Coconut handicrafts and dressmaking: Sri Lankan fisherfolk earn more money while protecting mangroves

In Iranawila village in Puttalam, a district situated on the west coast of Sri Lanka, 90% of the population relies on fishing for their livelihoods. In the past decade, villagers have been cutting and selling mangroves trees for the construction of dwellings, for firewood and for making broomsticks, to earn additional income for their families.

A young woman holds up a denim dress that she made

The destruction of the mangrove forests - which play a vital role in protecting nursery habitats for fish - threatens the livelihoods of the local communities. And although cutting mangroves in that area is illegal, the law is not regularly enforced.

Realising a need to provide more livelihood options to protect the mangroves, Jayaseeli Gallage, Chairperson of Mihikatha Environmental Organization, took action.

After seeing a call for proposals from Mangroves for the Future (MFF) in the newspaper, Jayaseeli worked relentlessly to submit a concept note for an alternative livelihoods project. Her concept note was shortlisted and she was subsequently invited to attend a training programme on how to develop a full proposal.

A woman in a striped t-shirt stands among hand-woven baskets

Before attending the training, Jayaseeli spoke to several fisherwomen to find out which income generating activities they were interested in. With this new knowledge, Jayaseeli attended the training programme, developed the proposal and successfully secured funding for an alternative livelihood project.

The project, which was implemented from July 2011 to April 2012, trained 20 women in making handicrafts using the stiff mid-ribs of coconut leaves called coconut ekels. They attended a total of four training programmes on making waste paper baskets, shopping bags, office bags and flower vases. Nearby coconut estates provided the coconut ekels for free while the project gave trainees the tools required to make the items.

“The average additional income I make per month from selling ekel products is between LKR 2,500 and 4,000 (US $16-26). My family income has increased by 30 to 50%,” said Priyadarshini Costa, a coconut ekel handicraft producer, during a project evaluation trip conducted by Jayaseeli and MFF Sri Lanka in 2014.

A woman in a striped t-shirt shows two women and a man a handcrafted basket, while a fourth woman in a red sari looks on

Another 20 women were trained in dressmaking, where they learned how to sew baby shirts, blouses and A-line dresses. They were provided with basic equipment such as measuring tapes, tracing wheels, scissors and tracing paper.

The additional income generated from made-to-order dresses ranged from Rs 10,000 (US  $65) to Rs 20,000 (US $130) per month.

Four of the women were even taking large orders of school uniforms and dresses for the festive season. They also received regular orders from a nearby children’s orphanage. 

“Nearly 80% of the project’s trainees were self-employed. They were selling their coconut ekel handicrafts at church festivals and provincial fairs. Established dressmakers were taking orders to make wedding dresses and sarees,” said Jayaseeli proudly, reflecting on the 2014 evaluation of the project.

“When I visited the women recently, I found that many of their businesses had expanded. Many of them have now set up a home work space and office, which works perfectly as they did not want to be away from their families and neglect household chores,” said Jayaseeli in a recent interview with IUCN Sri Lanka.  

“These income-generating skills, the extra income, and the awareness programmes on the importance of mangroves motivated many people to stop cutting down mangrove trees,” added Jayaseeli.

This story was contributed by Kumudini Ekaratne, Communications focal point for IUCN Sri Lanka. Kumudini drafted the piece following the IUCN Asia Strategic Communications for Conservation Workshop in Bangkok, Thailand, which took place in July.

Mangroves for the Future (MFF) is a partnership-based regional initiative which promotes investment in coastal ecosystem conservation for sustainable development. MFF focuses on the role that healthy, well-managed coastal ecosystems play in building the resilience of ecosystem-dependent coastal communities in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam. The initiative uses mangroves as a flagship ecosystem, but MFF is inclusive of all types of coastal ecosystem, such as coral reefs, estuaries, lagoons, sandy beaches, sea grasses and wetlands. MFF is co-chaired by IUCN and UNDP, and is funded by Danida, Norad, and Sida and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Thailand.

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