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LAND GRABBING THROUGH TOURISM: BOOM OR BANE IN KALPITIYA?

Written By NAFSO on Tuesday, May 28, 2013 | 12:24:00 PM


-          A CASE STORY OF AN EMERGING CITIZENSHIP BUILDINGFOR CLAIMING FISHERY RIGHTS AND SUSTENANCE

The Struggle
SampathPushpakumara, Mutwal isle
“We have been living in this isle for generations and we are not prepared to give up our rights even if we were given money in exchange of lands.”
Asanka Cruz –Fisherman, Sinnamunnakkarei isle
“We have been living in our lands for the last 70- 80 years. Now our people are frightened for the news that our lands are being acquired for tourism industry. If our lands are acquired we will be deprived of everything including our livelihood. We are frightened of that. The government might not help us. The officials want us to produce ‘deeds’ for lands if we need any assistance from them. But so far no one has come to pressure us.”
Anton Suresh, Anthony Shelton, Madhurani Almeida, EviginThuram, Uchchimune isle
“Our people have been living in this isle from the time of our great grandfathers. We also have born and bred in Uchchimune isle and our livelihood is based here. Everybody in our village belong to one religion. We have no social disputes. We have been living free in this fishery life. The lagoon and sea are our resources our cottages by the lagoon and ocean have made it easier for us to carry out fishing. Although we don’t have much comfort here we are living free.”
These are just a few of the many passionate individuals from the Kalpitiya peninsula, who speak only of one intention and one aspiration. That of to be respected and granted/recovery of their ancestral and human rights by giving back to them their land and water resources. This is their heritage and lifeline. Cut off from these would surely lead to slow desperation and painful, acidic stomachs for them and their families. It is not surprising why the Kalpitiya people would fight to the death for the lands.
The Kalpitiya peninsula, located in the Puttlam district, is comprised of 14 main islands. It separates the Puttlam 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. The 14 islands have a total landmass of 1672.67 hectares (4133.19 acres).
                Kalpitiya is home to 64,908 people (2009 Census) of which 12,967 are small-scale fishers, and with 25% of women engaged in fishing-related activities, according to one FAO research.[1]Kalpitiya is also one of the 15 sites for SL’s Tourism Development Strategy which was formulated as early as 2003.  The acquisition of some 4000 acres of land for the project has actually begun in 2004 pursuant to a Cabinet decision.[2]
Since 2003 hence, around 1000 acres of lands from at least 2,500 families have been “grabbed” in various ways and means, which is 25% of the Kalpitiya island’s total land size. Structures and physical alterations have been placed and done such as 16 resorts/hotels and built-up and access roads. After the tsunami in December 2004, those in the hotel and resort business wanted to acquire the coastal lands while these have become wasted (and therefore cheaply priced) from the tsunami devastation. In 2009, after the war, the investors in the tourism industry scrambled to search for their possible business sites to capitalize on the reconstruction phase at that time.
Land grabbing took the following forms:
1.       Grabbing from seizing opportunities such as the war
2.       Grabbing by removal from the government registries such as Voters’ registry
3.       Grabbing of Beach Seine points, anchorage points etc.
4.       Grabbing by abuse of legal ownership “rules” orinability of residents to produce land titles
5.       Grabbing by disrespect of customary law
Mr. A.M.A. Azeez of Mutwal isle rightly observed: “Here nothing is done in a civilized manner. Every action is a grabbing.”What is saddening is that the fishers could even be charged with illegal trespassing. For instance, the barbed wire fences erected along the coastal line by Bay Watch Eco Hotel by Hasan Gaate company have prevented them from entering the coastal belt for fishing. Food sovereignty is challenged.
Not surprisingly, the beneficiaries of the land grabs were no other than the military, the private investors from the tourism industry, and the government institutions themselves such as the Board of Investment, Sri Lanka Tourist Board, and the Urban Development Authority. How the investors were able to obtain land title is even questionable. 
There were other drivers that moved the Kalpitiya people to action.
Apparently there has been a lack of transparency regarding project evaluations as well as limited community involvement in decision-making. They were not actually informed, in the first place, that Kalpitiya was a prime target for a gigantic tourism development plan.
Mary Fernando, Sinnamunnakkarei isle
“Don’t give our lands to tourism projects. We are not aware of this vesting of our lands. Nobody informed us on this matter.”
It is a fact that Kalpitiya peninsula is located in one of the richest fishing grounds of the country. It can be said that should the fishers be displaced and/or the fishing waters of Kalpitiya be made less productive from the environmental effects of the infrastructure activities alone, a higher level of negative result is a decrease in the country’s income at all levels from the local to the national. A decrease in the country’s income could lead to a long line of more negative impacts such as reduced budgets and poor delivery of services, to name a few. The opposite of the intended results of high-end tourism, hence, happens instead.
Kalpitiya dry fish is well known sea food in the country. The total dry fish production in islets per year is around 250-400 Metric tons. This is not only an income for the island communities but also strength to the national economy. The dry fish production in the islands helps reduce the millions of annual foreign exchange which are needed just to import fish products from foreign countries.
To add injury to the wound, environmental destruction is already taking place from the initially pushed construction and physical alteration activities, to wit:
1.       Boulder laying along the sea beach by hotel buildersblocked existing anchoring point.
2.       The fresh water resource in the isles, the sea water and the lagoon water by now are highly polluted by the hotel builders.
3.       Certain construction work taking place along the coastal belt is also harmful to the beauty in the sea beach and visibility is obscured.
4.       The dangers of global warming continue to increase and the Kalpitiya isles are also subject to this global problem. Sea erosion is heavy in Keerimundal isle already. The Karativu isle which is beyond the Battalamgunduwa isle is now totally submerged under the sea. Due to the climate changes the unexpectedly high volume of rain being experienced in Sri Lanka has increased the water level in lagoon causing part of the isles to be submerged and soil erosion. The region is also experiencing gale storms from time to time as a result of global climate changes.
5.       Thoradiya – Mutwal road, which was constructed to make access to tourism project area, has generated flood problems in Thilladiya, Setawadiya, Mosalwatta and Thoradiya villages.
6.       Mangroves are being cleared in large scale. The negative impact will be felt by fishermen very soon, because without mangroves, the breeding of crustaceans such as prawns and crabs will be largely reduced
In effect, the list of negative implications could go on and on. Big investments have much bigger trade-offs.
The loss of control by the Kalpitiya people – over the resources and use of them – is evident in this situation. The loss of control implied two things - the loss of livelihood security and food sovereignty, and, the consequent threat of impoverishment and food and nutrition insecurity. A parallel implication was that the institution that was supposed to protect the Kalpitiya people – the government – was indifferent and ineffective in upholding the people’s rights. It has become the leading force itself behind the land grabbing.
All is not lost, however. The people still had their voice.

