Shooting fish in a barrel

Saturday, 20 July 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Marianne David Q: First off, why did you name your project ‘Shooting Fish in a Barrel’? A: The project doesn’t have a formal name, but the presentation made at American Center was called ‘Shooting Fish in a Barrel’. This is a somewhat popular idiom used to convey sure-fire methods or strategies. When you shoot fish in barrel, it’s said that your target (the fish) either die from the shot or from the at least the shockwaves emitted. The large problem with fishing is that it’s typically caste-based/traditional and is pursued as the single option, which makes it especially risky in the face of outside issues. I titled this presentation ‘Shooting Fish in a Barrel’ to explore how different alternative livelihoods are being pursued by fish workers and whether they are perceived as ‘guaranteed’ and successful methods in offsetting a decline in income due to displacement, loss of assets, and other issues faced in the last three decades. Q: What made you decide on this subject for your project? A: My father had told me that when he was growing up in Jaffna, unemployed community people would take a boat to Tamil Nadu, buy a few goods that were inaccessible due to the closing the A9 and resell those goods for a marginally higher price back in Jaffna. This may have been more black market activities, but the concept of informal employment and coping strategies has always been one that appealed to me when I first saw it at work in Ghana and then South Africa. Now, I am exploring this topic within a different context and subsector in Sri Lanka. Q: What are the main constraints and concerns faced by fishermen in the Northern Province? A: Many of the fishermen are facing old problems from the war as well as new ones. The most significant problem that most Sri Lankans are familiar with is the Indo-Sri Lankan conflict where Indian trawlers from southern India are coming into Sri Lankan waters in the Palk Bay Strait and depleting the fish stock, as well as destroying nets with their boats. Based on my interviews, this is the issue that remains at the forefront of fishermen’s livelihood concerns. Some fishermen are also unable to return back home in areas designated as High Security Zones. This leads to the other concern of resettlement; the issue is that either fishermen who are resettling have a lack of capital to build up their lives again or that popular areas of resettlement, like Inpurrudy in Point Pedro, have an influx of people moving in and overfishing in their waters. Q: What are the key coping strategies adopted by them? A: The better-off fishermen can usually rely on remittances and loans to help them cope with trying times. The more vulnerable ones, however, are not usually in the position to rely on those resources so they pursue low-skill, low-barrier jobs that assist their community. Typically, these jobs are in masonry, construction, coir-making, poultry, farming, and running small shops. Interestingly, many formerly displaced fishermen were trained in masonry and carpentry when they were in the Vanni since they weren’t able to carry out their traditional livelihood. What we see is that such fishermen, once they return home, use these skills acquired from past experiences and use it when the space in local economic dynamics opens up for such a job. Most of these tasks and jobs are perceived as temporary or short-term jobs, usually during the off-season period but increasingly as a strategy for whenever external risks arise (i.e., Indian trawlers, overpopulation due to resettlements, loss of physical assets). Q: How would you describe the province and its people? A: Over the last two years, it seems that people have been trying to get used to the new social changes occurring. This is especially with the opening up of the northern region. I am sure that open access, increase in tourism, and more incoming goods, technologies and ideas are creating challenges to the way ‘things were,’ but also new opportunities. As with most reactions to change, the older residents seem very hesitant on embracing it along with what they see as changing social dynamics between the young and old, males and females, and within the castes. Many are very interested, if not cautious, in the future of this changing province. Q: What are your most memorable moments from the project experiences? A: Aside from my many interviews and meetings with people ranging from academics to businessmen to farmers and fishermen, the most memorable experiences were what I then thought of as tedious bus rides back and forth from my base to case study locations. Besides viewing scenic and isolated rural landscapes, seeing activity in store-front homes during dusk or smelling the tobacco leaves hanging from the fences of houses – small glimpses of how people  live and provide for themselves – was always pleasant. Moreover, the cramped and loud nature of the small Sri Lankan buses fosters an odd sense of camaraderie, especially when drivers amplify the stereo volume (as they tend to do to ear-shattering decibels) and you exchange a weary grimace with your nearby companion. (While Ruth Canagarajah is a Fulbright scholar, she is not representing their interests or views in the piece.)