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Lankan fishermen ‘guarding my islands in the sun’

Written By NAFSO on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | 10:56:00 AM

Allure of Kalpitiya: Is the much-hyped tourism project working?
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KALPITIYA – Goats, donkeys, men, women and school children roaming about freely in Kalpitiya, off Puttalam on Sri Lanka’s northwest coast, set the mood for a laid-back lifestyle with the newest addition being the construction of the road leading upto Palavi that is landscaped with coconut lands, and other plantations including the ocean and salterns on either side on the ride to the town.
At the Kalpitiya harbour
People here may seem rustic and innocent but no; these fishermen whose lives revolve around the church risk their lives on the high seas even with a knife to their necks at the hands of their Indian counterparts and now face an added risk of losing their homes at the hands of investors eyeing the islands for hotel construction.
In an essence it is aptly said in the song “Island in the sun”, this is an island in the sun where the people have toiled since time begun, they may sail on many a seas but the shores of Kalpitiya will always be home to them.
It was in 2010 that Sri Lanka Tourism attempted to kick start the Mahinda Chinthana-sponsored Kalpitiya tourism zone project but which got hampered mainly due to opposition from the local fishermen claiming that their livelihoods would be affected and due to pressure from private individuals claiming that the lands leased out were not state property but was private lands on the islands.
Having fought for their rights today interestingly, however, the fishermen have been able to create a fear psychosis among investors and delayed commencement of the project as a result of which it was believed by many there that the people must be the reason why investors were averse to start work or lease out lands on the islands.

With no clear indication of how many fishermen live on these islands, a rough estimate by the local authorities indicate that at least 800 of them were immigrants mainly from Negombo and would settle on these islands in a bid to catch fish and later migrate to Trincomalee for the next catch.
Local authorities also claim that it would be difficult to ascertain who the real fishermen are since some were immigrants and others were small time operators and still others were engaged both in fishing and other forms of activities for their livelihood.
Wither development

The sorry sight of these people add to the task of increasing development on these islands since local authorities were keen on getting adequate schools and teacher facilities for the school children on these islands in addition for the need for water and electricity. With a dearth of these facilities it was difficult to ascertain as to how these people would be involved in the entire development process.
Local officials said they have requested the authorities to assist in the process by providing an adequate number of teachers for these schools and provide them with an additional allowance for working in these difficult areas.

