Tsunami: The Politics of Relief and Reconstruction

Gihan Perera, director of Miami Workers Center, travels home to his mother's fishing village in southwest Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the devastating Tsunami of December 26, 2004.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Last Word from the Borders

Crossing through War

Yesterday I got on a propeller plane that took me from Ratmallanah just south of Colombo, to Jaffna town at the northern tip of the island. Tonight I board a new Airbus A33 to take me away from this island through Kuala Lumpur to Stockholm to Newark, New Jersey. In between I went back 30 years in time to where a war had frozen a people and discussed strategy and tactics with a remarkable movement in the making. In the matter of two days, I was taken apart and made whole again, as this country does to me almost daily.

We arrived at Colombo airport at 6:30a.m. for an 8:30a.m. domestic flight. Our bags were screened twice and I had to remove the batteries from my digital camera. Before that, our little three wheel scooter taxi had to maze its way through three air force check points in the kilometer between the main road and the airport terminal.

These were the reminders that a war in this country still was hot to the touch. The civil war between the Sinhala controlled Sri Lanka government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) had been burning for close to thirty years. The LTTE sited long standing discrimination, inequality, lack of representation and resources, and an historic connection to the land of the north and east for reason to forcibly secede and create a separate state for the Tamil people.

The people of the north referred to the war as their first Tsunami. It claimed over 65,000 lives and displaced over a million people. A cease fire agreement signed in 2002 maintains an uneasy peace. The LTTE now effectively controls large portions of the east coast from Yalla in the south to areas of Batticloa, Trincomalee, and toward Jaffna. The SL army retook the town of Jaffna in 2000.

The north and eastern districts of Sri Lanka are a quilt work of control. The government operates thousands of check points, but dual power between the two effectively weaves through much of the region. In certain areas there are both army and LTTE checkpoints, regulation, and taxation. In others the LTTE controls outright.

The war extended throughout the course of my life. It developed, escalated, stalled, and restarted as I matured. As I grew older, it circumscribed everything else that it meant to be Sri Lankan. We were Catholic and Sinhala, and we lived in Black Los Angeles. Those features kept me in relative isolation from the rest of the Sri Lanka community where most community activities were around the Buddhist temple. Even then however, I knew that crossing the line of the ethnic conflict was the one taboo, the central uncrossable point in the Sinhala community. That fact remained the case as I became more politically conscious. It was semi-tolerable to be progressive or Left of center, but it was off limits to sympathize with the Tamil cause. I observed the issues with a certain distance both because of the sensitivity and the complexity and not wanting to disturb the few connections I had with my countrymen.

The expatriate community became a chief battleground in the ethnic clash. As the war intensified, hundreds of thousands of Tamils were made refugees and fled to India, Europe, Australia, and Canada. Segments of the Tamil diaspora became a core component of the LTTE infrastructure, particularly for financial support.

Parts of the Sinhala diaspora engaged on the opposite side. It was a total polarization. Many in the Sinhala community counter-organized around Sinhala nationalism. They fought against 'splitting the country.' They organized at many Sinhala events and around Buddhist functions. They supported a strong military solution to the conflict to wipe out the LTTE, and they, like their Tamil counterparts, engaged in ideological debates around the truth of Sinhala/Tamil ancient history and which group was on the island first. The pitch and seriousness of the activity became completely irresolvable as the army invaded and bombed the north and east and as the LTTE tactics turned toward civilian death and attacks in the south and in Colombo.

In the Sinhala community, the conflict became framed as a question of crushing terrorists and maintaining national unity. Tamil self-determination was represented in the context of India's trying to conquer the island. The Sinhala nationalists explained that the Tamils had a state in India(Tamil Nadu), and that they were extending their control to Sri Lanka. It therefore had to be stopped, for sovereignty and to counter Indian hegemony. It was to maintain the integrity of the Sinhala nation from future domination. Therefore it was not a liberation struggle for Tamils, but a struggle for Sinhalese to maintain their independence and sovereignty from India. There was no middle ground for dialog nor even casual relationship between the communities. In the Sinhala circles, Tamils were highly suspect.

Therefore, I was completely surprised that now only 3 years after the cease fire agreement, none of my family raised a question of my traveling to Jaffna. There were no eyebrows around visiting Tamils or fears about getting caught up in the conflict. Perhaps, it is because Jaffna is under thorough occupation. After decades of fighting, death, militarization of society, and huge monetary costs, there had also been a ground swell of support for a negotiated settlement . All sides became weary of war. Even the arms traders seemed ready for a respite.

The ThermoDynamics of Destruction

The Jaffna airport in Pilalany sits in the middle of an army high security zone(HSZ) which extends for at least 10 kilometers around the airport. It includes 80 kilometers of northern coast and most of the sea around the north of the island. From the military airstrip, we were required to board a special bus which took us out of the HSZ and into town. Along the way, we passed through a series military installations: training facilities, dormitories, command posts, etc. Most of the structures seemed to have once been homes, schools, and temples, and those that were not occupied by the army were emptied and roofless.

The military presence only declined slightly as we passed out of the official zone. Soldiers are constant features throughout town at checkpoints, on foot, on bicycle, and in their seemingly many facilities. All carry automatic rifles, including those on bicycle. The rest of the town was dotted with more ruined homes and buildings that laid nterspersed amongst the active township, destroyed and abandoned. People told us that all these broken structures were a direct result of the war.

Having seen the Tsunami destruction, and now this true war scene, my brother and I became sort of experts on the discerning causes of destruction. The Jaffna ruins were different than those of the tsunami. They had been destroyed by the roof's collapsing. We speculated that it was either a bomb from the top or fire from below that resulted in their demise. Ramesh, reminded me that the tsunami houses had big round holes in the middle of them. It's the way that water circulates when it can not escape. He later diagrammed the dynamics and force of liquid motion. He sketched some house designs that could potentially reduce the risk of future water based destruction. For bombs and rocket firings however, there's much less that can be done, that is, short of designing houses as bunkers.

The Jaffna ruins had aged. Like the ruins of the Aztecs and Mayans, time has a way of making them picturesque. The structures had now been empty of human activity for up to thirty years. Nature had begun to reclaim them. Trees grew over the remains with their roots grabbing up the walls. The lack of roofing and windows and walls made them spacious and open and sun filled.

Neither the houses nor the spaces around them were concentrated or packed with the suffocation of human activity. Unlike the villages that still teemed with people, there was no overpopulation, malnutrition, garbage problem, or deterioration that needed to be fixed. Birds made nests in the rafters and cows grazed in what was once a living room. Bushes and flowers now crowded these houses. Like an unkempt gravestone that was taken over by wildflowers, there is something eerily beautiful when nature takes over man's demise. The ruins are not limited to the cemetery that is the high security zone. The gravestones are throughout the town as is the military presence.

