Journey through landless people.... Let's voice out for voiceless people who displaced by war,Natural disaster , Mass development activities and Human & Elephant Co-Existence issue and Plantation workers of Sri Lanka


Written By Joining Hands Network on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 | 10:21 PM


Between the fence and the deep sea

In Mohothtuwarama village in the Kalpitiya division of Sri Lanka, more than a thousand people are trapped! The sea has washed their huts away. Living there for generations and familiar with the ocean and its ways, they would simply move further inland when this happens. This time, however, it was not possible. The land has been taken over for a government tourism project, fences erected and gates locked.

The Mohothtuwarama villagers are not alone in their distress. Nearby islands such as Illuppanthivu and Uchchamunai are also facing a similar predicament. More and more land is being sequestered and access denied, thereby putting villagers’ homes and livelihoods at risk, their rights under threat and their peace of mind in jeopardy. And yet, the people themselves appear to have little say in the matter and feel that they have no one to help them, nowhere to turn.

The Kalpitiya Islands and the Tourism Master Plan of the Sri Lankan Government

As part of a proposed countrywide tourism development plan with the aim of bringing 2.5 million tourists to Sri Lanka by 2016 against 0.6 million at the end of 2010, the Ceylon Tourist Board (CTB) has chosen 14 islands in Kalpitiya in the Puttalam district of the North Western province as the site for the Kalpitiya Dutch Bay Resort Development Project, launched in 2008. Kalpitiya is a peninsula that separates the Puttalam lagoon from the Indian Ocean and is a marine sanctuary with a diversity of habitats ranging from bar reefs, flat coastal plains, saltpans, mangroves swamps, salt marshes and vast sand dune beaches. Dolphins, sea turtles and coral reefs are plentiful in the zone. Nearby attractions include Wilpattu sanctuary, a historical Dutch fort and church, St. Anne’s church in Thalawila and the ancient historic city of Anuradhapura. The 14 islands have a total landmass of 1672.67 hectares (4133.19 acres). Nine islands totaling 268.94 hectares (664.28 acres) are entirely state land whereas the remaining ones have mixed ownership, public and private. The area is mostly inhabited by poor fisher families numbering 10000 or more. The majority are Sinhalese and Muslims with a sprinkling of Tamils and others. Roman Catholicism and Islam are the principal religions. Kalpitiya is a relatively underdeveloped region of the country. Education, healthcare, infrastructure and services are scarce and of low quality. For instance, the level of schooling in the fisher community is only up to the 4th/5th standard or less, despite the fact that Sri Lanka as a whole ranks fairly high among developing countries in terms of basic social indicators.

According to the tourism development plan, seventeen hotels with a total capacity of 5000 rooms and 10000 beds are to be built. Of these, 3 each are five and four-star hotels, 2 are three-star, 1 two-star and 1 one-star. The remaining 7 have not yet been classified. A wide variety of tourist activities are in the offing including fishing tourism, deep sea diving, nature-based tourism, beach, sport and adventure tourism, and agro tourism. In addition, culture, village and event tourism are also planned. Hotels, chalets, water bungalows, Ayurvedic hotels, beach cabanas, sun huts, outdoor barbeque pits, open air performance areas will be available. In order to attract all categories of tourists to the resort, a plethora of attractions and activities will be offered. Cable car tours, theme parks, underwater amusement parks, boat safaris, water sports, golf courses, observation towers, camping, race course, cricket grounds, farms and botanical gardens, shopping centers, museums, art and entertainment centers will cater to tourists - young or old, rich or budget, adventurous or sedate. To facilitate tourism, infrastructure development will be undertaken including helipads, sea flight ports, jetties, cycling routes, and foot pathways. A domestic airport will be built on Uchchamunai island. Furthermore, amenities such as electricity, water, drainage, telecommunications and solid and liquid disposal systems will all be put in place. According to government estimates, the project will generate a total of 37500 new jobs with 15000 being direct ones and 22500 indirect. The private sector is heavily involved in the project with local corporations as well as multinationals being major stakeholders.

