At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Spirit of Fisheries Advocate Thomas Kocherry Will Power the Movement

This post comes to us from Niaz Dorry, NAMA's Coordinating Director

I’ve had many teachers along the way, and I just learned that one of those teachers died on May 3, 2014. 

I was introduced to Father Thomas Kocherry by Greenpeace colleagues Matthew Gianni and Michael Hagler. They were veteran fisheries activists already and part of the Greenpeace International fisheries campaign team when I was asked to change campaigns and work on fisheries issues back in 1994. At the time, I was working with communities fighting incinerators, chlorine manufacturing and other environmental injustices. 

Father Kocherry in DC speaking truth to power at the Press Club.

I’ve often confessed that when I was first approached by Paul Bogart, the campaigns director at the time, about working on ocean issues I wasn’t up for it. All I knew about the work was the mantra “save the whales.” Not that I’m opposed to saving the whales but I’d spent most of my adult life working on social, economic and environmental justice issues and couldn’t see saving whales through that lens. 

As I dove into the issue more, I quickly realized how wrong I was. It became rapidly clear that there wasn’t much difference between fighting an incinerator or whaling. Both fights are about global movement of capital, and the whales, air, water, our health, the ocean, all of it are in the way. I realized the work was beyond the whale, and it was about social, economic and environmental justice on and in the water.

Matthew and Mike had already reached that conclusion. From them I learned about International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, and later National Fisheries Federation of India where Father Kocherry and Harekrishna Debnath were organizing fishing communities against industrialization and corporate takeover of their fishing grounds and ocean life.

In Gloucester accepting the quilt from Lena Novello of GFWA.

My work with Kocherry and his colleagues 
taught me some of the most important lessons an activist and organizer needs to learn: to be true to your values despite those who work to dismiss, undermine and ridicule; to speak truth to power regardless of what’s at stake personally; and, most importantly to be brave.

In Maine from R to L: Father Kocherry, Harekrishna Debnath, Niaz Dorry, and guest.

Why be brave? Fisheries activists in many parts of the world are facing serious threats. Kidnappings, intimidations, and even killings have happened to silence them in fights against shrimp aquaculture, industrial fisheries, privatization and other issues. Battles have been so bloody at times, especially around shrimp aquaculture, that when I spoke to Vandana Shiva for a story I wrote for the Fisherman's Voice in 2001 she quoted an elder who said "I want everyone that is eating aquaculture shrimp to know they are eating blood."

In 1999, I had the distinct honor of hosting Father Kocherry and Harekrishna Debnath on a US speaking tour that had us traveling together for a few weeks. We started with a memorable teach-in prior to the WTO meetings in Seattle. At the time, we didn’t know what we know now about the Seattle happenings, but we could feel the excitement of that moment in history. We went on to Washington, DC for a Press Club briefing and other media events, then Gloucester where he was given a framed replica of the famous Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association’s quilt, and then ending at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

In 2004, we hit the road again. This time Herman Kumara of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement of Sri Lanka and Jackie Sunde of Masifundise Trust of South Africa joined us. This time it was a combination of work at the United Nation and a tour marking the anniversary of the Bhopal disaster that brought us together. It was another learning experience for me, and I was honored to be with a group of people that were working to move mountains. Truly Davids facing Goliaths.

In Seattle with Greenpeace fisheries campaigner Paul Clarke and commercial fisherman Pete Knutson 

Father Kocherry’s legacy is a lengthy one, the least of which are the World Forum of Fisher People, National Fisheries Federation and World Forum of Fish Harvesters & Fish Workers, and those are just the movements that I know about. His reach was wide, and his voice powerful.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing with us. We hit our rough patches, and I’m sorry to say we never got a chance to really clear the air.

But an odd thing happened when I found out he had died. Feelings of regrets were replaced by comfort. It was as if he was letting me know it’s okay, there is much to be done, so I should let it go and focus on what’s ahead. To focus on values, speak truth to power, and be brave.