen catch."
Singaravel Shanmugathasan is a fisherman from Vakarai, in the northern Batticaloa District, who worked under a local Mudalali. "We were dependent on the Mudalali for the boat and the nets. We had to sell our catch to the Mudalali who decided the price. For example, when prawns were 100 rupees per kilo (AUD $1.29) in the market, the Mudalali would pay us only 75 rupees (AUD 97 cents)," he says.
In 1994, Mr Shanmugathasan became a member of one of KPNDU's fishing groups. He along with four other fishermen, who had all worked under Mudalalis, received a group cash and materials loan.
"When I joined as a group member in 1994, I was also a very poor person. The other four in my group were also like me. After forming the group and with assistance from KPNDU, we were able to work on our own, fishing and selling our catch," he says.
"Because we had our own boat and net, we were able to sell directly to the wholesaler at 100 rupees (AUD $1.29) a kilo. We have gained experience which we are able to tell the others and to express our experiences which we couldn't do before. After we started working on our own, we are now independent and, on the guidance of KPNDU, we saved money and I am able to buy our needs, especially the nets, from our savings."
In 2003, group members voted Mr Shanmugathasan President of the KPNDU Central Committee. Following the tsunami, KPNDU managed the delivery of relief assistance to more than 10,000 people in nine camps in Vakarai, setting up and supporting camp committees comprising local government officials, non-government organisation field officers, local leaders and camp residents to manage the distribution of relief items and to meet the needs of the camp communities.