Fishermen Lock Horns With The Navy In Panama
By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
Pictures Courtesy – Raveendra Kariyawasam
Fishermen in Panama, Ampara and environmentalists are at loggerheads with the Navy over the setting up of a naval camp with a jetty being built on the lagoon.
The fishermen claim that the jetty constructed by the Navy has destroyed mangroves in the area. By June 1st this year, the fishermen claim the Navy had constructed three jetties on the lagoon.
According to environmentalists, the Navy’s construction is in violation of laws that govern coast conservation and fisheries and aquatic resources in the country.
The Navy however has vehemently denied the allegation of destroying mangroves and setting up a jetty on the lagoon claiming they were only setting up a camp in Panama for national security purposes.
The fishermen lament that the Navy and even the Fisheries Inspector in the area have ignored their concerns. Apart from building jetties, the fishermen have also expressed concern over what they claim the construction of a ‘hotel’ by the Navy in the lagoon area. President of the Panama Lagoon Fisheries Management Authority, P. Somasiri said the Navy was setting cabanas on the lagoon beach. He noted that the Navy had been permitted to use only two boats in the lagoon, but were now operating many more boats in the area.
He explained that the excessive use of boats in the lagoon would result in a decline in the harvest of fish, prawns and lobsters. The Panama lagoon had boasted of one of the highest harvests of prawns and lobsters before the 2004 tsunami.
Although there has been a slight decline in the harvest, fishermen still record a good harvest amounting to several thousand rupees between the months of April and November.
“If the fish and prawn harvest from the lagoon sees a decline, some people in authority could then allow the further destruction of the lagoon area claiming the waters did not have any marine life. What they do not understand is the plight of the fishermen in the area,” Somasiri said.
“It is a conspiracy. That is why the Navy after entering the area, has allowed fishermen from other areas to fish in the lagoon on motorboats polluting the water,” he added. There are currently 105 fisher families in the Panama lagoon area with 12 female headed families and they have a historical background for settling in Panama.
The fisher families hail from a generation called Muthumal that had settled in the area from Hambantota after the Wellassa rebellion.
These fishermen have practiced environment friendly fishing methods for decades. The fishermen believe that the harvest from the lagoon is a gift from Goddess Pattini. Therefore, the women who fish in the lagoon waters catch prawns and fish with their hands. “They first take a handful of sand and throw it into the lagoon while praying to Goddess Pattini before starting to fish in the lagoon waters,” Environmentalist Raveendra Kariyawasam said.
He explained that the current destruction of the Panama lagoon area would be a severe blow to these fisher families.
He pointed out that the Panama lagoon, according to the 1996 Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act No. 2, is managed by a fisheries management authority. “In such a backdrop, development or any other form of construction work cannot take place without the approval of this management authority,” Kariyawasam said, adding the current construction work in Panama is being carried out without consultation with authorities managing the lagoon.
“The construction work carried out by the Navy is also in violation of Clauses 14 and 31 of the Coast Conservation Act,” he observed.
According to Somasiri, the Panama Lagoon Fisheries Management Authority has last year complained to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka about the violation of the fishermen’s rights by the Navy.
The complaint has been lodged under HRC/AM/65/11/B/AB and is being investigated by the Human Rights Commission office in Ampara. The Navy has responded to the Human Rights Commission inquiry on the matter on August 30, 2011 saying that they were setting up a camp in the area for national security reasons and in order to be able to provide assistance to the area in the event of a disaster.
Somasiri said the fishermen have also written on June 6th this year to Captain A. M. A. W. Weerasinghe who is the Acting Director of the Navy Legal Service, requesting for action to be taken to stop the construction work. He added that even the Fisheries Inspector in the area had not inquired into the issues raised by the fishermen.
The Navy however denied the fishermen’s’ allegations of destroying mangroves and setting up a new jetty on the lagoon. According to the Navy, the hotel the fishermen refer to are a few cabanas being built within the Navy camp.
Navy Spokesperson Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya said the Defence Ministry assigned the land in Panama to the Navy in 2010.
He denied setting up a jetty on the lagoon destroying mangroves.
“There is no point in setting up a jetty on the lagoon since the entrance to the lagoon is closed down due to the attrition of sand during the South West monsoon,” he said. According to Warnakulasuriya, the Navy is to berth its vessels and craft at the Oluvil Port once the camp is completed. He also admitted that there were several buildings being built, which are part of the Navy camp.
He denied that the construction of these buildings have had any impact on the lagoon environment.
Explaining the setting up of the Navy camp, Warnakulasuriya said there is no naval presence from Trincomalee in the Eastern coast till Galle in the Southern coast.
“Therefore, there is a need for a naval base to be established in between,” he said.
He noted that investigations into the LTTE attack on the Galle harbour several years back had revealed that the LTTE boats had been prepared and taken off from Panama.
He added that the Panama area was also a popular destination for human smuggling. The people who are opposing are displeased that the Navy presence in the area would prevent them from carrying out their illegal activities,” Warnakulasuriya said. When queried about fishermen being restricted from fishing in the lagoon, the spokesperson said there were no obstacles to the fishermen in the lagoon. While the Navy denied allegations levelled by the fishermen, the Fisheries Ministry denied knowledge of issues faced by the fishermen in the Panama lagoon.
Deputy Fisheries Minister Susantha Punchinilame said he was unaware of the concerns raised by the fishermen in the Panama lagoon. However, he said that the Ministry would take action if the fishermen inform the ministry of the problems faced by them. “I will also inquire from the Fisheries Inspector in the area about this issue,” he added.