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Boat Project Gets Senators’ Aid

A bipartisan group of Senators is giving new meaning to the old saying: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

Although humanitarian groups rushed aid to tsunami-stricken southern Asia in the immediate aftermath of the late-December disaster, four Senators are now encouraging their colleagues to support The American Refugee Committee’s “Fishing Boat Project,” which aims to raise money to replace fishing boats destroyed in the disaster.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minnesota Sens. Norm Coleman (R) and Mark Dayton (D) are urging colleagues to get involved with a charity that provides fishing boats to Thailand in order to revitalize one of the country’s most important industries.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter sent out Feb. 10, the Senators wrote of the need to continue supporting tsunami relief efforts.

“Long after immediate needs are met, these communities will remain impoverished unless people can earn a living and regain a sustainable food supply from the ocean,” the letter said.

“The tsunami shattered the lives of thousands of people, leaving behind broken communities whose economic infrastructure was literally washed into the sea,” Frist said in a Feb. 18 press release.

Reid added that the tsunami affected the United States as well because “there is no such thing as an isolated event.”

“Through our response to this tragedy, we have an opportunity and an obligation to show the people in the affected region and the world that the United States cares; that our great military strength is matched by our compassion; and that our penchant to help those in need knows no color, no race, no religion or creed,” Reid said. “Americans have shown overwhelming generosity and this Fishing Boat Project is one way we can help.”

Minnesota’s Senators advocated supporting the tsunami relief and the Minneapolis-based group.

“There are many worthy ways America can come to the aid of those still suffering from the tsunamis, but I think one especially direct way we can help is to assist in restoring the Thai fishing industry, a major component of that nation’s economy and the source of livelihood for thousands of families there,” Coleman said in the release.

Dayton added that ARC is “one of the world’s best disaster relief organizations” and that he is “very pleased to work with the Senate leadership and with Sen. Coleman to help ARC replace fishing boats in Thailand which were destroyed by the recent tsunami.”

Erin Utzinger, a spokeswoman for Dayton, added that he has contributed to the project, and he hopes others do as well.

“For Sen. Dayton it’s a personal way to reach out by letting Congressional Members and staff know of this opportunity to give,” Utzinger said.

“Sen. Dayton is committed to helping the locals get back on their feet. These boats give them a way to earn a living. These communities need to get their lives back in order, and this is the first step,” Utzinger said.

Coleman spokesman Andy Brehm said the group will offer sustained aid to tsunami victims.

“The fishing boat project is one way to specifically and directly help the region’s recovery both in the short and long term,” Brehm said.

Brehm said Coleman “understands that [the ARC] are servants of the world’s poor.”

ARC Vice President Karen Frederickson said after the organization briefed Coleman on its activities in Thailand, his office contacted the group and asked how to help. Coleman’s chief of staff huddled with a group of colleagues and decided to pen the letter.

Founded in 1978, ARC is an international nonprofit that operates in 12 countries assisting refugees in war-torn areas. ARC’s other tsunami relief efforts include providing medical supplies, counseling and clean water, according to the group’s Web site.

Frederickson said The Fishing Boat Project came about after ARC’s relief team leader, Gary Dahl, noticed the shortage of fishing boats on the Thai coast after visiting a tsunami survivor.

“When visiting the survivor, who’d been badly injured, his daughter had been badly injured, and had lost his wife, he asked, ‘How can we help?’ And the man said, ‘I want to fish again.’”

He estimated that each boat would cost $500, and the organization is purchasing the boats locally to employ local builders. Including nets and other fishing supplies, the total cost is around $1,000, according to the release.

The group’s goal is to raise enough money to replace 850 fishing boats in about 13 Thai coastal villages, north of the resort island of Phuket.

Unfortunately for relief workers, the process is not as simple as bringing in new boats. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned on Feb. 21 that bringing outside boats into the area could harm the environment and not fit the local conditions.

The ARC is avoiding this by hiring local workers to build the boats.

“Our first instinct is to send stuff. Americans are so generous; they want to send tangible things or go there and help. Quite frankly, the most important thing they could do is help raise money,” Frederickson said.

She added that to truly benefit the local economy, the group wanted the money to “hire people on the ground.”

Frederickson estimated that the entire project will cost about $3 million. ARC has raised about $450,000 thus far and has another $50,000 in outstanding pledges. She emphasized that ARC will seek help from other NGOs and the U.S. government, in addition to the private funds.

Frederickson called the project “collaborative” and added that Dahl meets frequently with village leaders in the area. After much discussion, three of the villages have opted to switch to fiber boats, which are said to last longer than wooden ones.

ARC will pair a fisherman with a master boat craftsman to allow each villager to assist with construction of his own boat, paying them daily wages. ARC will also employ widows and homeless families to make nets and trap sets for the new boats.

“It’s not just their job, it’s their livelihood. It’s how they feed themselves. It’s like subsistence farming, only with fishing,” Frederickson said.

ARC expects 470 boats to be constructed by the end of May. Construction of the wooden boats began Feb. 26, and the local craftsmen will begin constructing the fiber boats in mid-March, according to Frederickson.

Frederickson said she expects the work will make a large impact on the local economy in the villages. “It will restore the livelihood of the entire coast,” she said.

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