Advent 2

Protect Water, Give Life

From the time she was ten years old, Meenakshi has collected seaweed off India’s coast at the Gulf of Mannar.  Wearing her sari, she dives deep into the ocean plucking the seaweed from underwater rocks, stones and dead coral.  Now she has turned 55 and with her children grown, she and her husband who is a seafarer depend on the seaweed to survive.

On the days they harvest, she gets up at 4 am to prepare breakfast before arriving for work at 7 am.  Men operate the small boats that take them to the islands for the 15 days a month they work – allowing time for regeneration between expeditions.  The women use nets to collect 25-30 kg a day, which they dry for three days while they stay on the island.  They sell the dry seaweed for 33 cents a kilogram, down from 44 cents before GST was introduced.  During the two-month ban on fishing starting in April, the men receive relief payments from the government but there is none for the women.

The Gulf of Mannar is a rich source of sea life and home to over 4,223 species of flora and fauna.  In 2002 the government declared it a Marine Biosphere, banning the collection of seaweed.  It took two years for the 2,000 women to win the permits needed to collect seaweed.  The women depend on the seaweed for their livelihood and argue there is no regulation against bottom trawling and the use of destructive fishing gear and boats, which are much more destructive.  One of the uninhabited islands has lost 2-3 hectares of coast from erosion and in the last 50 years, the sea surface temperature in the Gulf has risen about 0.3 degrees.  Coral disease and bleaching are increasing.

Meenashki says the women know how to protect the mangroves and seaweed for generations to come if the government would let them. She was one of two women to receive a best leadership award for their fight to attain rights for Women Seaweed collectors.

She is a member of the Tamil Nadu Women Fisherworkers Sangam or association, set up to protect their working rights.  The women have learned to organise petitions and lobby government officials to press for access to the coast.   Dependent on the coast for their livelihoods, the 915,000 fisherfolk who make it their home have watched rapid changes– the fishing catch is much smaller, the beaches more badly eroded and storms more frequent and intense.

“As our coast is flooded with industrial and infrastructure projects [like power plants, they have destroyed the mangrove forests, polluted the coastal water bodies including creeks and estuaries.  If a proposed tourist project goes ahead, we will not be permitted to collect seaweed.  We will be displaced slowly,” says Meenakshi.

Meenakshi knows the importance of protecting the coast but not for power plants and large-scale aquaculture.

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Neythal/Legal Aid to Women Trust

Neythal began by providing legal support to women experiencing harassment, rape, lower wages and discrimination. Working with coastal Dalit women, they soon became involved in their struggles to protect their families and livelihoods. The Federation has organised state-level conferences to press for the women’s recognition as workers and access to the benefits allocated by the welfare board. Women have sought and won positions in the panchayat (local council) with Neythal training and support. These newly elected women have been able to offer greater protection for their communities and way of

Since the 2004 South Asia tsunami, the fisherfolk have seen new tourist ventures, mega seaports, power plants, sand mining enterprises and shipbreaking firms destroy their traditional lives.

Before the tsunami, CWS partner Legal Aid to Women Trust/Neythal helped set up the Coastal Action Network with the fisherfolk to stand up for their rights.  Many have already been pushed from their lands and livelihoods.  CAN has expanded their work, organising legal challenges in the local courts and campaigned for the protection of the beaches.  At times, they organised the thousands of fisherfolk on yatra or walks to demand their livelihoods.

Without access to the sea and therefore jobs like mending nets or sorting the catch, the fisherfolk are finding it increasingly hard to support their families.  Children are hungry.  The women report increased violence and abuse.  There is more drunkenness among men with nothing much to do.  LAW Trust/Neythal is providing training and start-up capital for the women to establish small businesses.  Some women made fresh snacks from the fish, others travelled inland with fish to sell, while others wove baskets or furniture.

What matters more than anything to LAW Trust/Neythal is that the fisherfolk have a say in their future.  They have worked with them to build strong support for their need to stay close to the land and the sea.  Now they are asking for more support to defend their coasts.  Taking on big industry and the government is no easy matter, but the fisherfolk can see no life without the sea.

Their key activities are:

  • Reclaiming access to coastal land
  • Improving livelihood opportunities
  • Environmental protection and advocacy
  • Human rights, legal and advocacy training especially for women
  • Organising women’s and workers’ sangams (associations) and campaigns
  • Demanding access to income and services under Indian law
  • Supporting the rights of children, including campaigning against child marriage, discrimination against girls and child labour.

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