I looked for burn marks and sure signs of fire and violence on all the abandoned buildings, but those were gone by now. It was hard to believe that all the empty places were by direct acts of war. It had to be that some people just got weary of living around war and the certainty of death, repression,and bleak futures. It must have been that many just left until it got safe to come back, like in inner cities in the U.S.-like Detroit's ruins.

Organization and A Time to Rebuild

Our first stop in Jaffna was to an association of rural workers. They have 2,000 members who own no land and work picking crops and other day labor jobs for small wages. The men now make about $4.00 a day and the women $2.50. In 1996, it was $1.25 and $.40 a day. Only now are they getting back to their principle task of being a union. The war severely stinted their organizing.

The central committee solemnly informed us that it's difficult to grow anything when bombs are going off. Agricultural production, fishing yields, and all economic activity dropped to almost nothing. The entire area froze in time. In fact the whole of Jaffna town looks like parts of Colombo did 20 years ago when I first visited as a child. And except for an occasional cell phone distributor, the main road is a dust line of archaic businesses. The shops look like they have not been improved since the last century, and the inventory looks almost as old. I thought about all the people that are forced to be so resilient in Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan, and most of Africa.

The homes were constructed strong and robust and built in an early colonial style. The structures are most probably of Portuguese influence. Like the homes in the South, most had Spanish tile roofs, verandas, and small gardens surrounded by walls and an entry gate. However, there was no structural maintenance. What broke or disintegrated, stayed broke and continued to disintegrate. The edifices were just holding on to survive. In much better shape were the poorer people's homes which were made of traditional clay and thatched roofs. The maintenance on those can be done with natural inputs that are handy. We heard that there is one area of very big homes in Jaffna, and the entire stretch had now been taken over by international NGO's after the Tsunami.

Construction and rebuilding is only now starting. We stayed in one of the only hotels that were operating. It would barely qualify as a motel in the united states, but it held Canadian Parliamentarians the day we were there. The operators were briskly adding rooms and services, and around town many of the shattered places were being worked on. There was a sense that the whole place was utilizing the influx of money and people after the Tsunami and the opening through the cease fire as a strategic opportunity, a very smart move. It seemed that the people were organizing both the aid and their resources to the maximum.

In fact, in relation to Tsunami relief and overall organization, the community based organizations seemed much better organized in the north. Despite war and economic downturn and constant military intervention, the the rural workers had a membership of over 2,000 in just the Jaffna area. They maintained their own office and cultural area and ran their own day care center out of it. During the war years the rural workers society was forced to deal with issues of displacement, support to victims of violence, and humanitarian relief. With the cease fire, land is being planted and people are going back to work. We met in the top floor of their office which was a roof covered deck. On every side new harvests were coming up: rice, tobacco, vegetables. Their members were getting work in construction related industries, rebuilding, and mining for construction materials.

The Fisherman's union was even more impressive. The cooperative/union bought a building from which they ran a repair shop and sold fishing supplies and equipment. They had signed supply contracts with distributors so that when the Tsunami hit they were first in line for scarce equipment. They didn't possess a typewriter or a computer but their operation was much more together than many of ours in the United States. With the help of a little notebook, the head of the organization counted down in exacting detail and with great authority, village by village, district by district, kilometer by kilometer the issues and status of fisher folk. He broke down statistics, history, and sorted the information in any way we asked.

Unlike, the south, the fisher people's union was in charge of the Tsunami aid. They already negotiated with international NGO's to replenish the fishermen's needs. They executed written memorandums of understanding(MOU) for over 2,000 boats, engines, nets, bicycles, and accessories for their members and other area fisher people. The feat seemed amazing given the context, and it reflected a very systematic and sophisticated method for engaging and negotiating with the power structures, government and non-governmental. They had a very strong base organization and their own income generation operation. Every organization I saw in Sri Lanka had as its core program wor a mixture of what we in the United States would call service programs, organizing, advocacy, and direct political work.

Going Back Home Aint Easy

Many of the rural workers association's members still live in displacement camps. Some 350,000 people still wait in war related camps throughout the country. At one, there were 30 families out of 130 that formerly formed a village. They had been moved 7 times in the last ten years. The present camp was set up by a U.N. agency two years ago. It has a limestone mine at its entrance. Rumor has it that the owner of the land, the area chief, wants it back. They will be forced to move again soon.

The group's original village is in the high security zone on the coast. After fifteen years their central desire is to return to it. However, it is unclear what is left of their former homes. Best case scenario is that the village has become a beautiful gravestone which they can clean and rebuild, but more likely, it was completely destroyed by either the war or by the tsunami. Either way, the chances of returning to it any time soon seem slim. They, with villagers from other internally displaced camps in the area, are having a march this Friday to again demand their land back. They expect 5,000 people to march through the military town.

For these people, and the hundreds of thousands of others displaced by the war, the tsunami is only the latest in a series of dislocating events. Many of the 'welfare camps' have been operational for over 15 years. The government has become accustomed to having them around and shifting them at will, with vague or no plans for permanent replacement or rebuilding. Many with experience with war refugees have a wary premonition for the long term fate of Tsunami survivors. They could easily become additions to the permanently internally displaced as temporary shelters become semi-permanent refuges. I thought about the Tsunami destruction becoming a long term tourist attraction as nature recovers it while the people continue to lie in wait.

In the world of displacement and replacement, land issues quickly turn into a complicated matrix to work through. With the cease fire, renewed hopes of return make for difficult reconciliations. As the rebuilding process begins, many displaced people are returning from where they landed. Across villages, districts, regions, and nations, people who went to stay with relatives, in refugee camps, and abroad are returning to reassemble their past and their homes where the conditions make it possible.

They often find that their homes have been occupied. Those who had the will to stay or had no options to leave have moved in and made their own claims on the land. They too, are looking forward to rebuilding. The law says that any property that was left for more than ten years is forfeited. However, the returnees from overseas often come with valuable foreign currency, and thereby, power to reclaim.

In this complicated knot of rights, the Muslim community has been caught on all sides. Being the smallest minority and scattered throughout the coastline, they have little political power and are vulnerable to both Sinhala and Tamil inflections. Many of them fled Tamil dominated eastern coasts during the war and have now been the hardest hit by the tsunami. They have no place to go. The coasts in the southeast are lined by Tamil paddy(rice) farmers in a fragile balance with the fishing communities. The government's 200 m policy pushes them directly into Tamil paddy land. This crunch is already causing high tensions between the communities, and as the cease fire holds, more Muslims who were originally displaced by war are also returning both to the south and north east. Whether it be the Sinhala controlled government or the LTTE, they are vulnerable and anxious.

