3000 or more Fisherman work and live out of the peaceful looking Negombo Lagoon. All of them are the traditional sector. Some harvest Shrimp in the mangroves; others fish by 'foot and hand' as they 'walk' in the neck deep waters of the lagoon. They feel the fish by their feet and then suddenly dip down to grab them with their hands. Some others fish in mid-sea with small purse-seines of a diameter not more than 50 feet.
I chose an approach to the Lagoon via the Hamilton Canal arranged in a small boat by the "Muthurajvela" eco centre, about 15 km away from Negombo city.
Built originally by the British and widened by the Dutch in the 1500's to access Colombo it is not used for this purpose at all today. It hardly can. The overgrown canal- surface -floating -water- weed is difficult to arrest; may be no one has tried to address the situation. May be sheer negligence is the order of governance.
With two other friends I celebrated World Fisheries Day 2008 on the Negombo Lagoon. I came away with mixed feelings .The canal was filthy; crammed with overgrowth on the surface, making it difficult even for the 3 foot wide little boat to glide through. The houses that line the canal up to its mouth into the Lagoon conveniently have their drainage spilling in to the cannel. What chance they have fish or flora and fauna to live, let alone just survive! The three monitor Lizards I spotted survive on scavenging I am told.
It took at least 30 minutes to enter the peaceful lagoon. The waters cleared and fishermen were visible. Entering the mangrove sanctuary was altogether another experience. Waters were screen, growth dense. Some parasite creepers even added to the scenic beauty like a green unbroken curtain holding several trees together.
And then there was one crocodile! Inconspicuous as ever, still as ever, maybe he had his fill just recently…hence he let us pass by! But it took the sharp eye of the boat/fisherman to spot it and let us have a good close look.
Birds were aplenty, en route to the canal as well as on the lagoon- Brahamini kites, the Coots, Herons and Egrets. They almost gave us a fabulous flight display as some dive into the water; others glide over it and come to settle on the branches lining the canal. Many rested in the 'out –of-reach-to-humans' shrubs and branches in the middle of the waters. Many were sitting outstretched with their wings soaking in the morning sun.
The low-noise burr of the out board motor (OBM) was enhanced only by the splashing of water at its bow. The boatman sitting cross legged on his rugged cushion could do nothing about some splashing water, actually enjoyed by us.
A CD show prior to the boat ride had some poignant points reproduced here in my own words with sufficient accuracy
"The fishermen go out for many days to sea and return to the shore on the lagoon. Much is thrown away, the rotten, the bad, the crushed…push them into the sea; who has the time an d patience to reflect on ecology and environment…"
"The city of Negombo has grown; encroaching on what was once unpolluted water"
"All drainage, all sewage finds its way into the lagoon making it the common sink of indiscriminate urban sprawl that once was virgin land Negombo."
"In the twilight the contours of the Church stand out. The church that was, and the church that still could be"
"Life is born and grows in squalor destroying the very land that gives them existence. As they exist for the moment they make life nasty, brutish and short."
My mixed feelings experienced on World Fisheries Day 2008 ,may be ,are the feelings of many others who struggle with the issues of the fishing communities. How shall I convey to the fishermen I love, the value of looking after the very environment that they depend upon? How shall I convey to the Government and the River Navigation authority the deplorable state of the Canal? How should I convey to building authority the sin of letting effluents and toilet based 'e-coli' into the waters they expect others to traverse on?
Most of the points concerning 4SSF are applicable to the Negombo Lagoon. One cannot say what next year's celebration will bring!
Fr. Xavier Pinto,
Coordinator, C.Ss.R. AOS India.