The Strategy
A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.-- Lao Tzu
Psychological ownership was very intense among the Kalpitiya people. This sense of ownership is “recognized foremost by the individual who holds this feeling and manifests the felt rights associated with [it]. Feelings of (psychological) ownership lead the individual to make personal sacrifices, which, in turn, generates even stronger feelings of ownership”. 
Mr. Human Fernando
“The Illuppanthive island has been leased out already. Immediately after we learned that the land is being leased, we organized a meeting with the owners of the island. At the same meeting, the island owners revealed their willingness to allow fishermen to continue fishing in the islands though they own the land. There is an ongoing court case now, however. Their promises are of no importance now as they have broken them already. There were 125 fishermen who operated in the island of Illuppanthive but at present it has been reduced to only 40.”
Mrs. Evegin Fernando - Uchchimune
“We are not prepared to leave our village for any reason. Where can we go? Fishing cannot be done being settled in interior lands. We are not prepared to accept their so called offer.
The only trade we know is fishing and we need our settlements to continue with our livelihood. Some people might be influenced for money or materials offered by them. But we are not prepared to accept alternative places. If authorities try to remove us by force from Uchchimune we will take action to stop them at Keerimundal, long before they come to Uchchimune. We cannot forgo our future and the future of our children by being tempted for their offers.”
Mr. A.M.M. Rafeeque, Rakuman Arab School, Kalpitiya
“Island People will lose their settlements and their livelihoods due to tourism project. Poor people become poorer and more vulnerable. Youth will lose their job opportunities available today. People will have to abandon their land as they lose their livelihoods. There is no hope of development as they lose their lands.  At present people are facing economic difficulties and in the future, it will be an added burden as social and cultural effects will also affect them.  There should be a dialogue and deep analysis on land among the people. People should have identified the dangers to come and they should get organized for collective actions and to find solution through dialogue.”
Mrs. Deepika Fernando- Sinnamunnakkarei
“We don’t have documents to prove our land ownership. Yet, we live here, we work here, we sell our catchment to ice boat or we take it to Kalpitiya main land and sell it there. When we have ample catchment, part of it is dried. What are we going to do if we are dislodged from here? This is the work only we know. Our people are disorganized. SEDEC and Kalpitiya parish priest visit us and advice us to defend ourselves.”
Niroshan Kurera, ManjulaCroos - Uchchimune
“We have no other alternative life. We cannot give up our livelihood. We are attached to our fishery and fishing needs this isle. Therefore we have bonded our lives with the isle.”
These expressions betray psychological ownership. It comes from the core of their persons, serving to push them into taking action for the loss of their lands and reclaim their rights and dignity. The individual cannot let go of one’s heritage. But reaching out is implied, too, in these messages. If the government “traded off” them off, the Kalpitiya people could “trade off” their own comforts also to extend their individual voices.
Soosai Dias, Franklin Tavarera, Selvaraj Dias, Madona Dias, Anthonyamma Fernando – Uchchimune isle
“We have been living in this village for many years. We are not prepared to give up fishing as it is our only sustenance. If anyone tries to remove us forcefully we will come forward to take action on behalf of our people.
 We are aware of what goes on in other isles around here. Therefore we stay alert about our isle. If there is going to be injustice on us we are ready to take action. We will seek assistance from those who are capable to give us support in such situations.”
The people's readiness is being proved in their united participation in NAFSO-conducted activities:
  • Demonstration in 6 September 2011 in Colombo, supported by "Peoples Aspiration" and "Peoples’ Alliance for Right to Lands"
  • "Peoples Tribunal" in 30 January 2012, organized by the "PrajaAbhilashi  network"
  • People’s demonstrations in 15 October 2012 held on Colombo demanding to protect their rights for lands
  • Public demonstration at Kalpitiya in 21 November 2012 and meeting held in Kandakuliya where seriousness of peoples' intentions were observed. In the demonstration, island communities were engaged to sign post cards and to post them to President demanding to reconsider the decision to lease out Kalpitiya islands for tourism projects.