Ethnic Reconciliation and the possibilities of war

The embryonic return process is in the context of highly fragile politics and potentially explosive tensions. National elections are coming, and the JVP party is re-fueling Sinhala nationalism in the south. With a combination of left populism rooted in the mass of Sinhala farmers, fishers, and Buddhists, the party is surging. As the neo-liberal model leaves farmers and peasants further pauperized and as workers get squeezed in the international bottom of the labor pool, the anger of those masses has potential to bubble. Unfortunately, much of the target of that anger seems to be directed toward the Tamils. If the JVP takes control, all signs point to their driving a wedge counter to any further political resolution of the peace process. Even a federalist solution is an unwarranted concession for them.

Meanwhile, the 'liberal' ruling government, with whom the JVP is in fragile tactical alliance, moves headstrong towards an economy that is squarely ruled by multi-national capital. They, despite populist rhetoric and an alliance with the JVP, are driving the economic policy of pauperization. They are rapidly privatizing the coasts, the water, mineral resources, and putting multi-national corporations in charge of the Tsunami reconstruction effort. In this sense both the government and the JVP are transforming the old feudal structures, the JVP from the bottom by supporting the interests of the Sinhala farmers, peasants, and some workers and the government from the very top in coalition with international finance capital. The two tendencies are on a collision course.

Finally, the United States is making its presence and intentions felt in the country. A few days before my arrival, George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton made a rare joint trip to the island. They came to tour the Tsunami affected areas, but their designs, according to one fishermen, was to “steal our water.” In the works, is a scheme to export Sri Lanka's water supply as a export crop. In India, this has meant turning the rivers over to Coca-Cola. When confronted about the lack of water for the people, Coke reportedly responded: “Drink Coca-Cola.”

Colin Powell had been in Sri Lanka a few days before that. In addition to Tsunami relief, the U.S. is negotiating with the government around security issues. With the eminent shutting down of the military base at the small island of Diego Garcia, Sri Lanka becomes crucial to U.S. military interests. It's ports, particularly the harbor at Trincomalee, is a crucial fueling depot for American military vessels crossing from Asia to the Middle East. The State Department is pushing for increased military funding for the Sri Lanka army and navy in its confrontation with the LTTE while simultaneously supporting the resumption of peace talks between the two.

All of these are charging the atmosphere around the cease fire and contributing to even more tensions around land and resources. Whether the cease fire will hold seems completely up in the air. Between the various contradictions and the very new peace, lies a volatile powder keg.

One small step being taken to positively resolve the contradictions is a process called the People to People Dialog which is bringing together intellectuals, grassroots organizations, and NGO's from the north, south, and east. They are discussing about issues relevant to farmers and fishers, Tamils, Sinhala, and Muslim.

In addition to discussions, the group is beginning to take some small action. On March 30th, for example, participants in the group which include NAFSO and the Free Trade Zone workers union are rallying in Colombo against the government's buffer zone policy. They are concentrating on the land issues and connecting the post-Tsunami issues around the buffer zone with those related to the war.

The initiative is small in numbers, highly over powered, and working at a pace that is severely outrun by the dominant trends above. Furthermore, at this point it is largely dominated by intellectuals. The process in the norht is incredibly nascent, while it's burden is enormous.

However, the people involved seem to understand the scale of the implications and the importance of their mission. With all that is stacked up against it, all I can hope is that the initiative works steadily and smartly and quickly as possible to build. The odds are scant that they can be successful. The forces against them have the strength of an entire empire, state power, the military, and vast media and ideological institutions that allow them to act without process.

NAFSO and its partners are in the opposite position on every front, but so is the state of progressive movements throughout the world. The hope is in the resilience of those people that I spent time with. They have been up against a lot more for a lot longer time. They are drawing on their resolve and looking to us for support.

I return with that obligation and some piece of that resolve as inspiration.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Destroyed home Posted by Hello

More Posted by Hello

Tents among houses Posted by Hello

Tents in Displacement Camps near Hikaduwa Posted by Hello

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Family at JVP Temporary shelter Posted by Hello

Sitting in Limbo

On Saturday morning I walked into a small house on the beach side of Galle Road. It sits on the main road but behind it is the ocean. It's the house of Crescent's brother-in-law. The place is partially destroyed from the Tsunami. Crescent said that the family had to hold on to roof rafters when the waves hit.

On this day, the house was turned into a meeting hall. It was the demonstration day for the project that my mother was supporting, and little did I know that we were the guests of honor. There were sixty women seated in neat rows facing the back of the house. The place was packed.

All of these women lost everything in the Tsunami. The project was a self-employment project, to give materials and instruments to groups of them to begin to make some income again. They were going to make candies, and curry packets, and other very small scale micro-businesses. The whole thing seemed pretty basic, but good, to me when I first heard of it.

The ceremony for the event began with the traditional lighting of candles and blessings. Words were said by the coordinators, many of them thanking our family for supporting the village.

Then, they we went around the room and began introducing ourselves. The women, one by one, said where they were from and a little bit about their story. They began to break down. And so did I. They looked into my eyes one after the next recounting who they lost: daughters, sisters, sons, friends, relatives. And each one that spoke told a little about how it happened.

The words weren't important. They spoke in Sinhala. I understood all of it. They said neither the government nor the aid agencies nor all the Sri Lankan expatriates had done anything here, at least nothing toward self-sustenance. And I was embarrassed at all the accolades that they poured on us. They talked about national rebuilding.

In that moment I felt that my mother's work, practical and concrete, was so much more important than mine. I was angry that all that aid money somehow hadn't done anything to address basic economic development, or at least it hadn't come here. The women were living with relatives, and what the aid was providing was food. They were waiting for everything else, to get started.

Ramesh and I left there to go down south. We headed toward Galle and the office of the Southern Fisheries Solidarity office. We did not travel far before we encountered amazing destruction. Just before Hikaduwa, in an area called Thelawatta, began a never ending campground. Literally, the entire area looked like an American national park campground. What appeared to be campground facilities were the foundations of what used to be homes. Thousands upon thousands of them all down Galle road. The only thing that remained were fragments of homes and churches with huge holes through brick walls, or just a brick wall, but mostly just brick remnants. I would say it was like a war zone, but there was little debris for the amount of destruction. The sea had taken that too. It looked more like a giant coral reef along a sea bed. Every once in a while people like fish would come out of the walls, behind which they are still living.

Along that stretch, we saw a train, about 20 box cars. It had held over one thousand people. All of them perrished. The train had been ordered to stop here by the main station in Colombo as news of the complete destruction of Galle came through the wire. They stood there for about 4-10 minutes, and were taken away. The engine and most of the cars were never found, they were taken out to sea.

The campground was organized by nation. Or more specifically, by the donor nation. The Danish camp was blue, the Netherlands was maroune, the U.N.'s a light blue, the Red Cross, white, Britain, blue. I did not see a U.S. camp.

