Development for tourism in some parts of Sri Lanka is a speeding train set on a collision course with the basic human rights of some of the island’s most vulnerable communities. The country recorded a 16.7% increase in foreign arrivals from 2015 to 2016 and new properties continuously spring up around the island. However, the hidden cost of this growing industry is completely hidden by streams of photographs of pristine landscapes and smiling locals, quintessentials of the #islandlife.
Travels along the East coast, the Jaffna peninsula and the islands of the North-West uncovered a long list of dark secrets that don’t make their way to Sri Lanka Tourist Board material, travel brochures or the forefront of discussion due to the involvement of the military or political influence in the seizing of lands and deprivation of livelihood to communities that are already struggling to make ends meet.
CPA thanks the activists and organisers at NAFSO (National Fisheries Solidarity Organisation) for their help with field visits and access to the areas researched. This feature was also influenced by ongoing work on ethical tourism by the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.
From the months of July to October, the swells in Arugam Bay draw in surfers from across the globe and holidaymakers looking for a beach getaway in one of the more ‘untouched’ areas in the country.
Just minutes down from one of the most popular surf breaks, Peanut Farm, is a place named Ragamwela. When the tsunami struck this part of the South-East coast in December 2004, families were left with nothing and had to rebuild their lives from scratch. Scraping together the basics, they built temporary shelters for themselves that they would live in for the next five years.
Come 2010, the residents found their homes inundated once again; this time not by water but by fire, as their makeshift village was burned by unknown men one night. In a matter of days, they found the Air Force moving into the land that was once theirs and designating 365 acres of their homeland a camp.
Over the last few years, citizens have fought valiantly for the reclamation of their land and in March 2015, obtained a court order that limits the camp to a mere 25 acres of this vast area. However, there has been no sign of release of the remaining land back to the people, who vow not to stop their fight till they have their rightful deeds again, even if it means getting beaten up by the army or being electrocuted by the elephant fence as they try to get back into their land, where they have set up temporary shelters.
The Navy and Army began to take over large swathes of land in Panama in the Ragamwela and Shashtrawela areas at end of the conflict in 2009. The villagers were told that these would become ‘homes for war heroes’ and they were satisfied, as it meant that their own people would be given the recognition and rewards they deserve.
These houses never materialised. What did come up on the 800-acre occupation – that was once farmland that sustained the livelihood of the villagers in these agriculture-driven regions – was a luxury hotel, the Panama Lagoon Cabanas, under the Malima umbrella. Malima Hospitality resorts are owned, operated and staffed by the Navy, with locations from Kayts Island in Jaffna and Sober Island within the Trincomalee Naval Headworks Sanctuary to the Lighthouse Galley in the heart of Colombo.
The residents are of the opinion that tourism development should be handed to the people, so that those already in power aren’t the only ones profiting. However, they have been told the beachfront land is of interest to certain politicians to develop their own businesses and therefore the residents don’t have the opportunity to make a living this way either.
In terms of resettlement, the Forest Department has agreed to release forest land for housing. This puts residents at risk of elephants destroying their properties as it would be within the animals’ territory.
Undoubtedly one of the most (wander)lusted-after destinations on the island, the crystal-clear shallows along the Pasikudah beach are lined by some of the finest resort properties, all of which were built in the last seven years. Its detachment from the closest town of Valaichchenai and the pristine white sand keeps visitors drawn in and to meet this demand, the beach strip is now completely covered in hotels.
While this is a dream for beach junkies and escapists, it has been nothing short of a nightmare for local fishermen.
As the first of the hotels took shape on the strip, local fishermen were asked to move their boats and the wadiya where they do business away from the beachfront.
What began that year continues upto today - a painful game of musical chairs, where the fishermen have been made to relocate their livelihood whenever a property developer or hotel owner marks a certain stretch of land for construction. Soon, they will be asked to move once again; they have been warned that the area behind the beachfront they are working on is being taken over for a resort development by someone with connections to the Prime Minister.
