Fishing for a Social Change
I spoke to Thomas Kocherry during the People's Global Action Conference in the outskirts of Bangalore, India. We found a comer during a break and spoke against a backdrop of various other intense conversations. Thomas's booming voice and his warm and expansive personality were prominent during the conference. During a memorable moment on the first day of the conference, he valiantly and persistently attempted to get the participants organized and concentrated, by leading us through a song — in Kannada, which he does not speak — in the midst of much laughter and teasing. Thomas Kocherry is the Coordinator of the World Forum of Fishworkers and Fishharvesters and Coordinator of National Alliance of People's Movements. He was recently awarded the Sophie Prize, an international development and environment prize. He is also a priest. I asked him whether he would like to be addressed as Father and he said he just preferred his name.
Anannya: Thomas Kocherry, can you tell us what constitutes fishworkers and fishharvesters?
Thomas: All are fisherpeople. Our organization is a mass-based organization, not an NGO or anything like that. Membership should be mass-based — through either cooperatives or trade unions, women's organizations or men's organizations and so on. Either in fishing or allied with fisheries-processing plants or anything like that. We also stress that they should be traditional or artisanal fisheries. Or at least they should be small fisheries. These fishing communities also are depending on fishing for their livelihood. These are not a profiteering group. This automatically rules out corporations, big vessels, and such profiteering groups.
Anannya: Let us talk about India-can you give us a little bit of history about how the organizing of fishworkers happened over time and what shape it took — also which regions?
Thomas: There has been an Indo-Norwegian government project in Kerala since the 60s. That created mechanization. They mechanized traditional fishing communities in Kerala. Particularly they introduced bottom trawling which is destructive fishing. Though it gave a lot of returns, it created a lot of problems in the sea, lot of conflicts between the traditional and mechanized sector in the 70s. There was a fierce fight in 1976 and 16 fishermen were killed in Tamil Nadu. Boats and catamarans were burnt and set on fire. Which led to the appointment of a committee and studies. Revolving around that, organizations and trade unions came together and also the artisanal sector — in Kerala, Goa, Tamil Nadu — in order to fight the mechanized sector. Lots of litigations took place — lot of struggles in the court, in the Supreme Court and so on. Struggles were going on in the land and the sea and the court All this together then formed the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF). There were major struggles against trawlers which led to the monsoon trawl ban in different states, zonal regulations beyond which the mechanized boats should not go. Then there was a big environmental march to raise consciousness about environmental costs-depletion and so on in 1989. In 1990, was the joint venture policy on globalization of the sea which created bigger tension. Here the traditional enemies came together — you don't follow?
Thomas: Small mechanized boats — they were fighting here — no? in India. When joint venture big vessels came from outside, they [small boats, traditional sector, mechanized sector] all came together. The big vessels fought against literally the entire fishing community which stayed together. Fierce struggle was there. The entire policy was changed and they were forced to cancel the licenses. So this inspired many of the organizations outside — so the struggle started in Canada, Pakistan, Phillipines, America.
The World Forum on Fishworkers and Fishharvesters (WFF) was formed in 1995 in Quebec in connection with a Food Security meeting. There were different fisherpeople's organizations and so we met together and formed an Ad Hoc committee. Organizations from Chile were there, Canadian Council of Professional Harvesters was there, NFF of India was there, CNPS from Senegal were there, and so on. We formed an Ad Hoc Committee. NFF and Canadian Council of Professional Harvesters formed an organizing committee. We started contacting different organizations and worked out a basic ideological frame. Finally we all met in Delhi in 1997 from 17-21 November-from thirty countries. We worked out a temporary constitution building up towards a Constitutional Assembly in 2000. According to the temporary constitution we are about twenty-four organizational members in this. There is a coordinating committee and we meet once every year. We are preparing for the Constitutional Assembly in Britanny, France in 2000 October.
At this point, the main advance is the organization itself-the fact that it has become possible to create it and it is a political power in the world. WFF is involved in a major campaign so that the fishing communities that depend on fishing for livelihood — they should own the waterbodies including sea, lakes, reservoirs and so on; they should also own the fishing implements; they should also own and manage the fish they are catching for distribution.
Anannya: Do the communities in the different countries share the same issues?
Thomas: Oh yes, yes. We are fighting against big fishing vessels and destructive fishing gears. We are fighting for the protection of fish resources and of small fishing communities who depend on these fish resources. The big vessels are all over the world — 25,000 huge vessels have depleted all the oceans in the world. In San Francisco, there are small boats. In Gloucester there are traditional fishing communities. There they are fighting against big vessels. In America, there is a bill in the Senate to ban the factory trawlers. Also in California there was a fierce depletion of the sardines in the 70s. Also in Peru there was depletion of anchovies. Aqua culture is also creating problems. There is an organic link between big vessels, industrial feed and industrial aquaculture. That means massive fish caught by big vessels, converted into fishmeal to [breed] shrimp. This is converting ordinary fish into costly fish. Which creates depletion. Territorial waters were polluted, drinking water was polluted and so on.