There was no visible signs of reconstruction, just camps. Somehow, the tourist town of Hikaduwa itself, seemed relatively unscarred. I don't know why that it is, perhaps because the tourist facilities were much better built, perhaps cruel luck. When we passed through Hikaduwa town, the hotels, and the little tourist cafes were still open, and signs thanked all the foreigners for their generous contributions.

At the Galle Fisheries office we met staff and leaders. They lost 200 members in the event. Their office had turned into a relief office immediately after the event, giving out rations and supplies. Now they were building boats. Their people were being moved out by the 100 meter rule, and their people too, were waiting. They said the camps were just that, nothing more. They were vast waiting areas with food and heat. The tents were nylon, the kind you buy at an American sporting goods store. They were made for forst camping and cooler whehter than this. Families who lived in small homes, now lived in smaller tents, which they could really only use at night.

We did spy some more study structures, but just a few. They were little plank wood houses with corrugated tin roofs. They had foundations and some had electricity. We had this before, last week at a settlement next to a Buddhist temple. They were built by the JVP, a leftist political party that has been traditionally axxociated with strong Sinhala nationtlism. In the long ethnic based civil war that had raged here, the Sinhalese are the majority ethnic group in the country, particularly dominant in the south. The JVP is now in coalition in parliament with the ruling government, but national elections are coming. They have been organizing relief efforts with the many Buddhist temples which are traditionally central to Sinhala culture. The JVP, rumor has it, is in an uneasy accord with the direction of the government's relief policy. But no official opposition has arisen from them.

In the middle of those tensions were the people of this settlement. They were the last 26 families of over 130 that had lost their homes. They were told that the 100 meter rule applied to them and that for their safety they had to go. Another Tsunami is eminent, and the government needs their land to build a new double wide train system. Despite the obvious contradiction in those two arguments, the positions stand as reason.

Strangely enough, what we have been told by villagers was confirmed to us casually by an insider. A young man, new and career oriented, was appointed to a lead position in the government's reconstruction task force. He was a representative of one of the large corporations that was nodded to lead on key aspects of reconstruction: transportation, housing, communications, etc. My brother ended up having drinks with him through a family connection. Indeed, he argued the same thing that the villager claimed: another tsunami, the people must leave, and it is for their good and the good of the country. My brother said: “You know Sri Lankans aren't going to leave. They'll stay on those lands until the tents get holes. “

To that the young man added something new: “Well, then there's the army at some point.”

Sunday, March 13, 2005

TAFREN(Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation) AD on Tourism Industry Posted by Hello

Clearing the Coasts

The government established TAFREN, the Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation. It is a small group with representives from major multi-national corporations. They have been entrusted with coordinating the Tsunami Rebuilding Effort.

Bait and Switch

Opinion Editorial To the New York Times

Bait and Switch in Sri Lanka

I was born in Sri Lanka in 1970, and left for the United State when I was four years old. My mother's family is from Maggona, a small fishing village in the Southwest coast. We have come back here to do our part in helping this and other villages rebuild.

In this island, community and family are everything. Fishing villages have developed over thousands of years. Community relations establishes who we are, our responsibilities to each other, our place in history, and our role in the world. Our last names are based on the village that we come from.

The tidal waves' snatched lives, leveled homes, and completely washed away all material possessions from thousands of families. The only thing that remains for survivors is the palpable but fragile sense of place and belonging to each other. The community network is invaluable, and it is the only thing real that remains.

Only in the rebuilding of these communities can survivors take back their humanity from the Tsunami. Only in reaffirming the multitude of links to people and places can they claim normalcy, sanity, victory, and a hope to be whole.

Unfortunately, the 500,000 displaced coastal people are currently banned from reclaiming their lives. Leaving or staying is not a choice. Rather, forced relocation is the official government policy.

The Sri Lanka government has forbidden all rebuilding of homes on the entire coastline. Within 100 meters from the southwestern coast and 200 meters in the north and east, people can not begin the process of healing.

The government's policy is being substantiated through fear. With little if any scientific data, the villagers are being told that another Tsunami is coming within the next ten years. The message irresponsibly takes advantage of post-Tsunami trauma to move them out.

Not safety, but financial opportunism drives this policy. The government is capitalizing on the tragedy to clear the coasts for the international tourist industry. Although the people directly affected can not rebuild, hotels CAN. A double full page spread from the government claims:

The Coastal Conservation(Buffer)Zone is
introduced to better safeguard the lives of the coastal population and to
protect the coast environment from any future natural disasters. The
Government will set up special Tourism Zones covering all the tourist areas in
the coastal belt. These zones will have modern infrastructure with an
unencumbered view and access to the coast. There will be special
incentives provided to promote sustainable and value added

This is a classic game of bait and switch. Villagers get a house of 500 square feet and a grant equivalent of up to $2,500, but they have to leave the coast to qualify. They are not permitted to stay and rebuild.

It is a massive plastic reconstruction. The plan forces fishermen and entire communities to move out and make way for modern superhighways, shopping centers, and mega hotels.

It is a disaster- a second Tsunami -in the making. Those who suffered the most are again being washed away. And it won't work. The coastal areas are already experiencing a tremendous population increase and heavy land pressures as more and more people are displaced from farming lands in the interior. This policy will result in nothing but squatter zones along the tourist belt and a never ending process of trying to bulldoze them.

The plan hatched from the wide eyes of national and international speculators who see the profit potential of the beautiful coasts. It is a land and water grab in the middle of misery.

What’s worse, the scheme is being funded by YOUR generositiy. All the international aid organizations are being forced to funnel their money and programs through the Sri Lankan government. All the good people who thought they were giving their money to help directly effected communities, may actually be helping to displace them.

Take action. Call and write to the aid organizations that you gave money to and demand that your money be freed to help survivors rebuild on their own terms and on their own land.

Gihan Perera
Executive Director
Miami Workers Centers
currently in Maggona, Sri Lanka.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Wimal,NAFSO, and Kudawa residents
Kaduwa Bay

Prinsiri showing the NAFSO organizers Tsunami destruction in Kudawa
Kaduwa Bay

Organizing in Kudawa

Pinsiri came to the gate at 4:30a.m. this morning. Surprisingly, I was already up. He came to to take me to retrieve the fishing lines he had put out in the ocean the afternoon before. We set out on a little fiberglass boat with a 30 horsepower outboard motor. It was pitch dark, the stars were brilliant, and the phosphorous in the water made our wake glow as we sped to the lines. We whisked ten miles out to sea, and found the lines with the help of Pinsiri's GPS sensor. I didn't notice the sun rise as we pulled up 195 hooks of bait on a line. With all of that we caught one fish today.

Pinsiri is a leader. Catching one fish( a small one at that) didn't phase him. Neither did the Tsunami. In the few days I've known him, he has done every single thing he said. He's even come on time for everything he's committed to- a thing that is not at all common.