Such influence leaves local communities helpless and if this development begins, they will be moved inland to the Valaichchenai harbour, which will involve incurring a daily cost of boat transport that most of them don’t earn enough to cover.
Earlier this year, a conference organised by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation themed ‘Tourism: a Catalyst for Development, Peace and Reconciliation’ was held at one of the largest hotels to take residence at Pasikudah. Consultation with the local communities was nowhere on the pre-conference or conference agenda and it was only when a group of local fishermen managed to secure a meeting with the Secretary of the UNWTO that the reality of their daily situation was made known.
The fishermen had also planned to stage a protest demanding the rights to their land and livelihood – as soon as the CID got wind of this, they were ordered to stop but went ahead with the mission that their struggle had been silenced for too long.
This community too is not opposed to the influx of tourism that the area has seen in the last few years. They are however opposed to their livelihoods being at the mercy of luxury resorts.
The 19-kilometre stretch from Nilaveli to Kuchchaveli is densely populated by hotels, resorts, guesthouses, inns, homestays, hostels and any other form of accommodation one could think of. Dive centres, snorkelling and boat rides are also popular on this strip that sees a lot of families and backpackers during the height of the east coast season.
Tourism was growing in this region long before the disturbances began, from around the end of the 1970’s – not in the form of large hotels but small guesthouses and restaurants where people opened their homes to visitors.
When communities were displaced during the conflict, all the land they inhabited fell under the control of the forces that controlled the area. When families began returning to this area to rebuild their homes and lives after 2009, they found their lands had been divided among the forces, people known to political figures and hotel developers.
The opportunities available to residents of the area to possibly use tourism as a way to rebuild their lives was grabbed from them by large-scale developers.
Boat operators to the beautiful Pigeon Island National Park find themselves in competition from hotel boats and those operated by the navy, who locals feel don’t care for the fragile ecosystem on the island, instead prioritising the profits that the large tourist numbers yield.
This was one of the few opportunities to work in tourism that was allowed to the locals, as even the new hotels don’t offer residents much in terms of jobs. They are given either housekeeping or cleaning roles, with better positions reserved for those that the management recruits from other parts of the country. Diving centres from the southern coast begin branches along this Nilaveli stretch, again taking up the opportunities for community-lead tourism and denying residents of jobs.
People had been living in camps for the last six years, while acres of land that they used to live and cultivate on has been marked as a ‘Tourism Development Zone’, and only recently was 20 acres set aside to give 20 families a home. This too is in a forest area vulnerable to elephant crossings and destruction, which puts the people and animals both in harm’s way.
These homes are bare-bones structures cobbled together from the materials available to them in the camps, have no running water, electricity or toilet systems. Seven houses are being built by an Indian housing project but this still leaves large numbers with nowhere to live.
The Ministry of Defence’s website states that the fundamental objectives behind the creation of High Security Zones (HSZ) and increased military presence in the North was “the necessity of Sri Lanka as a nation engulfed in a three decade long war, to secure and safe guard the freedom of its citizens.” It goes on to state that ‘freedom has brought them all they needed, No horror, no terror and no fear; people are free and the economy is booming as the immense development process of basic infrastructure development gets under way at great speed.’
This freedom comes with terms and conditions. This development process is leaving out citizens and benefitting people in power who once – and still do – rule over the resident communities with an iron fist.
The Jaffna peninsula fell to the armed forces in the 1990’s and since then, the areas around Palali, Telippalai and the Northern shore at Kankesanthurai have been declared part of an HSZ. Houses in this area was destroyed when their Tamil residents were made to leave this area by the forces.
While the area of the HSZ reduced slowly over the years and land in Valikamam was released under the Sirisena government, the HSZ still commands a wide area of the peninsula, with Sri Lanka’s militarisation figures remaining at a regional high.
In 2010, Thal Sevana Holiday Resort was opened within the confines of this zone. It is managed and staffed by the Army.
Till early 2016, private vehicles could not enter the surrounding premises without confirmation of booking and passport verification at a check point and public buses were not allowed at all. Over the last 2 months, non-guests have been able to access the beach through the hotel.