Fig. 1: The Post Card signed at the World Fisheries Day, 21 November 2012 demanding to reconsider the decisions to lease out the 460 acres land of Uchchimunei island and other islands for tourism development
Earlier, in 2008 peoples' organizations also prevented a vesting attempt in Mutwal - Penapitugama. The authorities had to abandon the lands survey project there. Under the present situation people have to be better organized to take decisions on the matters. On the other hand, in the 2007, the Holy Cross Fisheries Society at Uchchimunei had taken some steps to get the land deeds for the island communities. They have submitted a petition with the signatures of islanders demanding to get the legal land rights for the island dwellers
In August 2012 the Uchchimunei island community discussed with the DS, Kalpitiya for the latter to take necessary steps to register and settle them in the same island. On 16th March 2013, Mr. SusanthaPunchinilame, the deputy economic development minister, had met the fisher representatives of island communities. The aim of the meeting was to identify the issues faced by the communities due to the Kalpitiya tourism project and to introduce the development program.
The same deputy minister had sought assistance from the Kalpitiya parish priest Rev. Fr. Michael Canecious Fernando to educate people and gather alternative proposals to remedy the issues faced by the fisher communities. At present, the Kalpitiya parish priest is taking some steps to educate island communities on the Kalpitiya tourism promotion zone. However, the peoples' organizations attempted to launch a protest move in 28 November 2012 against the grabbing of their lands but were prevented on the request of the same parish priest.
The Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) had organized a legal clinic to assist Puttlam district people to take legal action against land grabbing. This was held on March 2013 which was attended by 2 island community members. As a follow up action, the TISL had organized a field work at Uchchimuneiisland which was disturbed by some groups at the point.
They believe that they have taken steps in their capacity to stop suppression even at a risk for their lives. They have taken joint action with Kalpitiya Parish priest. They have had many rounds of discussions with Kalpitiya DS, Kalpitiya and Puttlam GA. They have submitted a petition to GA signed by 300 inhabitants of Islands requesting legal rights for their lands.
Some of the people are hopeful about the tourist industry. Promises of employment opportunities from the tourism industry have been made but this is unlikely as the skills requirements for the human resources cannot be found in the current population profile. Instead, people are experiencing the oppressive way it is being implemented. The Island population had been isolated and concentrated on their livelihood. But now they are realizing they cannot go on with this same style at the face of threats coming into their lives. And the above initiatives show that they now realize the need of organization and the importance of being organized to overcome the threats.
But they are hesitant to participate in public demonstrations for fear that they will be subjected to government suppression.
The Status
Based on the initial experiences in reaction to the actions of the government, the following future actions by the Kalpitiya people are being planned:
i. There must be a continuous build-up process to inform in writing  the government institutions concerned with the issues.
ii. Select groups of organization to visit Uchchimunei, Rodapaduwa, Keerimundal, Sinnamunnakkarei, Boatwadi, Illuppaathive and Mutwal  isles and make people aware of the latest situation.
iii. Start formation of focus groups and orient and mobilize them for collective actions.
iv. Participate in the peoples' union meeting at Keerimundal, Uchchimune, Sinnamunnakkarei and Mutwal and make them aware of latest developments in respect to rights of Islanders.
v.  Seek assistance from knowledgeable people to strengthen the peoples’ organizations.
vi. People of main land Kalpitiya should also be made aware of the plight of island settlers.
vii. Authorities concerned have been building up on the argument that the people who have no voting rights do not have land rights. A counter-contention should be readied by the people’s organizations.
viii. Uchchimunei people have decided to meet every Thursday and pray together as an action point against land grabbing.




[1]Fact Sheet Sri Lanka, Women in Agriculture, Environment and Rural Production, FAO, available at http://www.fao.org/Gender/Ffiles/Srl.pdf accessed on 16 April 2013.
[2] Ibid. page 10.
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