I first met him on Monday when my uncle, brother, and I first walked down to Kaduwa Bay. He is Aquinas' brother. Aquinas does the counting of all the monkfish that come into the bay, Pinsiri catches them, as do other boats. The brothers handle all the monkfish business on the bay, and they run a little fish shop on the main road. Aquinas counts all the catches, Pinsiri distributes the money that comes from the export market. No one asks questions, or needs to.

Pinsiri's hands are huge. I noticed them yesterday when he was counting his issues to the organizers from NAFSO. Each finger of his is as thick as two of mine. And when he was pulling up the line, it looked like he could wrestle with the ocean, and do it with strength and grace.

He showed up to the Maggona house yard yesterday at 9:00a.m. and brought his brother with him. He had just gotten off his boat where he had been out bringing in lines from day before.

Yesterday morning, he and his brother were waiting for us, along with Crescent, the former Mahadel and another fisherman. Nilan turned up just before the the two organizers from NAFSO came into the gate.

The organizers arrived by motorbike. They thought the meeting was later in the afternoon and hurried over once we said we were waiting. They are young men, probably in their early to mid 20's. One is small and looks to me that he should be a Buddhist monk rather than an organizer.. He speaks only Sinhala, and his political line is in his eyes. He was a fisherman, as was his father. They came from further south, a place called Hikaduwa. It is now a resort town, largely for Germans. The fishermen have been pushed to satellite the resorts.

Pinsiri knows Hikaduwa well. He was part of a protest there to stop the practice of light-coasting, where fishermen use high power lights to attract and then blind fish so as to net them. The practice, like dynamite fishing, kills everything in the area not just the intended catch. In that protest, the fishermen blocked the roads until the department of fisheries arrived. He had another run-in with Department of Fisheries recently. He was reported to the police for assaulting the department's local officer for distributing boats and gear to non-fisherman. He took a list of the fishermen who had lost their equipment, and merely, strongly,demonstratively described the illogic of the policy of political cronyism.

Also, for a few years, Pinsiri worked in Hikaduwa as a certified PADI dive instructor for one of the resorts. He hated it. He said they worked him like a slave. He had to be on call at any time a tourist wanted a quick course on a dangerous sport. It made the hotel a bundle; he made little. He understands that working for the 'hospitality' industry is what the powers that be have in store for the coast.

The Meeting
The fishermen's first point of business to the young orgnizers was:

“Are you a fisherman, from where?”

With that, we entered the house and began the meeting. My uncle Dennis translated, which was a mixed blessing. He was indispensible given my utter lack of Sinhala, and it was pretty cool having a fisherman's union meeting in the Maggona house with Dennis, Nilan, Crescent, and the other fishermen.

PattyApu, the mudalali, must have been rolling in his grave. Dennis and I joked about it, and we recognized that the organizers didn't know the historical context they were working in. But, Dennis said, 'the situation here wasn't as antagonistic as in other villages. PattyApu was a relative mudalali(aristocrat).”

I tried to go over an agenda for the meeting with Dennis beforehand. It did me no good. Within the first few minutes the meeting was out of control. It began as a discussion between Dennis and the organizers. Dennis, who came with my mother to visit, brought up all the issues he had heard in the village for the last three weeks. And out of respect, the organizers responded by having a full conversation with him. I was desperately trying to figure out how to intervene, but of course my translator was my uncle.

After about 45 minutes it got on track. The fishermen introduced themselves and stated their issues. On the tsunami, they describe a complete con-game. People who never fished in their lives were receiving boats, through political connections. The 'welfare camps' that have been set up for displaced families, the fishermen believed, were fostering dependency. The people were getting three meals a day, western clothes, and playing Badminton to pass time. Meanwhile, their houses are in disrepair, they have no place to go, and no livelihood once the internatoinal agencies decide that they're tired of playing the humanitarian game. They think it's a trap.

Moreover, the neediest in the village have not been helped at all. There were fourteen houses in Kudawa that were totally destroyed. Three of them were poor fishermen who had no other means of income. The group of leaders wanted those families needs addressed before any other issue was discussed.

NAFSO agreed to intervene, but there was skepticism among the fishermen. They had no trust in the organization, or in any organizations for that matter, as little as they had respect for the established political parties, religious insitutions, and leaders that controlled the allocation of resources, aid, and law enforcement. They had been burned before. Organizations had come before to take pictures, make promises, take money, and never return. Projects were started and never completed. Conversations were initiated and not followed up on. The organizations just wanted credit for funding purposes and to increase their profile. Talk meant little to them.

However, there was one thing that compelled the fishermen to continue to work with the two young men that had come and who had by now been thoroughly schooled. Their saving grace was that they were brought here by me.(!) The whole thing, reverted back to and was hung together by traditional trust and honor in family and community. Nilan said, “You were brought here by my Aiya(big brother: Dennis) and my Akka's(big sister: my mom) son. We will trust you.” I really didn't know how to take that,-it is a pretty heavy responsibility, and I'm leaving in less than a week. Nonetheless, it took us to the next step, and has made me really extra sensitive to make sure this whole thing is set up as thoroughly as possible before I leave -my honor depends on it!! whoa!

They agreed to form an organizing committee. The newly formed committee walked the NAFSO reps down to meet the fishing families whose homes had been destroyed. One was a elderly couple, and the other two worked on boats. There was absolutely nothing left of their belongings. They had erected shanty structures with pieces of plank and corrugated steel. Inside, which you could see from outside, the old couple had put up posters of the Virgin Mary and St. Thomas.

A dialogue had begun.

By the Way
Pinsiri, or Princie, as they call him is the MAN. He brought us two Sri Lankan conch shells, he's taking us rock fishing tomorrow, and everywhere we go people somehow know we're down with him-and give us crazy respect for that. Talk about leadership!

UNCHD Tent: Kudawa
Kaduwa Bay

The House of Maggona
Kaduwa Bay

Lone Fisherman at Sea
Kaduwa Bay

Big Net: 1 column
Kaduwa Bay

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Row of boats
Kaduwa Bay

Bringing in the Big Net
Kaduwa Bay

Kaduwa Bay. Taken from the top of hill owned by the Catholic Church.

Kaduwa Bay

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Fall of the House of Maggona

We arrived late Sunday night to the Maggonna house. I was excited upon arrival, even though the jet lag was tugging at me. From the entry to this part of the village, it's like entering another world. The entrance is a small opening to a lane behind Monis bakery. The bakery is on the main Galle road that runs down the coast from Colombo to Matara and Galle. It's packed with little shops up and down it. After weaving through the first row of businesses and homes, the little lane opens way to a row of housing.

Debris from the Tsunami lines the sides of the dirt road. The hardest hit areas of the island are in the far south, east, and northeast of the country. This area was damaged and in some places badly. People died and were displaced, but it was not on the scale of the villages immediately south of here. Still, as we drove a few yards in the night, we saw open sea from the road where the poor people had lived, and on the right, just before the Magonna house, was a small encampment: UNCHD read the tent tops.

