Thursday, January 20, 2011

Massive scale land and sea grabbing at Kalpitiya Islands

By Herman Kumara | The Sunday Leader

The fishing communities in the 14 islands of Kalpitiya including Mohoththuvarama, Uchchimune, Keerimundel, and Baththalangunduwa are tense with fear of future displacement from their traditional lands and loss of their customary rights. They have all the justifiable reasons to claim these, as tourism development is the government’s main target to achieve the ‘Wonder of Asia’ status. There are three islands already leased out for 99 years while tenders have been called for another five to be leased out.

There was a series of field studies carried out by NAFSO, Praja Abhilasha network (PA), People to People Dialogue on Peace and Sustainable Development (PPD) and Puttalam District Fisheries Solidarity (PDFS) on the land issues in the islands of Kalpitiya peninsula during the last two months, and it was found that the grievances of fisher people as well as the others are justifiable and have valid reasons.

The following are some of the dangers, difficulties and threats that people expressed at Mohoththuvarama island, north of Kalpitiya.

As Aibu, a community leader at the island explained:

“I can highlight three major issues we face due to tourism projects here. We cannot operate our beach seines (Madal Padu), as we did earlier. Tourism developers have encroached our lands and have erected barbed wire fences. We can’t enter our own beach seine and they say we are illegally trespassing on the land and they are the owners. We have no right to enter our own place now.

“They have blocked access to the beach seines, cemetery, church, and to the anchorage point we traditionally used. The tourism developers who got the permits and arrived here recently claim they are the owners of the land — they have letters from the CCD, MOD, Tourist Board and also from the AGA at Kalpitiya. So, who we are? Are we from some other country? Or citizens of Sri Lanka?”

The third point Aibu explained was the leasing out of lands in certain islands.
“Periya Arichchal, Sinna Arichchal and Illuppanthivu islands are seriously affected. All the fishermen were driven out from the lands as those lands were also leased out to some companies. Some say, those islands have been given to Indian fishermen. But we do not have any proof of that. Fishermen from the Anevasala community are facing this threat.”

“We have 16 beach seines operating here. We have land permits issued by the AGA, Kalpitiya for building our temporary shelters at the coast. We pay Rs. 4200 annually for the permit and we have been practising this for years now. We have approached the Fisheries Department to get the operational permits on several occasions and failed. Based on this, tourism developers say we have only six permitted beach seines and all others are illegal. Now they claim the lands we have permits for are their lands that they received for tourism development.”

“As we are not ready to leave this place, one tourist resort developer, one Hassan Gate has approached Kennedy and requested his beach seine for Rs. 9 million.”
“The other danger we are facing is from the navy. The navy wants to get 40 perches from my beach seine. But, I am reluctant to give it as that will be the end of my livelihood. Now, I am facing a threat to my life too. I do not know if I will survive for long. Anybody who speaks out against these things is in danger. So, people are reluctant to come out and protest. This is a serious issue as we are isolated.”

According to him, some of the catamaran fishermen are also facing a threat to their livelihoods. Catamaran fishermen use the lagoon for their fishing during monsoon season as they cannot operate their fishing gear at sea. However, one tourist resort owner, Niel De Silva of Dutch Bay Resort (Pvt) Ltd. has bought the lagoon side too and chased the catamaran operators from their anchorage point at the lagoon.

Kennedy Jayamanne, the chairperson of the Beach Seine Society in the Kalpitiya area and, articulate as he is, is leading the struggle against harassment meted out to the fisher communities by tourism developers.

“The catamaran operators are the poorest among the fisher community and we will loose our livelihood due to these restrictions. We operate our catamarans at the lagoon during the monsoon season. But, we cannot go to the lagoon this year due to restrictions. There are more than 30 families that have been forced to remove their temporary shelters at the lagoon side as tourist resort owners claim they need the land to develop their resorts.

“Who will look into all these issues and help the people? We do not know who could help us as all are running behind the money and power. We are poor and powerless. All we are able to do now is give up our livelihoods and become jobless. Who cares about our customary rights?” P. Sylvester, a catamaran operator at Kakadiya community lamented, sharing with us the difficulties they face due to the tourism development projects in the area.

Ajith Susantha is a beach seine owner and living on an island. He owns, beach seine number 93 which Hassan Gate, the tourism developer says is within his land. “I cannot go to my beach seine as the tourist developer says it is within his territory. We have been here for generations. My father and forefathers were engaged here for beach seine fishing. These new comers says this land belongs to them, so we can’t drag our beach seine as we practised earlier. Hassan Gate has fenced the land with barbed wires within the high tide region of the sea. This has totally disturbed our occupation. How can he do so? There should be a 300 meter area as the coastal zone, as regulated by the CCD. Why this special treatment to the Hassan Gate company?” Susantha asked.

However, there is a serious issue behind this. The Kalpitiya AGA had given a permit for the beach seine to 93 owner Ajith Susantha as well as to the tourism developer Hassan Gate to the same plot of land.

“We got the land permit from AGA and Hassan Gate says, it belongs to him. How can we solve this? They have covered the land with barbed wire. We need to enter our own land with their permission. Where is the justice?” asks Mahathun, brother of Ajith Susantha.

National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) organises fishermen to lobby the government to defend their rights and to bring about good environmental practice in coastal areas. NAFSO has helped a fishing community to take legal action against a proposal to build a five-star hotel on a mangrove where fish spawn. “We are not against hotels, because they bring tourism and income. But 3000 families and 15,000 fishermen use this lagoon and all of them could be affected by the developments.

Only 200 would be employed by the hotel. The lagoon is our mother, and we must protect her,” local fisherman Jude Preman Fernando said. “At the present situation we are continuing our campaign with small scale fishermen to urge the government to take legal action against destructive fishing practices around the coastal areas of Sri Lanka,” he added.

© The Sunday Leader

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