Plan and Design the Project with Us: Advice from Sri Lanka’s Northern Province Fisherfolk

By Sathivel Visvalingam (Sri Lanka Nature Group), Tom Weerachat (International Accountability Project), and Anirudha Nagar (Accountability Counsel)

Earlier this year, the Asian Development Bank withdrew its financial support for the Northern Province Sustainable Fisheries Development Project in Sri Lanka, effectively halting a years-long community-led effort to make funders accountable to community priorities. The project had a stated aim to revive the fisheries sector in the districts of Jaffna, Mannar, Mullaitivu, and Kilinochchi through the rebuilding of large-scale infrastructures such as harbors, anchorages, and associated facilities. The Government of Sri Lanka received a loan of 1.3 million USD for the Project Design Advance in 2017, and requested a 155 million USD loan from the ADB for the project’s implementation.

“This project could have provided youths and persons with disabilities an opportunity to be involved in training of motor engines, modern fishing technology, fiberglass boat making, and with arranging loan and financial assistance” observed Mantai West Queenston, a youth representative from Jaffna.

Community members lament the scrapping of this project as a missed opportunity. After years of project preparation, more than a million dollars spent, and the hopes of communities dashed across the Northern Province, it is important to take stock of what happened in this project, and the lessons that need to be learned for the future.

Communities voice concerns about the project’s design

“We came to know through SLNG that the ADB project may include some livelihood improvement programs for women but the officers didn’t discuss this with us,” said one women’s group member. “It is very important to involve the women in fish related income-earning activities such as fishing net preparation, fish processing, and fish wending.”

After learning about the project through civil society groups, community members began to mobilize to seek more information and engage more meaningfully with project planners and funders. Up until that point, communities had not been consulted on the project and had scant information. The little information that was available was not available in Tamil, the language spoken by most in the communities. Technical project designs had already been conducted but lacked the crucial input of communities. Without meaningful community participation, how could the project move ahead?

Excerpt of an infographic in Tamil summarizing research findings. See the full infographic. (An English version of the infographic is also available)

In early 2018, the communities started to mobilize and requested the Sri Lanka Nature Group (a civil society organization), together with International Accountability Project and Accountability Counsel, to conduct a training in Jaffna with communities across different parts of the Northern Province. The training covered various ways to ensure the Asian Development Bank is held accountable to its commitments to safeguard the environment and well-being of communities. The training also included information on how to approach the banks’ independent accountability mechanism, a means through which communities could influence how the project might be implemented.

In the past 30 years of war, we lost all our infrastructure facilities for fishing,” said one community member. “We really need some facilities such as cooling facilities, fuel stations, training centers, small scale fishing harbors and anchorages. But, before starting any fisheries project, the project developers should discuss with relevant society members”

In subsequent months, community members participated in a community-led research process to identify shared goals and priorities. With over 400 community members participating, the research uncovered failures in consultation and ensuring access to information. For example, 99% of respondents indicated that they had not been consulted during project planning, 97% reported that they did not have an opportunity to propose ideas and importantly, 95% of respondents indicated that their idea of development was different from the government’s idea of development.

In October 2018, communities affected by the proposed project submitted their concerns to the ADB’s Board of Directors, requesting the Board to postpone their vote to approve the project until communities have been properly consulted. The Board considered community demands and requested the ADB to halt construction until there were more consultations and broader community support.

Additionally, a complaint to the ADB’s Accountability Mechanism was submitted by the Pesalai Fishermen Co-op Society on behalf of communities in Pesalai, a fishing village on the island of Mannar in May 2018. The complaint outlined the community’s grave concerns about the large scale nature of a proposed harbor and its adverse impacts on livelihoods, the risk of environmental pollution, and grave social risks, including potential re-ignition of conflict if there was a large influx of people from the south. Young people of Pesalai raised their concerns about the future of their land that could be destroyed by the large scale project. Furthermore, the Bishop of Mannar district held a large community meeting to discuss the project and wrote a letter calling on the government to respect the feelings of the people

After the Pesalai complaint was filed along with other community actions, the community started receiving threats. One threat came from a project consultant hired by the ADB who was a former military official. He reportedly said, “If you continue making noises criticizing the project we will stop the project and you will get nothing”. The incident was a sharp reminder of the risks project-affected communities face in raising their voices about projects, not just from aggressive state actors but even those engaged by development banks. It is still unclear whether the Asian Development Bank has investigated this incident and taken steps to assess its engagement of former military personnel in post-conflict settings.

The communities’ vision of development

“Development should not be another war for the people of the Northern Province,” said Thilak Kariyawasam of the Sri Lanka Nature Group (SLNG). “Help them to develop their home according to what they want to see.”

The communities in the Northern Province with their strong solidarity and partnership with civil society were able to make their voices heard. They took extraordinary action at an early stage to intervene in a process imposed upon them and which excluded their participation. Unfortunately, rather than engage meaningfully with community demands, the project has now been dropped without any explanation to those affected or the public at large.

The communities’ intentions were never to stop the project but to request transparency and accountability and to offer their expertise in the design and implementation of the project to serve the people’s needs. Their wishes and demands have not been met. The adverse impacts of the project may have been averted now that the project has been dropped but the needs of the local fishing communities remain unmet.

For more information on this campaign, please see previous blogs about the progress of consultations and initial outreach. Additional information about the project can be found here.

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.