This part of Maggona village, Kudawa, or little rock, sits on its own small peninsula. It is formed by two beaches that come together to form a small triangle extending out of the coastline. The beaches jut together against a series of rock formations to make two small bays at the tip. One of the bookending beaches leads to the town of Beruwela to the south and the other stretches long towards Colombo.

Each of the middle bays can't be longer than 300 yards each. The second one is my favorite. The rocks that guard it are covered with palms and other trees that ascend up 100 feet, just enough for a good children's climb. My mother and her siblings swam in this bay in the shallow water near the rocks. There's a fresh water well just off the beach where they could bathe without having to walk the 100 meters to have to do it at home. My grandfather caught lobsters off the rocks for fun and food, while his in-laws carried on their generational work of netting the fish in the bay for their livelihood.

My great grandfather's family built a house that directly overlooked the bay. I'm not sure for how many generations before that they lived there. My mother said she was always scared to go there because the pigs would gather to feed off of food and excrement. The noisy pigs would wait around the outhouse for food to drop from humans. It would scare her to death, and now I really understand the Muslim perspective on eating pigs.

The Catholics on the Plantation
My family is Catholic, and we eat that which eats our shit(pigs!!). The Portuguese transplanted Catholicism here early in their colonial period, circa the 1500's. According to my uncle Dennis, our family's original family name is 'Ponninbaduge' which he believes is a Malayali word for 'from St. Thomas.' Malayali is the language spoken in Goa, the Christian section of the south Indian state of Kerala. Dennis picked up this piece of historical deduction from a National Geographic special, and it is he who provided much of the background for this account. He speculates on our roots between the Goans and the Portuguese and the people who inhabited the island previously. We definitely got Perera from the Portuguese, but whether that was through intermarriage or forced name swapping is unclear.

My great grandfather grew up on that hill behind Kaduwa bay. He became an English teacher in a Catholic elementary school. It was at the same that the British wrested control of the entire island from the Dutch on the coast and the defeated the Kandyan kings who had resisted the Europeans bitterly for 400 years in the central hill country.

The British began immediately transforming a colony used primarily as a mercantile and trading outpost to a plantation state. They turned the hill country, home of the Kandyan kingdoms into a vast network of tea plantations. To make it possible, they needed a few good natives that could speak English and be their eyes and ears. They needed men who did not have loyalty to the militant upcountry folk whose land and social networks were being appropriated. They recruited my great grandfather, a Catholic from the low country, to help the Whites manage the plantation and its labor.

Following his new profession, my great grandfather went to Kandy. He met a woman there with whom he had children but never married. It was a scandalous thing, especially in those days, but that was her lot. She was the illegitimate daughter of Thomas Cameron, a British planter. He had his will with a local Sinhalese girl to produce her, my great grandmother. The circumstances of her conception were never spoken about, “out of respect,” my uncle Dennis tells me. But it was anything but respectful that the little girl lived with the mark of her masters with no claim to them. This is the story of every plantation across the world.

Before leaving back to Europe, the planter tried to make up for his ill-doing by leaving the mother with a track of paddy lands. In her death and in her wisdom, my great great grandma left the land to her daughter instead of any male child. The daughter, however, completed the circle by falling in love with a Sinhalese plantation employee, my great grandfather, whose sons would become the first natives in charge of running the plantation. My great grandfather never married her.

Nor did he bring her home to Maggona. He married another woman from the upcountry who he did bring to the little house overlooking the bay. But he also felt guilty after time, and so, after seven years, he brought the three eldest children of the illegitimate woman with illegitimate children to live in Maggona, to be raised as part of the family.

My grandfather, Peter, the eldest of those children, was raised in Maggona in Catholic schools. He was a rebel, fighting against all the tither and fro that was his history. He was mad about being removed from his mother when he was seven. He was mad again to have to leave Maggona and go back to the hill country. He wanted to be a lawyer, but his father was retiring from the plantation, and the Whites were tiring of directly ruling the natives.

National independence was coming, and they chose Peter to follow his father's lead. He refused, and ran away twice. They found him and made him into a gentleman. He got to the highest position a native could have in the plantation system, effectively running the place for the absentee owners. However, it was not until after independence that he became an official plantation superintendent. He became the first Sri Lankan to be a manager of a British plantation. This is one of those dubious 'firsts' that colonized people's achieve. To some it's a badge of honor and high achievement, and to others it represents a sign of capitulation to foreign powers. For my mother, sister, and brothers it is something they say unequivocally as a monumental achievement in the face of British discrimination.

My grandfather headed his family from the seat of the plantation. He put his children, my mother and her siblings, in Colombo Catholic boarding schools to be educated. The children returned home every few months in between school sessions, sometimes going to the plantation house in the hills and on other holidays returning to Maggona.

Peter groomed his boys to be plantation managers. Francis and Dennis obliged, sometimes going against their own kind constitutions. My grandfather had a reputation of being a clear boss and disciplinarian who ruled with a fair hand.--At least according to my family. When nationalization came to the plantations, Francis and Dennis left the country to join their sisters. All of Peter's children eventually left the country. My grandfather's gravestone has a quote from the Bible and a line from a 'Negro spiritual.' It was a Mahalia Jackson ballad that he heard on the hit parade, a popular radio program in the 1950's.

The Mahadel and Mudalali
All of the villagers on Kudawa peninsula come from fishing people's stock including my great grandfather. Even though he left the tradition in the late 1800's, his family continued in the life of the village. One of his daughter's, Katherine, wedded a prominent fishing family. The family spread from the house on the hill to others until the entire jetty was almost completely made up of relatives.

I have to clarify in calling them fishermen, however. The family insists that they are not fishermen. Fishermen are those that go out on boats, pull the line, catch the fish. Instead, my family are Mahadel, 'managers of the big net.' They oversee the operation of harvesting the big net that goes out immediately into the bay. They employee the men that pull the line. They own the nets, and they have status. They are village aristocracy. The fishermen, especially the Mahadel, are the second highest caste in the Sinhalese order. The fishing people and the farmers are the highest castes because they do the king's work: they produce. They provide the sustenance of rice and meat to the entire community.

Katherine, my grandfather's step sister, married, PattyApu, the eldest son of the fishing clan. She gave birth to Joseph, Nilan, Crescent, Iona, Annette, and Lalita. Everyone reports that PattyApu was a grand man. He was dark, with a large frame, big stomach, booming voice, and an engulfing presence. He was the mudalali(big man) of this area and staunchly conservative. He supported the UNP (United National Party) to his death, It is the party of the owning classes.

“When the Prime Minister would visit this district during election time, it was PattyApu that would host him,” says my Aunt Doreen.