Enter the IFFM

An international Fact-Finding Mission (IFFM), staffed by eminent civil society representatives from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, undertook a wide-ranging investigation at the grassroots level in order to determine the scope of the tourism project and its possible consequences. Over an extended period of five days - 23 to 27 February 2011 - the team visited Kalpitiya and the islands of Mohothtuwarama, Illuppanthivu and Uchchamunai and interacted with a large number of individuals, groups and organizations. In addition to villagers and their communities, the panel met with government officials, NGO activists, religious and community leaders, journalists, and representatives of cooperatives and trade unions. Carefully documenting their findings and subjecting those to an in-depth analysis, the IFFM members came up with a set of observations and recommendations that were reported in a press briefing held on the 27th. The main contact groups for the IFFM were the Food Sovereignty Network of South Asia (FSNSA), NAFSO (Sri Lanka), Praja Abhilasha Network (Sri Lanka) and IMSE (India).

As Government sees it

The IFFM met with several government officials in Puttalam and Kalpitiya including representatives from the Fisheries Board, Divisional Secretariat, Coast Conservation Department and Regional Council. For logistical reasons, officials from the Ceylon Tourism Board (CTB) could not be interviewed. According to the assistant director of the fisheries department in Puttalam, who is responsible for issuing permits to fishermen, illegal fishing is the main problem faced by fisher families at this time. Fishing remains small-scale and family-based and there is no corporate fishing. Fishermen’ cooperatives are coordinated by the Fisheries Department in conjunction with the Cooperatives Department. In Puttalam district, there are 15546 active fishermen and 12680 fishing families. A total of 44380 people are directly involved in fishing and related activities such as drying fish. Fishing is regulated by the Fisheries Management Act of 1996. Other than issuing permits, the fisheries department has taken up a number of welfare programs for fishermen such as training for safety at sea, instruction in techniques of preparing and selling dry fish, and provision of solar power panels since there is no electricity in the islands. In addition, a major initiative called the RELP (Regional Fisheries Livelihood Program) involving Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Timor and Vietnam has recently been mooted with five key areas of concern - core management, safety at sea, microfinance, post-harvesting and alternative livelihoods. In Puttalam itself, officials from different government departments meet once a month to discuss issues pertinent to fishing and fishermen. The district secretary coordinates the meeting. Additional meetings are also held on a regular basis.

Regarding tourism and the project, the assistant director started by making the general observation that Sri Lanka was a developing country with limited resources that needed to be used wisely and well. Kalpitiya was a good site for tourism, which ought to be developed further. On no account however, were fishermen to be hurt or their livelihoods compromised. In order to do this, more inter-agency coordination would be needed. Expansion of infrastructure such as landing sites and construction of community halls were some of his specific suggestions for improving the lives and overall condition of fishermen. The assistant director rued that not enough information on the tourism project was available to him and expressed his desire to know more, especially on the issues of direct concern to his department.

The same issue of inadequate information about the project, even on the part of government officials, also came up in the conversation that the IFFM held with the Divisional Secretary of Kalpitiya, whose office is responsible for handling all land-related matters. The lack of information has been partly engendered by the fact that all major decisions regarding this particular project, from conceptualization to elaboration of a master plan, were done in Colombo under a special procedure and with direct Cabinet approval. The divisional secretariat has been charged with the responsibility for identifying “state” and “private” land, acquiring land from private owners and giving it over to the Tourism Board. In his view, fishing communities ought to be a part and parcel of the process. At the same time, he felt that there was a consensus on the project at the governmental level and its overall impact would be positive. For instance, infrastructure development and employment generation were expected to benefit the local communities. Some negative fallout on the cultural side was a possibility, although minor in nature. The process of identification and buying of land was already under way with 5000 acres acquired so far. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been conducted and the report will be available in the public domain including the internet.

“Not every change is harmful”. That is how an official of the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) summed up his views on the tourism project in Kalpitiya. Should there be any negative effects - none apparent so far - these must be settled by negotiated conservation among stakeholders including fishing communities. A highlight of the tourism plan, according to this respondent, was its emphasis on eco-tourism. Fishermen too are being encouraged to engage in eco-friendly fishing. Moreover, they are expected to profit from the project in various way such as lending their extra boats to the tourism department to ferry tourists.

