The Kalpitiya peninsula is a region of Sri Lanka located 150 km north of the capital, Colombo. Described as one of the most beautiful area of the Sri Lankan western coast, Kalpitiya is an incredible marine sanctuary and home to a large number of fishermen.

Kalpitiya 2012 – Marie & Guilhem

As part of a tourism development project in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan authorities have chosen 14 islands in Kalpitiya as the site for the Kalpitiya Dutch Bay Resort Development project. This development project includes 15 tourism zones designated by the government to attract local and multinational investment and to raise the number of visitors across the whole Sri Lanka to 2.5million per annum.

For almost two years now, the fishermen and inhabitants of the different islands have been protesting against this mega tourism project. It risks seriously damaging the ecosystem and the survival local community. It may well end up resulting in the eviction of more than 10 000 sri Lankan people; the Government has no concrete intention of rehousing or compensating affected people. Nor were they consulted when designing the project.

The Food Sovereignty Network South Asia, a network of the civil society activists in South Asia, sent a Fact Finding Mission to write a report – “Tourist’ Dream or Fisherfolk’s Nightmare!”. The report determined that the project has already caused many evictions, and placed severe restrictions on people’s access to sea. Tourism concern also ran a campaign on the issue which we were happy to support, as was Herman Kumara of NAFSO who we wrote about previously.

Fishermen Jude Dayalan, Antony Regan and Rexi Manoj told Charles Haviland of South Asian BBC news that “Earlier we could go anywhere to fish. Now they’ve restricted us by starting to build hotels everywhere”.

A local woman, Saleema, told the Asian News that she noticed “the workers of Neil de Silva [of Dutch Bay resorts]  had invaded my property, they were building a huge hotel. I explained to them that those lands belong to me, but de Silva told me that he bought the area from another person”.

Thankfully, Saleema had her ownership recognized in front of court, but only after months of legal battles and at a cost of hundreds of thousands of rupees. Unfortunately, unlike Saleema, most of the people that have been living here generation after generation are unable to prove their ownership, title deeds and paper records are not commonly held, and will probably lose all their rights to their property.

Kalpitiya 2012 – Marie & Guilhem

The entire process suffers from an incredible lack of regard for the right of the communities to be informed as to what is happening to their land. The whole project has been built without transparency, thus obstructing the opportunity for the people effected to have their say,.

But if you ask the Government, these negative points are only of minor importance compare to the benefits for the community. The Coast Conservation Department (CCD) denied all the possible negative effects, saying that none apparent so far has been found, “Not every change is harmful” says an official of this authority.

However, the Government seems really nervous about the Kalpitiya issues and work hard to discourage those who would come too close to the truth.

As an example, Marie and Guilhem, a Belgian couple, were deported after three months of filming a documentary on the Kalpitiya tourism project. They will tell us more about what happened in the following interview:

Can you please introduce briefly who you are, what you do and what brought you to make a documentary about the Kalpitiya issue?

We are a couple from Belgium. Marie is 26 and graduated as a psychologist. Guilhem is 34 years old and was trained as an anthropologist. We have always been interested in what happens in other parts of the world and, last year, we decided to take six months off from our daily Brussels’ lives in order to travel together. However, it seemed important to us not just to ‘consume’ touristic areas. We wanted to understand how tourism is influencing local communities and what is at stake behind the attractive infrastructures and the smiley faces. In order to document our findings, took a video camera with us.

In the mean time we were reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. In one chapter she writes about Sri Lanka and how tourism projects have influenced the post tsunami reconstruction. It made us want to investigate more about tourism in Sri Lanka. While looking up we found out more about the IFFM report and NAFSO and decided to fly to Sri Lanka and make a documentary film about the Kalpitiya tourism development project.

Kalpitiya 2012 – Marie & Guilhem

The Government seems to describe the controversy about the Kalpitiya project as a marginal fact. Why, in your opinion, is the Government denying the controversy, instead of trying to find an effective solution?