Anannya: Which countries do the corporations that are involved in this come from?
Thomas: America is involved, France is involved, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Taiwan.
Anannya: NFF is a member of National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM). Can you tell us why it is a member? What are the similarities in the different struggles?
Thomas: Mainly NAPM is struggling for people who are displaced in the name of development Development is more mass destruction than development. Like Narmada Dam, polluting industries — all these are highly destructive. Because of big vessels, fishworkers are also displaced and these people are the victims of development. All these people have come together to work out an alternate paradigm of politics and development.
Anannya: At this point, on an everyday basis, how does a day look like for a fishworker?
Thomas: Everyday they are not in struggle — they have to survive, no? They have to go for fishing. There may be cooperatives, schools where the children are educated, they go for fishing. Where there are cooperatives, they come and give their fish and they take their money. They borrow money and have to return the loans — their debts are increasing . Everyday the catch per vessel is also decreasing — all these are daily problems. Definitely aquaculture is giving them trouble-multinational companies are involved.
For example, in Chilka, Orissa — it is the biggest lake in Asia. There was a Supreme Court judgement decision to demolish all the aqualculture farms which created tension between the police, the state and the fisherpeople. Fishermen were killed. Now we are preparing for a big campaign to declare that the lake belongs to us — all the others have to get out. That will be a major confrontation. There are also monsoon trawl ban and other regulations that these people violate. So everyday we have to pressurize the government, the police. Also there are coastal zone regulations and all the industries are violating the regulations.
Anannya: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Thomas: I am a priest
Anannya: How did you get involved in struggles such as these?
Thomas: I will find you a biodata copy.
Anannya: No, no-not a biodata. That's boring. Tell us a story.
Thomas (laughs loudly): No, no, I get fed up with saying all this.
Anannya: Come on — many of our readers have not heard you. You are bored with your story. Other people are not.
Thomas: But I have to say it, no?
Anannya: You know I am a Hindu. My sister is married to a Catholic from Kerala-she converted and became a Catholic. She is a school teacher. And she has a good friend who is a priest. They are quite apolitical and usually not interested so much in political conversation. But I thought if I mentioned your name they might get interested. And it worked-they said, oh yes, we have heard of Thomas Kocherry — he is an example for many people. So come on now — tell me. How did you become political? Before or after becoming a priest?
Thomas: Before. I was studying in the second standard in a convent school. My sister and I were going to school one day. Then mother called and gave us 4 annas to buy sweets. So we were happy to go and buy the sweets from a small shop in front of the school. Then as we were going to buy the sweets-someone else— a beggar was asking for alms. So we looked at each other, gave the money and went off. When we were going out mother said-you don't have to buy sweets, you can give it to anyone you want. So that showed me that you have to make a choice in life. Of course mother and father were always very generous with poor and sick people and cared a lot for people.
When I was studying in school, the principal had asthma and would go to coastal areas to get well and come back. So he would talk about fisher people — they are working so hard, they get nothing. Then I came to college. I had decided to become a priest already. That is the only way you can commit yourself totally. To get married — you have to look after your wife and children. As a priest you are free, you can do what you want. My determination was there. In college, the principal said you better become a priest, you should not go to college, so many other attractions will be there. Then I met a priest who was very human. I wanted to join but he was not very interested. I said I want to work with the poor and the people. He said that will not give you any chance. On the other hand he said there was some kind of an order. The founder of that order was a Saint Alphonsus. He was a famous lawyer in Italy. He lost a very famous case. So he said the court is not the place for justice. He quit the place. Then he served in a hospital of incurables to which the youth are attracted rather than to becoming a priest. So even he discouraged youth from becoming priests. Then he went for a picnic in a village and there all the goatherds were working — all poor people. Catholics but they never go to church. So he started to organize these people and created this order of Redemptorists. But when you create the original inspiration then (it is) something else; when you (get) institutionalized then (it's) something else. That's why, this priest I knew said — if you really want, take it as a challenge, to really work for the poor. That's why it became a challenge to join.
From 1971 onwards I stayed in a fishing village in Trivandrum. Seven years I was doing only fishing — nothing else.
Anannya: I have one last question. In the US, when I talk to people who are fighting globalization and biotechnology, many do not seem to know much about the struggles of fishworkers although they seem interested. So at least in the US there seems to be a gap. In India I do not see that as true. From having participated in the World Forum, do you know why that separation exists in the US?
Thomas: We are working with the small sectors of fishing communities. So people normally do not know these communities. These are small communities — in cities they have nothing to do with fishing. In India it has become a national issue. In Canada also it has become a national issue. Canada is very politicized. US is still not highly politicized. But slowly the fishing communities are getting politicized.