A somewhat less enthusiastic appraisal of the project was voiced by an outgoing member of the Kalpitiya Regional Council. In his opinion, there was no proper coordination among local people, local governmental bodies and the CTB even now, although preliminary surveys had been done by the government as early as 2005 and actual acquisition of land had started in 2007. However, land acquisition was already under way even before the EIA report was available for viewing and discussion. Not the usual procedure, this contributed further to the prevailing confusion since determining land ownership was an exceedingly complex issue. Citing the case of the Noraichchulai power plant project nearby where such information and communication gap led to major problems and a popular protest, he stressed the need for an informed and sustained dialog among all stakeholders. Himself a local, he felt strongly about the issue and although not completely averse to the idea of people being shifted for the project, he emphasized that it must be done properly with careful attention being paid to their physical and emotional well-being, down to the minutest details. For instance, while the CCD official expressed the view that fishermen would be able to augment their income by ferrying tourists in the spare boats, this interviewee was of the opinion that hotel owners were unlikely to allow this to happen. Not only will this deprive the locals, it could impact the security of tourists as outsiders would not know the waters as well. Dolphins and other aquatic flora and fauna could be harmed and their natural habitat damaged. As the council worked closely with the community and was responsible for taking care of the everyday needs of the people ranging from providing information to keeping the streets clean to ensuring proper running of community schools, the council member felt that he was in an unenviable position since promises made by government were sometimes not kept. A clear example would be the beach seines which were indeed affected despite assurances to the contrary. As a member of the ruling party, his desire was to get complete and timely information from higher-ups enabling him to pass it on to the local community. Promises must be kept and locals must benefit from the project. He would stand by his people.

Vox populi - Peoplespeak

Community, Religious and Civil Society organizations
As part of its exploration, the IFFM met with several individuals and organizations whose ideas and work had a direct bearing on the issue of tourism in Kalpitiya. These included the All Ceylon Fisher Folk Trade Union (Kalpitiya Branch), Organization for the Protection of People’s Rights, the assistant parish priest of Kalpitiya, the NGO Humanitarian Brotherhood Foundation (HBF), Traders Association of Kalpitiya, journalists, social workers and local businessmen.

A full 99% of the 750 or so families in 6 of the islands earmarked for the tourism project were fishing families, according to the representative of the All Ceylon Fisher Folk Trade Union, Kalpitiya. They had some knowledge about the project early on in the process. About five or six years ago, the Ceylon Tourism Board had organized a meeting with the village communities to inform them about the project and has since reiterated its commitment to helping them. However, villagers felt left out especially when an entire mangrove island - Illuppanthivu, measuring 140 acres or so - that they used as a base for fishing was taken over by the Board. The island was once actually inhabited by fishermen who had been moved and resettled elsewhere by the government during the LTTE period. An appeal to CEDEC (now called CARITAS) - a church body concerned with social issues - resulted in an offer of 10 acres on the island for the villagers to continue their fishing activities. Even this meager portion of land is yet to be handed over. Many other issues such as land for building a boatyard, banning of several kinds of fishing (mainly for environmental reasons), marketing of harvest and meddling by politicians in the local cooperatives have prevented the fisher folk from uniting in a common cause with acute poverty also being a significant factor in their feeling of loneliness and despair. The old fisher cooperative, set up by the Fisheries Department, has been all but supplanted by a new one, again set up by the same office. This has resulted in increased tension and confusion within the community. Lack of consultation has left the communities uninformed and uncertain about their future. However, this conversation with the IFFM has rekindled their hope for becoming meaningful participants in the process. Enthused and buoyed, they put forth the following demands.
• Sensitize political and religious leaders about the issues facing the villagers.
• Create a space for discussing their issues and problems.
• They have little information. More is needed.
• They are not opposed to tourism but want it on their own terms.

