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‘All we need is kerosene’: Fishermen Struggle for Livelihoods in Crisis-hit Sri Lanka

Published: September 9, 2022
Local fishermen say the country’s ongoing fuel shortage is making it increasingly difficult to fish and transport their catch, as many boats and the refrigerated lorries needed rely on scarce diesel. Protesters have taken to the streets in fiery scenes as Sri Lanka's economy faces soaring inflation, dwindling supplies, power cuts and other ongoing problems caused by a combination of COVID-19, lack of tourism, and soaring input costs for the import-dependent economy. (Image: Rebecca Conway/Getty Images)

As the sun rose over Sri Lanka in late August, a group of fishermen were laying out their net on a beach in Mannar, a small island just off the country’s north-western coast, getting ready to head out to sea.

But they were the lucky ones still able to set sail, with many others in the community stuck at land as they struggled to get access to cheap kerosene oil, which they need to be able to power their fishing boats. Sri Lanka is facing a historical economic crisis, with fuel shortages and high inflation hitting all areas of society.

“Everything’s difficult at the moment — there’s no kerosene, there’s no food at home,” said 73-year-old Soosaipillai Nicholas, nicknamed Sornam. “We only get work if we come to the sea, otherwise we don’t get any. We’re starving.”

Due to his age, Sornam, who was already struggling for food before the economic crisis began, no longer goes out to sea but comes to help with preparing for and collecting the catch.

However, the lack of work due to the kerosene shortages meant that others who usually would go out in boats of their own were having to take up similar work, and so where there used to be 15 workers, there are now 40.

As the system operates on a profit-share basis, Sornam’s earnings have plunged — he said he now sometimes gets 250 rupees ($0.70) a day, about half of what he used to receive. That doesn’t go far with inflation currently at about 65% year-on-year and food inflation at nearly 94%.

For months, no kerosene was available at all 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 a couple of weeks ago, kerosene prices were nearly four times as high, as Sri Lanka began dismantling fuel subsidies.

“We don’t need luxury goods like petrol and diesel. For our essential work, all we need is kerosene,” said Raja Cruz, the leader of a fishing committee based in Thalvapadu, who added that fishermen had asked the government for kerosene several times but had received next to nothing.

Sri Lanka’s minister for power and energy, Kanchana Wijesekera, confirmed on August 20 that the CPC oil refinery had resumed operations, and Cruz says fishermen in Mannar began receiving kerosene last week. However, he said they were given 30 to 40 litres of kerosene per boat, which was still not enough.

Mannar District’s Assistant Director of Fisheries, Sarath Chandranayaka, said some fishermen were directly transporting industrial kerosene from Colombo or were mixing kerosene with petrol in order to power their boats due to the shortages

The kerosene shortages also led to changes in the fishermen’s work methods. Cruz said many had resorted to “small-scale work” such as catching crabs in order to earn a living, while those who were better off were able to purchase kerosene at high prices on the black market and continue to work.

Just before sunset, more than one boat is rowing back to shore, with the men on them opting for the back-breaking work to save on fuel costs. Among them was Peter Jayem Alan.

“Before, we had kerosene, so there was no issue, we went out,” Alan said. “Now because of difficulties in getting kerosene, we have to struggle and row instead. That’s the only problem, there’s no other issue. Before we used to come on our own, put kerosene in our boats and go off to work.”

Several fishermen also have no boats of their own, but join fishing boats on an ad hoc basis and receive a share of the profit each day. Ebert Rajeevan works in this way, and sometimes has to take up other work such as cement production as a means of survival.

“If there’s no kerosene… Then we have to stay at home. We have to stay at home and do whatever daily wage labour comes our way,” Rajeevan said.

By Reuters (Production: Joseph Campbell, Jeevan Ravindran)