The Port City project has proved one thing, that the old ways are no longer the best ways; but the small boat fishermen in and around the Negombo area are learning this the hard way. This is because they are continuing to battle with arguments about where the dredging can happen for the reclamation work of Colombo Port City, even though scientists who have conducted extensive research have clearly mapped the locations sand could be extracted from, with minimum impact to fisheries activities.
The Colombo Port City and it’s kick off has been a long story. Some may argue that the first plans for this project goes back to 2002. But in the recent past it has gone through several Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies and conclusions have been drawn to fine detail. However, this does not seem enough as the social elements around the project vis- a-vis some factions amongst the Negombo fishing community still appear to be dissatisfied.
The original EIA had two dredging sites demarcated – the first being two kilometers away from the shore and the other 5 kilometres from the shore. When the current government came into power the project was stopped and further investigation was done on environmental issues. A Supplementary EIA (SEIA) was submitted thereafter, which was subjected to a public review in December last year. Owing to this action, public opinion was gathered and given due consideration, resulting in the Site within 2 km from shoreline recommended in the SEIA being removed from the dredging map.
After all this, the project Company probably thought all the issues were done and dusted, but that was not to be. Fishermen backed by various NGOs launched another attack protesting the latest decision by the Coast Conservation department to move dredging to 5 km beyond the shoreline. They demanded that the new dredging site was not at a sufficient distance. This time, the request was to move it beyond 10 kilometres from the shore, as they claimed that there was a deep water reef in the area, which was a spawning ground for fish.
Fish breeding grounds
NARA officials were baffled by this because their EIA did not show any such spawning grounds. However, as the political wheels began to churn, a fresh decision was made to move the dredging up to 10 kilometres as requested, until more investigation was done, though the Port City contractor had the right to dredge beyond 5 km. However, a few days after this decision was made with the Catholic clergy and ministry officials present, the fishermen came up with another demand.
There grouse this time was that the dredging should be done not just 10 kilometres, but 10 nautical miles away from the shore. A nautical mile is approximately 1.8 kilometre, which would mean the requested distance would be around 18 kilometres away from the shore; obviously there is something rotting in the ‘state’ of Negombo. Did the protesting fishermen have another agenda – one which was aimed at disrupting the Port City project?
Why did they initially agree when told in writing and verbally that dredging would only be temporarily moved to beyond 10 km till the existence of fish breeding grounds are identified by NARA? Were they not aware that at 18 km beyond the shoreline the sea could be 100 m or more in depth making it impossible to extract sand?
At a recent event held in Negombo, where the Minister of Fisheries was distributing various types of assistance to the fishing community in the area, he spoke about the various protests that have been going on through the years on environmental issues. He pointed out that starting from the Mahaweli projects, going on to the upper Kotmale project, the Kandalama hotel and the Norochcholai power plant, there were objections to development. He even hinted at a hidden hand behind the protests. The underlying message therefore, is that there has to be some sense and reason driven into these people who are protesting. No project can talk of zero impact and that is the reality; it is all about minimizing the impact, taking mitigatory measures and finding a balance between environmental issues and development.
The real issue faced by the small boat fishermen in Negombo, is not being able to see the woods for the trees. The sons of the younger generation are not following in the footsteps of their fathers. Statistics show that men between 20 to 29 years of age shun a livelihood in the sea. Only 1.5 percent of this segment have taken up the profession (source: Socio-economic Survey – 2014/SED/Nara).
So where have these young people gone? Have they become beach boys or human smugglers? While one would be tempted to make that assumption, information emerging from these areas shows that the children of these fishermen are looking towards alternate work; but it is the opportunity that is not available to them.
In fact the older generation of fishermen are resigned to the fact that the youth amongst their community are not planning to be fishermen. The parents themselves are pushing their young ones to become more educated. While it could be said that that the Port City will not by far and large have a direct impact on jobs for this community; what can be safely counted on are the larger plans of the government to develop the western province into a Megapolis. These plans will definitely open up great opportunities for the fishing community youth who want to breakaway from their traditional occupations.
The Port City undoubtedly, is the catalyst that will ignite new employment opportunities, with Colombo emerging as a dynamic evolving city and a destination for many more tourists and businesses. But for now there is a small group who are still confused about it. The question to be asked here is should we be looking for the greater good of the country and fight for the main issues impacting fisheries such as over-fishing, illegal fishing etc. or be misguided by a small group who are fanning the flames of insecurity using irrational arguments?