The road to the resort itself is lined with thick forest growth hiding the homes left behind in the last decade. Families spend large amounts of money on equipment and labour to clear this growth in an attempt to salvage their homes while some, knowing they cannot shoulder that cost, do not return at all.
Residents who live in surrounding areas hope one day that their land will be theirs. Access to their homes is more difficult for them than it is for tourists, both foreign and local, visiting the area – they require prior permission from several authorities while visitors can freely drive up to the hotel for a holiday.
The plight that has befallen the residents of Kalpitiya begins with the region’s place in history as an important natural harbour. The Portuguese and Dutch carried out extensive business at the port and so, all life became focused around it and this dictated where people settled.
However, the British closed the port as it lacked security and began using Colombo as a hub, which disrupted livelihood systems and brought about lifestyle changes for the people.
In 2005, then Minister of Tourism Anura Bandaranayake gazetted the 17 islands that dot the Dutch Bay, which cover a total of 1667 hectares of land, for investment for tourism development.
Fisher communities had developed in this region over the years, with the trade accounting for a large part of the area’s income. Even after 2009, the region was not subject to any special development, and their simple way of life continued.
However when the land was further gazetted by then president Mahinda Rajapaksa, a steady stream of developers and hotel owners descended on the region. Jaded by the many promises they were made - proximity to Mannar and easy access to petroleum being some of them - they proceeded to construct large properties that have impacted the lives of the residents negatively in the last few years.
One of the largest properties to be developed in the area was the Dutch Bay Resorts. When land sales for this began, they found that there were no deeds for land. The families they contacted through the kachcheri were survived by elderly residents who had not been able to move when the industry changed. They were told that their deeds had been taken into account and that they were going to be paid for their land. These transactions obviously amounted to a lot less than the land was worth but these families accepted, as they needed money desperately to feed themselves.
The land that was sold to developer was dry and wild, but they started demarcating their allocated areas, adding on extra acres as they went – outside of what was agreed – so as to fit to what they wanted for the development of their hotels.
In most cases, what happened was that these developments cut off fishermen’s access to sea and lagoon.
Owing to the geographic features of the area, there are several small inlets where the lagoon meets the sea. One such place is Thillaivur, a nutrient-rich land that was a thriving fishing spot. A new developer found that the wind and the lagoon breeze was perfect for kite surfing; this saw the encroachment on lagoon by several sports operators and now, fishermen cannot continue the work they had done here for decades, since the sport interferes with the overall character of the lagoon and its inhabitants.
Those involved in the industry deny these adverse effects and insist that fisher communities in some areas of the lagoon are able to be involved in kitesurfing activities, finding employment when they wouldn’t have otherwise. Community engagement is a positive step but it doesn’t negate the problems that rapid development has caused in the area.
Cases were raised by the residents to the then Minister of Tourism, Navin Dissanayake. Activists and fishermen from the area hope to petition to the necessary authorities that a small portion of profit be given to those who own the lands.
When these encroaching properties result in them having to move both manpower and equipment away from where they usually work – generally close to their homes – they would like a government subsidy to be able to keep doing their job. This way, both local communities and the tourism industry can grow in the future.
With Sri Lanka continuing to make lists of perfect travel destinations along with the online traffic is has gotten over the last year due to the visits of several high-profile travel bloggers, we can only expect tourist arrivals to keep growing in the years to come. As the push of demand sees the need for increasing supply, the expansion of accommodation and recreation options for visitors has the potential to negatively impact local communities if not responsibly and ethically carried out.
The purpose of highlighting the issue, keeping with CPA’s work on human rights particularly in relation to land and resettlement, is not to discourage travellers to the island but to ensure that those visiting are aware and more responsible in their choices. Tourism contributes to 10.6% of Sri Lanka’s GDP but if not carried out in a sustainable manner, will negatively impact communities and ecosystems.
As the residents themselves implied, the opposition is not towards the development of tourism on the island but the haphazard manner in which these particular instances have been carried out. It isn’t truly development if one group is left disadvantaged and we can move forward when all Sri Lankans can equally reap the benefits of development.