Interview with Nalini Ratnarajah, Women Human Rights Activist

By Christina Kamp

Nalini Rathnarajah

Tourism development along the Northern and Eastern Sri Lankan coast is characterised by increasing involvement of the military. Several cases of land grabbing and displacement have been documented. In a study published in 2015, the Swiss Society for Threatened Peoples pointed out violations of human rights and land rights of coastal communities (see TW 78, March 2015). In the meantime, the first solution-oriented consultations have taken place in Sri Lanka. A roundtable organised by NAFSO (National Fisheries Solidarity Movement) in early February 2016 in Colombo was the first one to be attended by representatives of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and the Tourism Promotion Bureau. We asked women human rights defender Nalini Ratnarajah from Sri Lanka about the solutions and approaches discussed at the roundtable and beyond – in particular against the backdrop of the challenges faced by women due to tourism development.

TW: How do women in Sri Lanka’s new “tourism zones” experience the development of tourism that affects their lives?

Nalini Ratnarajah: Displacement in the name of tourism, in addition to militarisation and infrastructure development, affects women differently from men. Most of the women are single women who lost their husband, or a son or father – the bread winner of the family, in the Tsunami. Many men were abducted or killed or disappeared in 30 years of conflict and war. When living on the coast, especially at Pasikuda, the women from the fishing villages used to pull the nets and got payment and fish from the fishermen to meet their day to day needs. They had food for their children which was rich in protein and they had enough money for their education. By selling fresh or dried fish the women used to get money into their hands, which was power to spend it in the way they wanted.

Before the Tsunami at Pasikuda, some women used to rent out a room in their house to tourists. In addition, they used to make and sell food items, tea, and coffee to the fishermen and tourists. Now they have to find alternative incomes to support their families and get good food for their children. They also have to find money to buy the things which they could get free earlier.

In the fishing villages, they were with the same community who accept them the way they are as fisher families. Finding this kind of social acceptance and support is difficult for them now that they have been displaced. Paddiadichenai and Karunkalisolai, the places where they now live, are two to three kilometres from the sea shore and from the main road. This has made it difficult for them to access both the sea shore and public transport to go to town.

TW: How did the round table discussion go, what are the new insights gained and what are its major achievements?

Nalini Ratnarajah: Unlike in earlier consultations, this time there were women on the panel to talk about the challenges they face as fisher-women. Normally, the work of fisher-women and their contribution to the national economy is neither seen nor recognized, so the fact that women’s voices were heard is a success of the roundtable.

The participation of a representative from the Tourism Promotion Bureau is also encouraging, even though when criticism was brought by fishermen who had lost their land he failed to accept the damage caused due to tourism.

A representative from the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority tried to show that they “empowered” the fishing community by recruiting people to work in hotels. For example, 40 men are employed to take tourists for whale watching at Kalpitiya. But he did not seem to understand how many families and persons lost their livelihoods, and how much of their livelihood is affected, calculating the income they had earlier from fishing before hotels came. He did not seem to understand what the fisher families really go through and did not see this as serious human rights violation. He felt the SLTDA were doing a good job by recruiting a few persons to work at hotels.

TW: What would be promising ways forward to make tourism in Sri Lanka’s North and East benefit local people and especially the women?

Nalini Ratnarajah: Definitely, affirmative action in tourism is needed to ensure fisher family's economic and social rights. First and foremost, hoteliers should allow traditional fishermen to continue their fishing activities. They should come up with a system to purchase fish directly from small fishermen instead of wholesalers and should provide facilities to preserve fish (e.g. big refrigerators).

Hoteliers should give A to Z training and recruit local women instead of recruiting women with experience from outside. Women can also be trained to make handicraft items by using the available resources from the location. To sell the items to the tourists, hotels can provide stalls in each hotel free of charge or charge only a small rent. Hoteliers should also offer training and jobs to young people who are the sons and daughters of fisher families.

Women working in the informal sector are often not recognized as workers, but fisher-women do work, too. Banks should recognize their work and give loans to them to start their own businesses. Hotels and the military should allow women and women’s collectives to set up stalls at the beach to sell food items and handicraft. Women from fisher families can also be encouraged to grow vegetables in home gardens from where hotels can purchase. Hotels could assist them by training them in organic cultivation and providing financial facilities for investments.

For sea diving and boat rides, as carpenters and masons, local fishermen should be recruited rather than bringing people from outside. Community-based tourism should be introduced by providing training for fisher families, including exposure visits to learn from communities with experience in managing tourism activities on their own.