Sight Magazine – No kerosene, no food, say Sri Lankan fishermen


Mannar, Sri Lanka

As the sun rose over Sri Lanka one morning in late August, a dozen fishermen laid their nets on a beach on Mannar, a small island off the country’s northwest coast, the start of the working day.

But many other fishermen in the community cannot go to sea at all, crippled by the country’s devastating economic crisis, the worst it has seen since independence in 1948.

A group of local fishermen try to clean an empty fishing net that has just been brought ashore in Mannar, Sri Lanka on August 17. PHOTO: Reuters/Joseph Campbell

Fuel shortages and rampant inflation mean they struggle to get the kerosene needed to fuel the boats that sustain them.

“Everything is difficult right now – there is no kerosene, there is no food at home,” said Soosaipillai Nicholas, 73, nicknamed Sornam.

“We only get jobs if we come to the sea, otherwise we don’t have any. We are starving,” he said in Tamil.

Due to her age, Sornam, who was already struggling to feed herself before the onset of the economic crisis, no longer goes out to sea but has come to Thalvapadu beach to help collect and sort the catch of fishermen who manage to leave.

But the jet fuel shortage has meant other people who usually go out in their own boats have now taken up similar work, and so where there were 15 workers per boat there are now 40.

Since the profits were distributed, Sornam’s income has plunged – he says he now sometimes earns 250 Sri Lankan rupees (around 70 US cents) a day, compared to around double that in better times.

That doesn’t go far with inflation currently around 65% year-on-year and food inflation nearing 94%.

For months, no kerosene was available in Mannar as the country’s foreign exchange reserves dried up and it was unable to import crude for its refineries. When supplies resumed just weeks ago, jet fuel prices were almost four times higher as Sri Lanka began to dismantle fuel subsidies.

“We don’t need luxuries like gasoline and diesel. For our essential work, all we need is kerosene,” said Raja Cruz, the owner of the boat Sornam had come to help.

He said some families from those areas had fled to India – less than 30 kilometers from the northernmost point of Mannar Island – in hopes of better prospects.

Kerosene was previously sold at a subsidized price of 87 rupees per litre, or about 92 US cents per gallon, and now sells for 340 rupees per litre, or $3.62 per gallon, the government rate. On the black market, Cruz said, it sells for 1,800 rupees per litre.

“Reviewing the price of kerosene has been a necessity for many years,” Sri Lankan Electricity and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said in a tweet last month. “With prices now commensurate with costs, the government has offered a direct cash subsidy to low-income families, the fishing and plantation sectors dependent on kerosene.”

But Mannar’s families have yet to receive help, Cruz said.

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A group of local fishermen set out to sea in their boat just off Mannar, Sri Lanka on August 17. PHOTO: Reuters/Joseph Campbell

Rowing, manual labor
Cruz also said fishermen believed the wind turbines on Thalvapadu beach had pushed fish away from the shore because they made a humming sound. Due to the shortage of kerosene, fishermen could not go far out to sea and therefore had to make do with smaller catches.

Sarath Chandranayaka, a local Fisheries Department official, said authorities were aware of the allegations and were collecting data, but nothing had yet been proven.

Chandranayaka also said that 60% of Mannar’s needs were now met after kerosene supplies resumed, but there could be a further shortfall during the peak fishing season later in the year when fuel demand increases. .

Cruz said many fishermen have resorted to “small-scale work” such as catching crabs near shore to earn a living.

“If you don’t have kerosene, you can’t go into the sea, you can’t go far,” Cruz said. “If you try to buy it privately, it’s 1,800 rupees. Think how many times more it is, 87 rupees versus 1,800. How are we supposed to live?”

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Although the recent distribution of kerosene has brought some relief, Cruz said the rise in prices has led to difficult decisions for fishermen, who are also struggling to buy basic necessities and groceries due to the high levels of inflation.

Just before sunset, as the boats returned, more than one rowed ashore, to save fuel.

Peter Jayem Alan, who joined other fishermen on kerosene-fuelled boats, said he switched to rowing for a living.

“Before, we had jet fuel, so there was no problem, we were going out,” Alan said. “Now, because of the difficulties in obtaining kerosene, we have to struggle and row instead.”

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Local fisherman Ebert Rajeevan (right) and a colleague carry a bucket of freshly caught fish from a fishing boat to shore in Mannar, Sri Lanka on August 16. PHOTO: Reuters/Joseph Campbell.

Many fishermen who do not have their own boats join others and receive a share of the profits each day. Ebert Rajeevan, 35, works this way, and sometimes does other manual work on land to survive.

“The problem with us right now is if we have jet fuel then we have work every day. If there is no jet fuel then today you see I went with these people, tomorrow I will have to ask someone else,” Rajeevan said.

Sometimes the boats had already filled the number they could take on, he said.

“So we have to stay home. We have to stay home and do all the daily wage labor that comes our way.”

– Additional reporting by JOSEPH CAMPBELL


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