A hotel in Kalpitiya
People also state that they were unable to obtain proper water on the islands and that in most instances the island residents would dig a small well where they would get a small quantity of pure water after which it would be salty as a result they would have to close it up and dig another one and this pattern would continue, they stated.
On the other hand, the people were also in need of adequate healthcare facilities for which the human resources was wanting. In this regard, the local authorities had commenced mobile healthcare units however; this would also prove inadequate since there was a dearth of required number of staff.
Most fishermen claim tourism can take its own place in this area but they need to thrive as well and in this regard, today they have a broader outlook towards this concept.
Ippantivu Islands St. Sebastian Annawasala Fishermen’s Chairman M.K.M. Hughman Fernando said in an interview that though tourism was important they were however, not ready to give up their rights as fishermen.
On the other hand, they want their rights to be protected so that development for tourism and development of the area could occur alongside each other in addition to allowing the local fishermen to carry out their activities unhindered, he explained.Tourism in their lives
Talawila Parish Priest Fr. Pious Fernando also speaking with the Business Times echoed similar sentiments when he explained that these people need to be developed with the adequate knowledge and facilities and should be provided the right awareness after which they could be made to understand the importance of tourism.
Fr. Pious Fernando
In this regard, it was evident that the people were able to today fathom out that development in terms of tourism would not hinder their progress but would be carried out side by side along with their own work and now they demand only for some space on the islands for them to live and carry out their activities.
But in this regard, the investors have faced a new roadblock since the fishermen have demanded space on the islands in which they too want to construct their own hotels. At a recently held meeting in Colombo with the tourism authorities, investors, fishermen and the church, all parties agreed to allocate 10 acres of land on Ippantivu island but the location was another problem since both parties want the same area.
Area observers however observe that this system would mean that the fishermen would be zoned into areas on the island but without proper ownership it would be difficult to ascertain who would be allowed on these islands especially since immigrant fishermen would also be travelling to these areas. Moreover, a number of unanswered questions remained as to how the next generations could claim ownership on these lands and in this regard, it was pointed out that proper regulation would be required.
Hughman Fernando
Mr. Hughman Fernando believes that only fishermen should be provided lands on these islands but it would be interesting to find out what would happen to the next generations that would not be involved in the fishing industry and where they would be set up or live in the future since they do not have clear titles or ownership to these areas.
Similarly, 140 acres has been allocated for fishermen on the Uchchamunai island that has approximately 1500 acres, but they had not reached agreement on how these lands would be zoned out to the fishermen, Holy Cross Church Kalpitiya Parish Priest Fr. Michael Fernando also present at the (Colombo) meeting said in a telephone interview with the Business Times.
He noted that the government and investors had agreed to amicably settle the issues raised by the fishermen in terms of non-relocation and acceptance of these people and their fishing activities on these islands.
However, Fr. Fernando observed that the system was very slow and in this regard reaching a final solution to these issues would always take time.
“What I am seeing is that if this area can be developed with tourism, through that development our people’s livelihoods also should be developed – that means we are not destroying our area – if the government wants to develop this area they can develop our people as well,” Fr. Fernando explained.
Church authorities have been informed that concepts similar to the Maldivian idea was mooted for the development of the project on these island, however, though it was clear that they were not clearly aware of this they still would oppose it since they believe it would create a cultural setback.
In the Maldives the concept of island tourism means that the locals would travel to these islands only for work purposes from the mainland however, this would not happen here.
“At the moment what we are saying is that if the government wants to launch the programme then do justice to the people,” Fr. Fernando said.
Kalpitiya residents serving in hotels
With the changing landscape and pattern of life, the residents have already been employed in nearby hotels established by Sri Lankans. In this regard, the fishermen are not averse to their locals joining the tourism industry.
Rohitha Priyantha
In fact they point out that since they have a very tough life and with those students who are now passing out of school with an ordinary level qualification they believe these hotels would provide the right ground for them to obtain a regular job.
However, they themselves believe they were not cut out for these jobs since they would not like to work as slaves under a master as they were master of their own job and were free to sail the seas to catch fish whenever they wanted to.
But with the need for adequate education they believe authorities need to ensure that their lives were provided the right development with schools equipped with facilities to ensure that they were able to study upto their advanced level.