He and his brothers were the Mahadel. They ran the place. He refused to wear Western dress. He always carried himself in a white sarong and white traditional Sri Lankan shirt. You could hear him bellowing from the bay, says my aunt, whenever a good catch came in. The big mudalali would jump and dance while holding his umbrella and throw fish to all the poor people that would assemble. The honor was handed down to the the three brothers, Joseph, Nilan, and Crescent. The family controlled the peninsula and they established hereditary rights to harvest the two little bays.

Magic on the Bay
This morning I was awoken at 6a.m. by a pair of dodo birds doing their chores, and the morning's call to the mosque. It reminded me of hearing the same call from the parking lot of the Workers Center as the mosque in Liberty City blares its speakers in the afternoon.

I wearied to the window and looked out on the trees, and the people already bustling and the children in white uniforms going to school. In the road in front of the house there is a statue of the Virgin Mary and further down another one of St. Thomas Aquinas. The island is eighty percent Buddhist, but this area of the coast is Catholic and Muslim. The two groups have cohabited, fished, and farmed this area for hundreds of years. The Muslims have fished in this place even longer than the Catholics. They've been here for a thousand years or more since the Arab traders made their rounds to this island.

I got up and with my uncle and brother walked to the bay.

I remember when I was here just a year ago with Marcia and my little son Nas who was just 1 ½ at the time. We stopped by the Maggona house because one of my mother's aunts had died; it was a by-chance visit to pay respect to our relatives. I had been here before, but always in passing to go further south. Our plan this time was to to go Hikaduwa where the resorts begin to check into a hotel, to relax, to vacation.

It was on the way here last time that my mother began telling us the history of my family on this peninsula- or at least it was the first time I really heard it. The stories from my childhood and my mental tree of relatives began coming together in that moment as we entered the little lane. When we came through the black gates of the Maggona house, I was struck by its beauty, simplicity, and grandeur. It has has a large well- kept yard with palms, bamboo, and a thousand plants kept in a line in front of the house. The sand in the driveway was swept in patterns, which turns out to be a daily early morning ritual.

The house itself was large, open, and immaculately kept inside and out. It was built by PattyApu, the Mahadel in the 1950's. From the outside it has an almost art deco look to it. There are two end rooms which are rounded with windows wrapping around them. The entrance way is squared with a row of windows that oval at the ends. It opens to a huge living room, sparsely furnished with red clay floors. The floors turn your feet into the color of the red clay, just as the beetle nut that the people chew turn their lips a brick crimson.

Before I could make it into the house with the baby, my mother, who had gone in first, came out quickly and said in Sinhala, “let's go, the nets are coming in, the nets are coming in.”

Incredulous to what she was talking about, I followed—if nothing else to let Nas get a little running room in this beautiful place. She took us down the little sandy path between houses and trees not more than 100meters. As we passed she hurriedly explained how in each house there had been someone related to us.

As she talked we scuttled upon the little bay which was busy with activity. There were some ten little boats upon the shore, nets, and a lot of men scurrying around in sarongs.

“Come, come,” said my mother.

She passed through the men as I followed behind a bit hesitantly. We were getting into their business, and it felt like an intimate secret. As the men began all looking at us, one of them came up and embraced my mother and began talking to her casually. It turned out to be Nilan, her cousin. After a few minutes Nilan excused himself, he was leading the operation.

On one end of the bay, men began pulling what appeared to be a rope, in from the water, but it was confusing to me. They kept pulling and pulling and pulling, and it wasn't clear what they were bringing in or how. I looked out to the water and out in the open sea. About 300 yards away I spied a boat. A single man was perched on it with hundreds of seagulls surrounding him. They were needling in and out of the water. Now, that looked like fishing to me, but this activity on the shore was unfamiliar.

The line of men kept tugging as they stepped in rhythm toward the center of the bay where we were sitting on a boat on the shore. As they approached we could hear a frantic calling from them. It seemed chaotic at first, but as I listened there was rhyme and rhythm to it. If I was a music scholar I could call it some type of official musicological term, but for now I'll just call it hypnotic. The men were chanting, some high, some low. It was not in harmony but in layers. Th timing was irregular, in staggered layers. All the layers of sound mesmerized me. I couldn't tell one voice from the other nor from whose mouth the sounds came. The cries bounced around the bay.

It felt like I was listening in stereo. I couldn't believe my ears. I looked to the right to see if i could see the echo and realized that there was another line of men in step and rhythm coming from that side too-- in stereo!!

The two lines of men were converging, and as they collapsed their cries intermingled and separated as if they were playing with each other. The closer they came to each other the louder and faster paced was the layered song. I asked my mother what they were singing and she hadn't a clue. It wasn't Sinhala.

I looked out, and the little boat in the sea had come closer now. It was actually the guard boat for the enormous net that these two columns of men were bringing in. The net had expansed the entire bay. As they brought it in, the site and sound was a carnival, a novella, a sea theater. The little boat and the columns of men were reigning in on the feast between them. They could feel it within their reach. But the birds were at it first, while the men had to work. Hundreds of seagulls were frantically stealing the harvest while the men watched and were predisposed to pulling while the birds stole one fish at at time in front of them. And the men, almost solely to deny the thieves, worked feverishly.

Their chants had now become the pace of a pant. The two columns collapsed into one with men rotating from back to front. Looking and listening at the line as a whole, it was an organic machine, now in its best form. In trying to discern voices to the sounds I looked closer and noticed that there were old men and young. . And while I couldn't tell the difference in voices, there were clearly some that were pulling more than others. Some of the older men barely could get a hand on the rope, others even older, were pulling in the sea whole. Three of the young men darted in the shallow water to guide the catch home in the final push to shore. Their calls brought the net upon sand in a final flurry of calls.

The furious activity settled quiclky. Then, the quiet exhaustion gave way to obvious excitement at the anticipation of opening the net. Men, children, and the neighborhood dogs had come to see. My mother pulled us into the middle of the horde. As Nilan and another man gave the order to open the net, a final burst came from the men, the final note, and the net was opened.

Inside were thousands of fish and shrimp, and a sea snake that slivered to the top and escaped. They began picking out the fish and separating them. I was surprised not to see many bigger fish in the multitude. All of the men took their pick, which for many of them was their sustenance, the rest of the fish would go to market.

To think that I was connected to all of this somehow, was magical. As the men continued their work we went back to the house, but not before Nas jumped and swam in the water. He splashed around naked. He looked like he could be left here and be just as happy, his little bottom blackened in the sun. It made me wonder of what would have become of me had I not got taken across the planet. We fought Nas to return to the house where some of the men were washing down their catch to take home.

Death of the Mahadel
I learned yesterday that this one of the last times that Nilan and his brother, Crescent, had commanded that show. They've now left the fishing business and the centuries old tradition that was their culture and their honor. The end came quickly even though it had been rapidly deteriorating over the last 15 or so years.

