I first developed an interest in Sri Lanka while sipping beer in Munich with my friend Malte, when he suggested that I should read Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’. Malte told me he could not believe what happened in Sri Lanka after the tsunami of 2004.
An estimated 40000 people lost their lives in Sri Lanka alone and another half million were rendered homeless or displaced.
Prior to the tsunami USAID (a US governmental aid agency whose claim is “to partner to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing the security and prosperity of the United States”) had already eyed the potential of Sri Lanka to become “another Bali”. The tourism industry could easily attract the rich executives from the Asian booming economies nearby. Though major investments were not possible due to the country’s heavy deficit, aggravated by expensive arms deals of a long civil war (1983-2009). The needed cash injection was offered by IMF and World Bank under the conditions of privatising state-owned land and infrastructures.
This sell-off of Sri Lanka’s resources eventually found strong opposition from citizens and grassroots movements who managed through protests and strikes, to have it reconsidered or halted altogether in some cases.
The tsunami eventually brought about a new chance to push through liberal reforms again. Authorities quickly took the opportunity to expropriate land and use it for lucrative business activities. A new security buffer zone of a few hundred meters from the water was established, blocking the passage to the locals who for centuries relied on the natural right to access the shore and its resources.
Despite having pushed her election campaign with an anti-privatisation rhetoric, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, openly referred to the tsunami as “a kind of religious epiphany, helping her to see the free-market light.” Her new business plan was mostly focused on attracting tourists from India, Russia, China and the Middle East with a target of 1,5 million visitors by the year 2010. She visited the tsunami-struck regions and while posing picturesquely among the ruins she stated: “We are a country blessed with so many natural resources, and we have not made use of them fully…So nature itself must have thought ‘enough is enough’ and whacked us from all sides and taught us a lesson to be together.”
Consequently, as Herman Kumara from NAFSO (National Fisheries Solidarity Movement) highlights, what followed was “a second tsunami of corporate globalisation” that eventually hit the coasts of Sri Lanka.
Naomi Klein analyses throughly the dynamics of “disaster capitalism” in her book. She describes in detail how natural catastrophes, political chaos and economical crisis are regularly exploited or even induced by powerful financial groups, governments and individuals. The 2004 tsunami was no exception.
Today luxury-resort beaches, world-famous surfing breaks or snorkelling paradises like Arugam Bay, Hikkaduwa, Kalpitiya, Welligama, Trincomalele are still the “hot-spots” of this aggressive territorial privatisation and expropriation.
The situation is affecting not only the small-scale fisheries, but also the communities and families who depend on it. Globally, this is estimated to be 90% of the world’s fish capturers and trade dependant shore based workers. Half of them are women.
Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, dubbed this practice as “Ocean grabbing”. He warned: “‘Ocean-grabbing’ – in the shape of shady access agreements that harm small-scale fishers, unreported catches, incursions into protected waters, and the diversion of resources away from local populations – can be as serious a threat as ‘land-grabbing.” Nowadays this is a common phenomenon taking place all over the world.
In Kalpitiya the livelihood of 1 in 5 people are dependant on fishing. As Agrarian Justice writes in his primer “While fishing communities were still struggling to recover from the physical damage and psychological impacts of the tsunami, a quarter of the Kalpitiya Peninsula and its surroundings, was grabbed by Sri Lankan and foreign investors, the military and government institutions for the purpose of developing luxury tourist resorts.”
The dynamics of global ocean grabbing against the small-scale fisheries can be summarised in 3 main practices:
1) Restriction of fishing permits. Fish are declared private property and large-scale fisheries take the lion’s share thanks to lawsuits designed to favour the “sea-lords”.
2) Denial of physical access to the waters – inland shores included. This is mostly caused by the privatisation and sale of “no man’s land” to tourism, energy and agricultural investors.
3) Overfishing, pollution and destruction of entire eco-systems in fishing areas by large-scale fishing fleet, the construction of dams and large monocultures.
The shady players who pull the strings of ocean grabbing are entities such as Wall Street, the World Bank, the IMF, seafood corporations and big distribution chains including Walmart and Carrefour.
Their strategic and political narratives are hypocritically based on the need to feed the world’s ever-growing population while saving the environment through the establishment of so called Marine Protected Areas and Blue Bonds. Since when are such profit-driven groups entitled to set the standards for any kind of ecologically and socially sustainable industry?
Another vicious trend voiced by Agrarian Justice is that “The desire for fresh Bluefin Tuna, the craving for Nile Perch, the appetite for shrimps, the hunger for salmon, the quest for “healthy” omega-3 rich fish-oil (a third of the global catch), are just a few examples of a socially-constructed “demand” that sustains a growing pressure for extracting fish resources by the industry. It is then distributed and promoted through class appropriate versions: ‘high-end’ labelled markets for urban elites, and cheap seafood for mass consumption by the poor and middle classes.”
Currently, the offending corporations power is gaining even more strength. Through so called “partnerships” or “treaties” (such as the TTIP, TTP, TAFTA, CETA…) their legal leverage is becoming even greater than that of individual sovereign countries alone, and their interests comprise numberless lobbies from the pharmaceutical to the oil industries.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
During my time in Sri Lanka I travelled to some of the most tsunami-affected coastal regions of Sri Lanka, where the killer waves of Boxing Day (2004) hit hard, and from every direction.
One day, I was riding my scooter along the coasts of Arugam Bay when at the harbour I met Sagra, who was returning from a day’s fishing. He said he could take me with him on a boat the following day at sunrise. We agreed on time and costs for the following morning and said goodbye.