Lack of information and consultation came up again as central issues in the IFFM’s conversation with the Organization for Protection of People’s Rights on the current situation in Mohothtuwarama. Even construction has started without proper consultation. Letters to concerned authorities have fetched no reply except for a brief note that a letter has been shared with the GS (Grama Sevaka). As property prices have shot up and developers have acquired land, even the beach seines requiring 100 meters of room have become nearly inoperable. Some people, mostly non-resident landowners and a few locals as well, have willingly sold their land, thus making the situation even more complex. Traditional pathways have been put off limits, forcing the fishers to walk miles and miles to get to the beach only a few hundred meters away. When they cut the fences, the hoteliers retaliated by digging pits. The authorities refused to accede to the villagers’ demand for getting “patta” (land titles) or at least a written promise. This led to a great deal of friction between the two parties. In view of the skyrocketing price of land - reportedly selling for 40 lakh per acre on the beach side and 25 at the lagoon end - it was all the more important to accurately determine land ownership and give legal titles. Eviction is a constant fear that communities were plagued with and there are even some reports and rumors that displacement is actually taking place in some islands.

Viewing the land situation as a critical matter requiring immediate attention, the church organization CEDEC (CARITAS) has recently organized a meeting with significant participation by the islanders, as the IFFM was told by the newly appointed assistant parish priest of the Kalpitiya Church. The Catholic Church has a major presence in the region, counting 1300 families in Kalpitiya and another 1000 in the islands as its members. While skeptical that fisherfolk stood to gain much from the tourism project, the church was resolved to support their cause and try to limit the harm that might come their way.

The Humanitarian Brotherhood Foundation (HBF) is a registered NGO with a record of long and active service in Kalpitiya. In their view, lack of transparency was a major drawback of the way the project has been conceptualized and was currently being implemented. This was rendered all the more serious by the fact that the project was likely to have both positive and negative outcomes and people needed to be properly informed so they could make the best possible choices. A Land Acquisition Policy (1971) was in place, and while such acquisition was not necessarily illegal or in contradiction with stated government policy, still the entire process needed to be participatory and open. For example, government normally gives retractable permits for temporary use of state land and agriculturalists and fishers often use other people’s land with their permission. If permits were suddenly revoked or owners sold their land, these people would be summarily denied access and their livelihoods placed under severe threat. The HBF has been instrumental in motivating the Mohothtuwarama villagers to take up the relevant issues with the government and the NGO has also set up a women’s body - Integrated Development Program - to ensure that women would have their fair share in the decisionmaking process. Additionally, HBF is starting skill building programs, hotel management training institutes, capacity enhancement and alternative livelihood training such as handicrafts and cottage industries. A woman member of the NGO asserted that women were increasingly viewing the tourism project in terms of job creation and marketing opportunities for products such as dry fish, palmyra and seashell work.

Expanded employment and marketing opportunities emerged as the core issues in the meeting that the IFFM conducted with the Traders Association in Kalpitiya. About 65% of the population in Kalpitiya proper is Muslim and many are businessmen, dealing in goods such as textiles, jewelry and fancy products. Like many others interviewed before and after, the businessmen too had the feeling of being left in the dark about the project and stated that they had the first inkling about it only when people actually came to buy land. While they were hopeful that improvements in infrastructure would aid their business, they were wary of outside competition in both goods and investment and feared that the hotel industry would have a negative impact on culture. Some employment for locals may or may not be generated, but it would not be culturally appropriate for members of the Muslim community to have their children work in hotels and such. Asked about their view of development, they named education, infrastructure, water (provided by the state) and improved healthcare as their top priorities and wondered to what extent the tourism project would bring these amenities to the area. Fishermen, however, were likely to face the biggest challenge which in turn would also affect them as the two communities - fishing and business - were closely connected, buying and selling from each other and sharing the same home. As one businessman put it: “At the end of the day, we will support our city people.”

Possible impacts of the tourism project on business also featured in discussions with local hotel owners/managers in Kalpitiya who hope that they will still be able to keep budget tourists while the richer ones may flock to the luxury hotels and resorts. Small business could also get a boost. The general feeling, however, was that lack of education was a fundamental impediment to any real development of the area and this in itself would hinder people from taking full advantage of possible benefits of the tourism project and similar schemes. The need for people-centered development was also the focal point in conversations with journalists, community leaders and social activists from organizations such as NAFSO and Praja Abhilasha, closely familiar with the region and its people. In their view, education, along with a participatory model of development would foster awareness which in turn would lead to a concerted effort for a common cause and the belief in being able to make a difference.