It completely unraveled when Joseph, the eldest brother died. In addition to the Mahadel, the family operated a small furniture store on the main road and a toddy tapping operation that supplied sweet fresh coconut tree sap for distilling into Arrack. Joseph managed all the business and managed the money for all the houses and families. When he died, there was nothing but family cohesion to rule the the next steps. But that cohesion did not hold back dissension.

A scampering for resources ensued and those that got a hold of a lawyer first grabbed the wealth. So it happened. The law was used to break family and tradition. From the height of family's grandeur, Nilan, Crescent, Iona, and Lalita were left nothing The only thing they held was the deed to PattyApu's house, and the pride of keeping a good appearance. Even the nets were finally taken and sold to an outside operation that now manages the big net on Kaduwa bay.

It breaks everyone's heart. The loss is on a thousand levels.

Nilan and Crescent decided that all they could do was sell the house. They wanted to use the capital to start another business, perhaps selling used vans in the upcountry.

We asked, if we helped them to get nets, whether they would be willing to go back to the bay and pull in the big net.

They say that it no longer pays. A centuries long family tradition ended within a year.

“The costs are going up and the fish are going down,” Nilan says.

It is customary that the Mahadel pays everyone that puts a hand on the net and pay them equally. All the men are allowed to take home a part of the catch, no matter how much fish is caught. It is part of the honor and responsibility of being Mahadel. Sometimes fifty men show up, sometimes a hundred. Many old men come and many young. They all have to be paid.

Meanwhile the catch has continued to decline. After thousands of years of fishing, Nilan said the decline has been over the last 15 years. Everyone remembers when the catches were so bountiful. All of it was sold locally, and it made for a handsome life. In the last two decades, the lifestyle and economy that was the lifeblood of generations and the practice which sustained an entire culture and community has reversed.

Nilan says that the world temperature and ocean itself is changing. He's seen it transform, literally in front of his eyes. He claims that all the seasons have changed from the rains to the tides to the temperature. For generations they could predict year to year and season to season which fish they would catch, when, and how much. It was automatic, and they planned on it-always respecting the changes and the balance of the ocean. They were managing for themselves and future generations.

He says the fish came to the bay to feed upon the moss and the clams which made a city for themselves upon the rock shores.

“Go look,” he says to my uncle Dennis, “they're not there anymore. The fish have nothing to eat. The ocean is completely polluted The bay is now packed with boats that have outboard motors, for the fishermen who go out to the deep sea. It's too much traffic now,” Nilan suggests.

“If you were a fish would you come into the middle of a traffic heap?“

The small fishermen with outboard motors also are also discouraged. Most come from the same traditional background. They are Nilan's neighbors. Talking to them on the shore reveals a tortured recognition. They say that as more people need work, more are coming to fish. The shore is now lined with at least 40 boats. They are put into increased competition. On this bay, they all share cooperatively the catch of all the boats, even though the returns are getting smaller and smaller for each.

Aquinas is the name of the man that counts the fish. His brother later distributes the shares from market to all the fishermen. They are now forced to catch Monk fish which live in rocks. The catch is sold exclusively for export, and sells in the U.S for a ton of money. The fish they traditionally catch are small in number these days because large industrial trawlers rake the open sea. Many of the trawlers are big boats from Japan that operate just outside of the international marker. These fishermen can't operate out there for fear of confiscation of their boat and equipment by the coast guard. Japan is a major donor to the Sri Lankan government.

Aquinas tells us that monk fish is something that they traditionally should not catch. They are crucial to the entire ecosystem because they regurgitate food from the rocks which is what all the smaller fish eat. Those smaller fish are why the traditional catch survive. They are the reason for the continuance of the cycle. Aquinas looks straight into us in stating that they have no choice but to catch the Monk fish. He says that they have refused to do many of the other harmful tactics that some fishermen have taken up to increase their yield, like dynamite and light fishing which completely kill everything in their surrounding. However, they have to survive.

Ironically for the local mudalalis and sadly for the local fishermen, the government's support of neo-liberal, free trade policies since 1977 has done them both in. The basis of the policies is economic growth at all costs, unbridled competition for labor, and deregulation. The basic pursuit is to become internationally competitive by attracting international capital to invest and use the resources of the country, raw materials, natural exploits, and labor to produce for export. On a global scale this set of policies has led to the acceleration of global environmental destruction in supporting non-sustainable industrial fishing and by gutting environmental standards throughout the world.

Locally, this is am open door to exploitation. The economic philosophy cuts asunder the basis for the local economy. The mahadel are forced to cut their costs of operation(pay to the people), the sea fishermen are searching for export fish, and they all are suffering from the impact of industrial fishing on their ecosystem.

The only survivors are those that transition to the mulitnational corporate game. Local mudalali's are pressured to give up on their local businesses and become agents for international capital, and the local fisherman are pushed increasingly out of operation, destined to be workers for the industrial fishing industry. All of this will only further unravel all of the economic and social relations which this peninsula has been built on.

The New House of Maggona
Nilan wanted to sell the house and get in to a profitable business. Perhaps he would take the money and buy used vans and sell them. Crescent is unemployed.

Meanwhile, Europeans have been buying property here in Sri Lanka like crazy. A German man purchased the house next to PattyApu's. It was built by one of his brothers. They also bought the rock hill that guards the bay.

It was with unanimous conviction then, that my mother and her sisters decided to buy PattyApu's house, the Maggona house from Nilan. The sisters plan to come back here together to retire. In the meantime, Iona, Nilan's sister will be able to continue to stay here. The house now will stay in the family and at least keep us linked to this history.
I can not think of a better place to come back to.

The purchase is bittersweet for me however. We all love this place. I, in my new discovery of it and its history, probably more than anyone. It really is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I think constantly about bringing Nas back here. I think of the next generations that will still have a place of reference and place to come to be in touch with their history. Iona still lives here, and Nilan and Crescent come here everyday.

But our victory is in the context of so much more that is lost. Our need to intervene is because of the collapse of local fishing and economy, and our ability to intervene is because we are from the United States-what a cruel irony. And more than anything, we must recognize that buying this place will not reverse the geo- political and environmental ravages that are upon us and the fishermen. Those forces are transforming the entire village and the entire country. Our buying the house doesn't resolve that, it just gives us a special stitch in time.

Only effective, sustained organizing can give us the hope to do more than that.

Tomorrow, a representative of the Kalutara Fisheries Solidarity Organization, part of NAFSO, will be coming to meet us here at the house. We've arranged a meeting with Aquinas and the fisherman down at the bay. It is they, those who have no choice but to fish, that must be the center of the effort to fight for a sustainable way forward based on the needs and realities of local economies, cultures, and communities.

Nilan and Crescent will also be coming back to the house to talk with the organizers. Hopefully, the conversation starts a dialogue towards some concrete plans. We hope it is not too late.