Unfortunately he never turned up. I was waiting in the darkness and could only see moving silhouettes of busy fishermen. I was asking everybody if they were or knew Sagra, until I captured the attention of Kalua who asked: “How much did Sagra want?” “About 1500rps” I said. He laughed and then told me “Come on, follow me, I’ll take you without charge”. Well, that was a pleasant surprise.
Kalua likes taking out tourists on his fishing trips, sharing with them his world, his life, and all for the fun of it. Joining us was his son Rosha, more reserved but also very friendly. He drives a tuktuk when he’s not out fishing or surfing.
While I was in Sri Lanka I did occasionally stay sometimes in tourist resorts, right on the beach. There I met happy owners and their happy staff. All glad to have the opportunity to profit form the beauty and richness of this land, and to have a job.
“The beach of Arugam Bay is big, there’s room for everybody, fishermen and surfers” Kalua told me as he smiled with a cigarette in his teeth.
We eventually caught (well…them really) a big “Kingfish” if I remember right. Very profitable. So we went back fairly soon after that. They were happy I brought good luck, and so was I.
Before saying goodbye Kalua asked me a little favour. “If you see Sagra tell him you gave me 5000rps” and he laughed. Funny enough I met Sagra soon after and I did so.
As NAFSO supporter Steve Alston argues: “Yes, we might come back from our 14 days in the sun of a palm tree strewn beach or sunken eternity 5 star hotel pool and feel we’ve had a thrilling time. But this is frequently done at the expenses of the traditional fisher folk whose lives have been destroyed by the requisitions of their beaches and beachside homes to build a modern temple to tourism. Traditional community culture can and is too often bastardised by the demands of tour agencies for a taste of what believe is traditional culture. Bali most quickly comes to mind as a culture almost buried by its’ modern “reincarnation” for the camera.”
The next task was to help the NGO ‘Room To Read’ cover their local projects in Anuradhapura. The education system of Sri Lanka is remarkable: free and compulsory up to the age of 18. Then it comes the job of RTR: boosting the teaching methodology with more up-to-date programs, providing modern libraries, giving individual-based support for the very poor and marginalised such as peasant and handicapped children and counselling for victims of abuse.
I got to know of cases of little girls raped by neighbours, members of their own very family or monks. The latter, I must admit, sounded rather shocking to me giving my pristine idea of a Buddhist monk. But Buddhism here is wide-spread and very similar to clerical catholicism. It can be coercive, more radical and not easily “individually-adapted” as we might practice in the west.
It’s also true that here, just after the tsunami hit, the man-made written rules of the religious divide gave way to a stronger and more humane social consciousness. As Naomi Klein puts it in her book:
“[..]cross-cultural aid was breaking out across the country. Tamil teenagers drove their tractors from the farms to help find bodies. Christian children donated their school uniforms to be turned into white Muslim funeral shrouds, while Hindu women gave their white saris. It was as if this invasion of salt water and rubble was so humblingly powerful that, in addition to grinding up homes and buckling highways, it also scrubbed away in tractable hatreds, blood feuds and the tally of who last killed whom. […] Instead of endlessly talking about peace, Sri Lankans, in their moment of greatest stress, were actually living it.”
My other “pin on the map” was on Damana for a visit to the Vedda people, the longest living ethnicity of Sri Lanka who still follow a primordial lifestyle. They have an hereditary political system and follow Animism, Buddhism or Hinduism. My guide Gamini told me it’s believed that they abandoned cannibalism after the intervention of Buddha. Their roots trace back to 15,000BC and there is no census available. Gamini reckons there are about 5000 but the real figures get blurred when you think that more and more individuals are abandoning the millenary traditions if favour of a more modern lifestyle and mainstream religions. This is also catalysed by the compulsory education that the government enforces. This is a controversial issue for me. I am a big fan of free and mandatory education but it’s also a very efficient tool for wiping out primitive cultures. And when I asked the community leader Uruwarige Wannila Aththo what he thought about this topic he said that “all people should be free to choose for themselves.”
On the other hand there were cases in the past that the whole community benefitted from having an educated lawyer among their people who helped defending their rights in a courtroom.
With the help of a translator I also asked the Chief what he was foreseeing for his people in 20 years time. His look turned deep, lost and he stared at me for a few seconds, perhaps wondering if I could give him such answer. He then simply replied: “I have no idea”.
The bushman who was hosting me had 6 kids and a wife (which I was never allowed to photograph). 2 of them handicapped, apparently due to inbred relationships which are very common among the Veddas. His name is Gunabande and he is a man who likes to have a laugh. He kept trying to teach me his language, just to laugh at me trying to repeat his words. But he would then turn all seemingly serious, shake both of my hands and ask with his eyes wide open hundamai? (all right?) just to make sure I wasn’t getting upset. I also had to learn a very important word, addisinè, which means “no rush”. It was very useful when we were walking (the marathon) up and down the woods looking for their precious honey.
Despite the cultural and linguistic divide I clicked much more with Gunabande than with my two guides. They treated me like a king while considering our hosts as inferiors and servants. On one occasion I asked why we were not having dinner all together. They told me that, referring to the Veddas, “their stomach has no bottom”. I just couldn’t accept that and I insisted to eat all together. One by one the Veddas respectfully sat next to us and shared one plate of curry among all of them.
TRAVEL FOR THE LOVE OF IT
What follows is just a selection of random travel shots, for those who believe that “it’s the journey, not the destination”.
And I would like to add that, perhaps, sometimes…