Online Interest Forum, Sri Lanka

An innovative way of bringing market stakeholders together to develop the lagoon fisheries


Dying fish, a shrinking lagoon were some of the tell tale signs of the Rekhawa lagoon more aptly named as the ‘wailing lagoon’ by the lagoon fishermen. Prawn fishing is the main source of income for about 200 families in the area but is a livelihood that is becoming increasingly unprofitable since the production of prawn has drastically reduced over the last decade. This reduction is mainly attributed to the construction of a causeway across the lagoon in 1984. Though the causeway made commuting possible for the previously secluded Kapuhenwala villagers, the way in which it was constructed hampered the movement of the prawns to and fro in the lagoon. The causeway restricts the mixing of sea water with river water, required for prawn breeding, which is further aggravated by river canals being diverted for agriculture. The dumping of garbage from hotels mushrooming in the vicinity is an added problem. The bio-diversity and lagoon environment was gradually being destroyed along with the livelihoods of those who depended on the lagoon.

Several attempts were made by the fishermen to bring this issue to the attention of the authorities but to no avail. Practical action got involved with the Rekhawa fishermen initially through boat building training following the tsunami and later was able get an in-depth understanding of the issues they were facing through the participatory market mapping process. The need for a proper bridge in place of the causeway was a need that came out as being top priority.

What was done?

Although the Rekhawa lagoon fishermen were organized into the Rekhawa Lagoon management Authority (through a government gazette notification in 1999) they lacked the confidence, and organizational ability to collectively voice their issues to the relevant authorities. Practical Action saw an opportunity to guide and strengthen these fishermen to get their problems resolved through participatory problem solving. We also saw that we could strengthen them by linking them up with experts to back their claims that the prawn production was in fact decreasing and that the lagoon was in danger of being destroyed forever.

Teaming up with the Practical Answers team internally, an e-discussion was initiated among experts in the fisheries sector and environmentalists. This created interest among scientists to share their knowledge and support the fishermen to argue their case based on scientific facts.

Roping in the media both print and electronic was a key strategy to open the eyes of government officials. With the support of the scientists and the media, Practical Action facilitated a discussion workshop on the 5th of June 2007.

Why was it done?

 The impact of the causeway on the Rekhawa lagoon, was an issue taken up by environmental activists for a long time but had failed to achieve any tangible result. Practical Action saw that changes could be achieved merely by strengthening and empowering the fishermen themselves.

 Rekhawa Lagoon Management Authority (RLMA) of which the lagoon fishermen are members , lacked the understanding of the power of group strength and the capacity to organize themselves to bring their problems to the attention of the relevant authorities. This was something Practical Action could help them with.

 The fishermen lacked the scientific facts to back their claims of reduced prawn production and shrinking water body due to silt accumulation. We at Practical Action had the capacity to link them up with the experts.

 Practical Action felt the experience to be gained from facilitating the Rekhawa fishermen’s collective would be a useful experience in working with other lagoon fishermen with similar issues.

 It was felt that the Rekhawa issues could become a catalyst in creating interest among experts in the fisheries sector and help create an interest group/ think tank for further studies on small scale fisheries related issues.

 To test out the Janathakshan web portal‘s usefulness and effectiveness in generating answers to issues of marginalized communities.

Relevance to our strategy:

 We were able to act as a knowledge broker – by linking the fishermen with scientists, they were able to gain the scientific knowledge required to argue their case more effectively.

 Pro poor approach to sustainable livelihood development- through empowering the lagoon fishermen and promoting holistic, multi-stakeholder, participatory approaches (participatory workshop) in resolving problems

 We were able to highlight the importance of natural resource management for the sustainability of livelihoods.

Knowledge products / outputs generated:

 Initiation of an e-forum through Practical Answers portal- first time it was tested on the portal
 Video clips, articles and podcasts featured on portal
 Workshop report
 Newspapers articles -
 Video clips featured on two TV programmes


The e-forum is now comprised of 10 people with expertise in fisheries, environmental issues, and legal aspects with regard to environmental protection. They have agreed on research priorities in the small scale fisheries sector in Sri Lanka and are working on papers to be presented at the National Fisheries Dialogue Workshop planned for next year. The interest group/think tank is to play a key role in the future in advocating issues faced by the fisheries sector to the Fisheries Ministry.

Video clips, articles and podcasts featured on portal provided useful information for the e-discussion. During it’s peak (two weeks) it registered about 5-10 hits and day. This was significant considering the portal was newly launched.

Newspaper articles- Eight articles in mainstream newspapers were generated (four in Sinhala newspapers, four in English language newspapers). The newspapers were selected based on their wide circulation and high reach. These were featured during the Environment Week for greater impact. One article also elicited a response from a government official.

Workshop report – The workshop report was circulated to internal staff as well as 45 persons listed in the fisheries database, which was also developed as a result of the workshop.

Video clips featured on TV programmes - Two TV slot were given, one in a Sinhalese programme the other in an English programme.

Overall Outcomes of the Programme:

 The Presidential Secretariat request for a report on the scientific basis of the issues faced by the Rekhawa lagoon fishermen. This was prepared jointly by The Ruhuna University professors (who played a key role at the workshop) and Practical Action. Based on the report the secretariat has sent orders to the Fisheries Ministry to release funds through the IFAD project to construct the proposed bridge. This is scheduled to start in December and Practical Action has been invited to give inputs on design.

 The Minister of environment declared Rekhawa as a ‘Special Sensitive Environment Area’. This provided the legal mandate for the RLMA to authorize any activity that takes place within a 2km radius of the lagoon.

 The construction of the bridge is to be monitored in a participatory manner (in collaboration with local government officials) and the fishermen and media will play a key role.

 The municipal council has taken measures to stop dumping of waste in the lagoon.

What was different about it?

Practical Action from the very start decided that we would give the lead role to the RLMA so that they would take ownership in resolving their problems. Practical Action’s role was that of a light-touch facilitator. This helped to empower the RLMA and build confidence in their own abilities.

The programme was conducted with very few resources. Five staff members contributed with their time. Only other expense was travel and accommodation on the day of the workshop.

The programme although simple, yet provided a practical means of resolving the issues at hand. At the end of the programme, tangible, wide reaching results could be reported. 

Written by Erwin Rathnaweera, 2008

no comments