Depending on the hierarchical level of the people we talked to, they gave to us different kinds of response.
According to the information we got from Dr Nalaka Godahewa, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, controversies regarding tourism projects in Sri Lanka in the past years, are “absolutely negligible”.

When asked about the situation of the local communities, Rangana Fernando, the Divisional Secretary (local government representative) in Kalpitiya, admitted that the people were afraid of the changes which might be brought about in their lives by a project of the scale of the one planned in the area. He also acknowledged that some people might have to be displaced, but he assured that the government has a plan to relocate people if necessary.

Bandiwewe Diyasena, Bouddhist monk and head of Samudrassana Viharaya reported to us that the the Minister of Fisheries came to the islands a few months ago and talked to the fishermen. He promised them that if they had to be displaced, the government will build new houses for them.

According to some other informants, the DS and the Chairman of SLTDA said no one would have to be relocated. So it is very difficult, in this context to know exactly what is going on. The local communities have a complete lack of information regarding the project.

Did or do they have some kind of open dialogue or try to involve the local communities? Was it effective or successful?

We heard about a few meetings where representatives of local communities met with government officials in order to discuss the project. But as far as we were able to understand, these meetings were more about explaining the government’s plans rather than consulting the communities on the effect on their livelihoods, let alone about obtaining their consent.

Kalpitiya 2012 – Marie & Guilhem

While realizing your documentary you had the chance to talk directly to local communities and fishermen, can you describe how they feel? Do some of them see a possible solution to this issue?

It has been very difficult for us to meet the local communities and when we did, we felt they were afraid to talk openly because they didn’t know who we were. When we were with NAFSO representatives, however, people talked more easily. What arose most of the time was their indignation about the lack of information and the lack of consultation.

In some cases we really could feel people’s fear about what will happen to them and their families and their resignation while realising they couldn’t do anything to stop the project.
In other cases, people explained they have been openly threatened by government agents for opposing the project. We talked to many people who described how they had to face on a daily basis the critical political situation, the fear of the repression, the discrimination and so on.

You were clearly targeted by the Government once they realized you were filming about the Kalpitiya issue. What happened next?

We actually started to seriously realize the issues when we understood that the activists from NAFSO we were collaborating with were under constant government surveillance and that we were being watched as well. We also realized that some of the journalists we talked to were taking serious personal risks by addressing issues such as the Kalpitiya project.

Things became rather serious when Herman Kumara, National Convener of NAFSO was nearly abducted a couple of weeks before the end of our stay in Sri Lanka.

Then it was our turn to be arrested, interrogated by the CID and left for days without knowing what was going to happen. In these stressful situations beliefs start to crumble and at times we were wondering if the CID was right: was our project not some criminal attempt to tarnish the image of the country?

Kalpitiya 2012 – Marie & Guilhem

What did they officially blame you for?

Officially we were not accused. We were not even arrested, we were simply ‘under investigation’. During the interrogation, the officers said we were in touch with the wrong people and that these people were working against the government of Sri Lanka. They also kept saying that we were trying tarnish the image of Sri Lanka with our documentary.

In a general though did you feel in a democratic and free country at that time?

It is possible to travel for weeks in Sri Lanka without realizing that individual freedom and civil rights are an issue. Most tourists we have met during our stay were not at all conscious of the human rights situation people are dealing with. But, after gaining the local people’s trust, we started hearing a different side of the story. We talked to many people who described the critical political situation, the overt repression and the discrimination they were facing on a daily basis.

We were reading The Cage from Gordon Weiss, at the time, which is an eye opening reading about the iron grip of the Rajapaksa regime on politics and economics and about the way the current government ‘pacified’ the country at the end of the armed conflict in 2009. It is also edifying about the difficult situation journalists, human rights activists, NGO workers, and so on, are facing in the course of their work to expose injustice and defend the rights of the local communities.
We hope no one will ever have to experience our last few days in Sri Lanka and what some Sri Lankans experience on a daily basis. We definitely felt very far away from anything close to a democratic society.

Marie and Guilhem’s documentary will be out next winter – watch this space!