On the other hand, the situation has become very difficult that they need to send their children to schools in Chilaw and if parents find it difficult to meet up with the costs of travel and education they would not do so as a result of which these youth become part of the everyday life of Kalpitiya with no progress.
One fishermen, Shiran Fernando who would sail for about 15 days on the high seas said he had in fact obtained a guide’s licence but believed it was difficult to work as a slave under their masters since they were not used to this new life.
Fishermen of Kalpitiya
These fishermen are no ordinary people living on a part of the Sri Lankan island crying out blue murder every time they fear their homes and livelihoods would be taken away from them. On the other they were the people fighting on the battle front engaged in a war with the Tamil Tiger rebels who were engaged in terror tactics at the height of the war prior to the last one that concluded in 2009.
These fisherfolk have been serving the people by protecting these islands and even tipping off the army or police should the rebels infringe on their areas. In this respect, they believe it is their right to have access to these islands uninterrupted since they had guarded it with their own life fighting their own battles on the borders of the war and now they were ready to face this new battle and would not easily sacrifice their sweat and blood to some investors wanting to cash in on the virgin beauty that is Kalpitiya.
But now with the tide turning in their favour and who might be the tamed party to the talks, is it the investor who now understands that they would be taking away the livelihoods of these people or the fisherfolk who now understand that tourism is a must if they want development for the future of their children? There is hope on the horizon.
Kalpitiya tourism zone
During the discussions Mr. Hughman Fernando said that they were also surprised to find that the island of Ippantivu was actually held by a private individual with the seal of King Edward VII that was later sold to two parties and which the government gazetted.
But interestingly, the court case was said to be going in favour of the government that claimed this property was part of state land and was currently in the Court of Appeal, as stated by Sri Lanka Tourism.
Authorities point out that when these kinds of cases come up other investors would also be looking at these and there the investment is a “risk management exercise” as it was believed that if the neighbouring land could have issues they were not confident if it could not affect them as well.
In this regard, Sri Lanka Tourism authorities explained that the Indian investor, Qube Lanka, on the Ippantivu island was awaiting a decision by the courts to commence work.
Meanwhile, the second investor ‘Let’s Travel’, a local firm, was awaiting approval from the environmental and local authorities that had taken a number of years for the construction of water bungalows on the ocean connected by bridges to the island of Uchchamunai.
However, Mr. Hughman Fernando claimed this could not be allowed since it could impact on their livelihood since some of their fishermen were still found to be fishing on the Kalpitiya lagoon area in which this particular hotel project was to commence. Currently, there are 22 islands in Kalpitiya out of which 14 were to be initially leased out; that was then reduced to nine to be leased out by the government. Of these 14 nine are totally state and five were private and state lands.
The project on hold as stated by the government tourism website indicates it was to develop a proposed zone on these 14 islands that had low or very low level or inadequate infrastructure with improvements said to be carried out on a priority basis. Initially, when proposals were called investors applied but the Treasury at the time stalled the project midway after six investors had already gained cabinet approval. This was left unexplained while some industry analysts believe it was done to avert a possible chaotic situation that would have allowed for haphazard development and an influx of investors into a zone disrupting normal daily life of the people.
However, five years later the state and people are grappling with the issues pertaining to the same problems but were today on a better and more clear-minded footing able to comprehend the issues at hand and now reaching a common ground.
Sri Lanka Tourism wants the project to have a proper jetty and boat service operated by the private sector, however, the locals were averse to this as well.
In fact, one local fisherman we spoke to who is also the Chairman of the St. Sebastian’s Fishermen’s Association Rohitha Priyantha of Kandakuliya Kudawa said that recently they faced the problem of a new boat service operated by a private individual with full amenities to attract tourists.
However, this new boat service was disrupted by them since it would affect their livelihood as they were engaged in transporting tourists and locals on their fishing boats that lacked all these amenities.
He gleefully and confidently applauded their efforts of moving them out through the use of local authorities and influential politicians stating that they would not allow any outsiders to come here and operate boat services apart from them.
So the problem persists, and it is at these instances it could be understood that the locals were still averse to changes in their lives not knowing that high spending prospective tourists would require these services. In this regard, it is a tall order for the state, industry, the people and the church to bring abo
State land or private?Who can claim ownership is questionable but now documents have been found to state that on the Ippantivu island a private individual had bought land from the state.It was found in documents produced at recent court proceedings indicating that under the seal of King Edward VII, 23 acres of land on Ippantivu Island was sold at a cost of Rs.240 to Segu Ibrahim Naina in 1906.Now it has to be ascertained whether the islanders could claim ownership as they actually state.