Villagers - the view from below

The IFFM visited three island communities - Mohothtuwarama, Illuppanthivu and Uchchamunai and conducted meetings with individuals and communities.

The lives of Mohothtuwarana villagers are changing rapidly. Living there for generations, they would walk the short distance to the sea at their doorstep, work the beach seines and fish. Owing to a dearth of fresh water, they cannot farm and fishing is their primary occupation. Some collect crabs and seashells and a few run small businesses. Some land distribution was undertaken by government after the 1971 Land Ceiling Act. However, many lack land titles and determining land ownership is a vexatious and thorny issue with claims and counterclaims, multiple ownership, encroachment, corruption and title suits going on for generations. At 715.14 hectares (1766.39 acres), it is the largest of the fourteen islands and will bear the brunt of the tourism project with the largest number of hotels - 10 out of a total of 17 with 2300 out of 5000 rooms - to be built here. Tourists have always come to Mohothtuwarana, but they were few in number and did not upset the rhythm of the villagers’ daily lives. From around 2004 however, ideas of developing tourism in a big way slowly took root and the influx of visitors rose sharply. Rich people started acquiring land that was still cheap. The land was later sold to developers who fenced it off. Although a gazette notification of 1985 provided for only 20 meters of beach land for operating the seines, necessity and custom demanded that 100 meters be set aside for the purpose. All of a sudden, however, there was no room to haul in the nets as beach strips as long as hundreds of meters were cordoned off. The fence has recently been extended. Companies such as Hassan Gate and De Silva have put up notice boards denying access and so has the Tourism Board, thus literally leaving the villagers high and dry. In addition to losing easy access to the sea and the beach, villagers must now walk long distances on circuitous routes to reach the church, cemetery and other places they would visit as a matter of course. When the sea comes in, they cannot move their dwellings further inland, as they always have. Some of the fences also seem to fall within the 300 meters mark from the high tide point inside which it is illegal to put up structures. All of this has been done with little consultation with villagers that has made them confused and resentful. Anxious and fearful about what the future holds for them and their home, they are slowly beginning to put their differences away and come together to speak as one.

The Mohothtuwarana villagers demand that:
• Land titles must be given to them without delay.
• Tourism should not disturb their lives and livelihoods.
• They should have free and easy access to the sea and the tourist islands for
fishing, as before.
• They should not be coaxed or coerced by government or developers into parting
with their lands.
• Identification cards must be provided for fishermen, especially when fishing in
the islands, to avoid problems and misunderstandings with the navy and others.
• Villagers must be consulted and full disclosure of all plans and proposals must
be made to them. They should be an integral part of the entire process.

More than one hundred fishermen live and fish on Illuppanthivu island during the week and go home elsewhere in the weekend. Sometimes their families visit and stay with them on the island. The island has been taken over by a hotelier who has so far allowed them to remain there and fish but what the future will bring, no one can say. The catch is uneven and slowly declining. Sometimes it brings in fish worth 2000 rupees a day for a fisherman, at other times he might earn little or nothing. Practically all are in debt for buying the boats which they themselves own, repairing engines and purchasing fishing nets. At 10 to 12 per cent, the interest rate is high. The navy is cooperative to the limited extent of giving them permits to fish and issuing identification cards. Out of the approximately 190 acres of the entire island, fishermen are asking for a small piece of land to use as a base to continue fishing. Five acres were made available to them by the hotelier, but the place was unsuitable with a profusion of seaweed that damaged the boat engines. At the moment, getting an appropriate plot is their main concern. But with hotels and tourism overtaking the place, they are worried that their serene and contented lifestyle is about to change drastically. Will they still be able to bring their wives and children on to the island? Only the future will tell.

