Ushanthini Jesukumar stands ankle-deep in the muddy waters of the mangrove lagoon outside her house, face furrowed in concentration as her hands search in the murky depths. A brief second later, she grins triumphantly, wades back to shore, and unfurls a tightly clenched fist to reveal a tiny, transparent prawn, barely more than a centimeter long, wriggling on her palm.
Like many other women in her village of Anphoniyarpura, and across the district of Mannar in northern Sri Lanka, 35-year-old Ushanthini relies on prawns and fishing for her primary source of income.
A kilo of prawns will sell for about 350 Sri Lankan rupees — around $2, or €1.75 — in the local market. But the work involved in catching such a quantity means many fisherwomen struggle to make enough money to feed their families. Those suffering the most are often widows, who found themselves sole breadwinner after losing husbands in the 25-year-civil war that had devastated the north of the country by the time it ended in 2009.
Ushanthini lost both her husband and her brother when the village was repeatedly shelled between 2006 and 2007. With three sons under the age of five, she was forced to move back in with her parents and rely on their financial support to feed her family.
Finding work can be a struggle, says Ushanthini, as rigid ideas about gender typically confine women here to the domestic sphere. "As widows, we face a lot of opposition if we go out to work," Ushanthini told DW. "People will talk badly about us."
The women have not let themselves be deterred. Prawn catching is also more socially acceptable because it allows the women to find work in their village — not too far from home.
A precious resource under threat
Now, the mangrove lagoons that provide a breeding ground for the prawns and small fish they rely on are under threat. According to a joint global report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), "mangroves are being destroyed at rates three to five times greater than average rates of forest loss, and over a quarter of the original mangrove cover has already disappeared."
In Sri Lanka, intensive fishing, pollution and rapid coastal development, especially in tourist hotspots, have all contributed to loss of mangroves. This is proving disastrous for the ecosystems the mangrove lagoons support, and damages the livelihoods of local people who rely on them as a source of food and income.
Mangroves also sequester vast amounts of carbon — around 1,000 tons per hectare — which means their destruction poses a huge risk of the release of carbon into the atmosphere. A study by UNFCCC says the carbon stored in mangroves worldwide "is equivalent to roughly 2.5 times current annual global greenhouse gas emissions."
They also protect coastlines from soil erosion and natural disasters; according to a report by IUCN, when the 2004 tsunami struck the coast of Sri Lanka, areas with significant mangrove loss saw increased destruction and loss of life.
For all these reasons, in 2015 the US-based environmental NGO Seacology, backed by the Sri Lankan government and supported by local partner Sudeesa, launched a nationwide scheme to help Sri Lanka become the first country to protect all its mangroves.
Entrepreneurship and environmentalism
Fisherwomen are educated in the importance of the mangroves, before each is given a loan of around €75 to set up their own business and protect their local mangrove lagoons. Sudeesa currently provides training and microloans to 15,000 women across Sri Lanka, including 5,000 widows in the war-afflicted Northern Province.
"First we select a coastal village…after that we will discuss the scheme with the villagers and form a CBO [Community Based Organisation]," Dominic Thuram, regional manager for Sudeesa told DW.
Over a five-day course, the women are taught about "leadership, mangrove conservation and business development," Thuram says. "One target is mangrove protection and replanting, and the other is to increase the economic development of the women."
Jeyasothy Navanesveran, 55, lost her son when their home was shelled in 2008. Her husband succumbed to injuries sustained in the same attack in 2013. She joined the scheme last year, used her microloan to buy poultry and now sells their eggs.
Navanesveran had been forced to pawn her jewelry and rely on family members for financial support. Now, running her own enterprise, "gives me a huge energy and makes me feel powerful," she told DW.
Navanesveran is also committed to protecting the mangroves. "They protect the village," she says. "They prevent soil erosion. They help in the reproduction of fish. And we get fresh air. We get air to breathe from the mangroves."
Bringing life back to the lagoons
The women from each CBO get together once a month to discuss business plans, allocate money to those starting a new business, and discuss how best to protect their local mangroves.
Once the meeting is over, they spend the rest of the day clearing the lagoon of trash, which can disrupt the tidal flow of water and increase salinity levels, as well as killing marine life. They also help to replant areas where mangroves have already been lost.
At the Sudeesa Training Center in Mannar, a mangrove nursery has 17,000 saplings that will be planted by the women in strategic areas.
"One CBO will replant 2.5 hectares, and protect an additional 8.5 hectares," Thuram says. In the long run, Sudeesa aims to protect all 8,815 hectares of mangrove lagoons in Sri Lanka through CBO schemes.
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From small fry to school fees
For Ushanthini, being part of the scheme has allowed her to buy new fishing nets and basic diving equipment to increase her catch and boost her business.
No longer relying on prawns caught individually by hand, she has increased her monthly income from next to nothing to the equivalent of between €100 and €150 per month within three years — money that allows her to support her two sons and her sister's two daughters through school.
At the same time, she is teaching others in her village how to look after their local lagoon. "We didn't know much about the mangroves earlier. But now we know how important they are," she says.
Ankle-deep in water, hands covered in sediment from the riverbed, Ushanthini releases the prawn back into the water, hauls a bag of trash collected during the day's cleaning activities onto her back, and heads home.