Hoteliers held to ransom
While some villagers have fought tooth and nail to save the islands, it was interesting to find out that today others were looking at making a fast buck by extracting ransoms from hoteliers.
How this happens was explained by a concerned fisherman, who said that some villagers had told the hoteliers now entering the area to pay them ‘some amount’ (kappan or extortion money) in order to prevent the fishermen from creating problems.
In this manner, these parties had extracted money from hoteliers and were able to ‘shut the mouths’ of small fishermen. However, local authorities had raised this issue and had brought a halt to these nefarious activities.
TIMELINE
2010 – Fourteen out of 22 islands in Kalpitiya offered for investor ownership on a 33-year lease.
2011 January – Treasury tells short-listed parties and industry of plans to go for unsolicited bids of 12 of 14 islands at Kalpitiya for 99 year leases.
2011 February – Procurement committee rejects all six parties recommenced by the Technical Evaluation Committee
2012 Government to lease out only 10 islands

Small- timers warn of looming problems
A few fishermen that had just come ashore told the Business Times how a hotel still under construction would be a threat to their business.
It was pointed out that they would not be able to access the beach and on the other hand even their “wadiyas” would be requested to leave the shores as it was directly facing the beach and the hotel, said Francis Wasantha.
Another fisherman Sanath Sanjiva said “If we are asked to leave we will have to go.”
In fact, these people now want a decent ferry service to be operated for which a small area has been allocated but no work has commenced. The request was made by the fishermen last year.
Clashing with visitors
Some of the fishermen had come face to face with the tourists impacting on their lives when they were confronted with a head on clash with these visitors.
It was stated that some argument had arisen between the tourists and the locals in the area that had culminated in clashes between the two parties.
Meanwhile, in another instance a female tourist had entered a church prior to the morning service when a single local fisherman was readying the place with gospel music.
The female tourist irked by the sound had shouted at the guy and stated that she was disturbed.
Such tension is prevalent in the area and as a result these fishermen are averse to them coming here.

Project concerns
Industry analysts who were part of the project believe that the main reason for stalling the project was due to huge infrastructure development costs, undercutting by interested parties including some countries.
The area considered under developed is expected to be a catalyst for the North Western area and the significance of this particular area is that one could enjoy whale and dolphin watching in addition to having access to wildlife park Wilpattu and historical sites like Anuradhapura and Mannar.
It was believed that some countries wanted to sabotage the development project although it remained unclear as to what the real reasons were.
Under the original plan the state had promised to construct at least 800 houses for the people and create a proper fishing village with water and sanitation. However, it was clear that the residents on the islands and in Kalpitiya had opposed these moves A critical issue was the sale of state lands to local investors at high prices by villages using forged deeds.
It is believed that it was mainly the big ‘mudalalis’ with a number of boats and trawlers who were not interested in the tourism development work getting off the ground.
Analysts observe that it was sad how the court cases at certain instances were mollycoddled even by the lawyers as it involves large amounts of money in the long run.
Initially it was decided that through a social responsibility fund five per cent of the total project value was conditional to lease the land and which would be used for infrastructure development.
One analyst pointed out that a lot of people have vested interests due to which it was causing delays.
With hotels dotting the Kalpitiya area it would seem that no plan was in place since now everything would be haphazardly carried out.
Moreover, there needs to be adequate marketing of the country and the Kalpitiya zone in a bid to become attractive for investors.
Tourists create sorry sight!
Kalpitiya residents claim that tourists visiting these areas were quite a sorry sight who were mainly riding on bicycles, camping on the beach in their hired “Dimo Battas” or tents and eating ‘roti’ from way-side boutiques.
Some tourists were said to travel in Dimo Batta vehicles and set up camp on the beach while others would use a tent to get rest while on holiday.
It was found that in this regard, most of the visitors were unlikely to stay in hotels and would just eat ‘roti’ from small restaurants found in the area.
In fact, it was learnt that some would even refuse to pay a mere Rs.200 for a ride in a three-wheeler.
Locating lost fishermen
The Ippantivu island leased out by the government to an Indian investor ran into problems with the local fishermen who refused to be displaced.
During the recent round of discussions between the authorities, investor, fishermen and the church it was stated that 10 acres of land on this island would be allocated to these people.
However, now a problem has arisen since the limestone found in the area that is centrally located close to a centuries’ old church is being demanded by these people, which is also the same location that the hotelier wishes to set up shop.
On this issue, the parties are facing a problem and the local fishermen opine that if they were given this particular area it would be easy to go off to sea in addition to the fact that it was a prime location for construction work.
Moreover, the old church would be renovated in the future with regular church activities conducted in the future once relocation occurs on the island.

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