Uchchamunai was once home to more that 600 families. Many moved away to Kalpitiya during the years of civil conflict and also because the island has no schools above the primary level. Approximately 270 or so families still live here but have no land titles. Small parcels of land have supposedly been reserved by the government for locals, but actual distribution is yet to take place. Large tracts of state land close to the sea have been set aside for the tourism project. Signboards, some put up by the navy, restricting entry are prominently displayed, high barbed-wire fences are in place and gates are securely locked. There are also plans to build a landing site for tourist seaplanes on the island. All of this have left the people alarmed, perplexed, and increasingly, angry. Realizing that they needed to discuss the issues in private as well as in public in order to come up with a consensus and a clear set of goals to build up a movement and garner outside support for their cause, they summarized their feelings in the following statements.
• They are afraid of being displaced and evicted from their homes.
• They want more information on the project. A senior official such as the
Divisional Secretary should come and give them details.
• They want education, healthcare, and infrastructure. These are their priorities.
• They are fearful that tourism will gravely damage their traditional lifestyle and
threaten their culture. Everything from choice of food to social relations will be
forced to change.
• They seriously doubt that tourism will create job opportunities for them.
• Although they are relatively powerless, they are willing to put up a resistance.
They intend to start intensive consultations with the people of other islands
under threat.

The IFFM observes and recommends

On the basis of its extensive interactions with a wide spectrum of stakeholders as delineated above, the IFFM has made the following observations.
• The project today is adversely affecting the livelihoods of the people and will
surely have a negative impact on their social and cultural realities as well.
• Already, the project has caused some land alienation resulting in considerable
restrictions on people’s access to sea, fishing and other activities.
• Entire communities face an imminent threat of displacement which appears to
be already under way.
• The process is suffering from a comprehensive absence of precise and timely
information for communities. Non-transparency, non-accountability and non-
responsiveness on the part of government and the consequent lack of people’s
participation is a matter of grave concern.
• While a study of the environmental impact of the project has been (EIA) has
been done, no such study on its socio-cultural and economic impact has been
conducted. Even the EIA report was not available in the public domain in a
timely fashion.
• In anticipation of large-scale private sector investment, a detailed Investors
Guideline has been prepared. However, corresponding regulatory mechanisms
are yet to be properly put in place.
• There is a groundswell of resentment and resistance against the project.
However, resistance has been weak so far due to lack of information,
coordination and apprehensions of reprisal by the state.

In light of the above observations, the IFFM recommends the following:
• The project must be stopped with immediate effect and a review carried out.
• A National Commission must be set up to conduct the said review.
• The review must take into account people’s aspirations and their notions of
• The review should respect the social, economic, cultural and political rights of
the people and emphasize information flow, transparency and participation
thereby ensuring accountability on the state’s part.
• To address the issue of land alienation, legal land titles should be given.
• People’s livelihoods must not be disturbed on any account. Necessary measures
to ensure this, such as unimpeded access to the coast and sea, must be taken.
• Food sovereignty must be recognized as a fundamental right not to be
compromised in the name of development.

Development - one goal, two paths?

What model of development should an up and coming country like Sri Lanka pursue in order to move forward on the path of progress? What are the goals, rewards and pitfalls? In the case of the mammoth tourism project in Kalpitiya, the first in a series of such ventures across the nation, the government appears to have focused more on the rapid creation of wealth and somewhat less on the project’s differential impacts on the multifarious socio-economic groups and communities involved, especially the most vulnerable and marginal ones. The largest beneficiaries will be investors, developers, and the owners of resorts and hotels. Business might benefit as well. Taxes will flow into government coffers. Improvements in infrastructure will be a boon for the entire region. But for the unfortunate fishermen of Kalpitiya and the islands, eking out a meager living on their humble catamarans, the project is only the harbinger of the loss of home and livelihood. Uninformed, fearful and poor, they want and need direct and targeted programs in areas such as education, healthcare, clean drinking water, roads, job opportunities and capacity enhancement to improve their lives. They wish to preserve and enjoy their culture. Is it just and right that while others reap a windfall in profits and make merry, the sons of the soil are forced to content themselves merely by being chance beneficiaries of the project’s incidental fallout? Will the government, their very own, pay heed or will it just rush ahead with the project as planned, dazzled by the prospect of lucre and the chance to exhibit Sri Lanka and the Kalpitiya tourist zone as a “wonder of Asia”?
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