Herman Kumara is an old friend of the Sri Lanka Campaign. He recently wrote for Groundviews in support of our “Think Again” tourism campaign.

You can read the full article here, and you can see our tourism campaign here. Here’s an abridged version:

Whose beaches in Sri Lanka?

Tourism will bring millions to Sri Lanka but will we see any of it?<

According to the government, concerns about development in the name of tourism are part of an NGO conspiracy intent on limiting Sri Lanka’s progress. However, what desperately needs highlighting is the real picture for people who are about to lose their land, water and natural environment, and eventually their livelihoods.

In response to growing concerns about the detrimental impact an unchecked expansion of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry will likely have, the Sri Lanka Campaign has launched its ‘Think Again’ campaign with a view to help visitors to the country make informed choices about where and how they plan to holiday. The campaign aims to encourage tourism that will help in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Sri Lanka, rather than line the pockets of the few. Campaigns such as this one can go a long way towards identifying the realities in the face of such negligent ‘development’.

The following are extracts from statements made by members of fisher communities around the country:

“When they [Authorities] enforced the coastal buffer zone just after the tsunami, we lost our small hut at the beach. Now we have lost the place where we kept our fishing equipments. But in the same place the tourist hotels are being built and no any law enforcements are made against them. Those regulations are applicable only for small fisher people like us.”

says Piyasena Mathangaweera of Uhapitagoda, Hambantota.

Who then are the beneficiaries of the coastal zone regulations? The fisher people cannot even put up a small hut on the beach, while the same beaches are now becoming jam-packed with tourism projects, hotels and other leisure facilities. The coastal buffer zone regulations were introduced just after the 2004 tsunami, in the name of security for the local population. Is there no such need to guarantee the security of those tourists visiting Sri Lanka’s beaches?

Important questions are raised. Sadly, most of the people in the country are in a numbing situation and do not open their mouths to protest at all. This is because people are terrified of criticising the government, a fear stimulated by continued threats, intimidations and harassments. This situation rings true in many parts of Sri Lanka.

“The laws and regulations enacted by the government are violated by them. We lost our house due to 100 meter coastal buffer zone regulations. But the same land has been sold to the foreigners and we have lost our land now.”

This is not a NGO, nor a conspiracy. This is Mr. Manoj Ambesuriya, a genuine fisherman’s voice from the Southern fishing village of Kalamatiya at Hambantota, where the President Mahinda Rajapakse comes from. What is the response from the ministers? Can they deny these facts? Are those not the real life stories of the coastal communities?

It is only the politicians, bureaucrats and investors who see the land and sea grabbing in coastal areas as being ‘development’ promoting the wonders of Asia. Bringing 4 million tourists to the country and seeing an $8 billion boost to Sri Lanka’s economy by 2016 is the dream and the route towards prosperity.

When Kalpitiya’s island communities approached the minister of fisheries for a solution to the threat of their eviction from the peninsular following government plans to lease out fourteen islands, they received the following response from the minister concerned:

“Can you see the prosperity of fishermen in Negombo? Also fisher communities at Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa? All those people who were fishermen those days are millionaires now. Don’t you want to become millionaires as those people are? You have been misled by some NGOs. Tourism will bring prosperity to the fisher communities.”

So, it is clear that fishers are seen by the government to be of no importance. As are farmers. As are all small food producers who provide rice and fish to the people of Sri Lanka, who feed the nation with their sweat and tears.

The government of Sri Lanka should endorse acts and policies which will ensure the customary rights and preferential access to resources of the coastal communities. In such policies, it should be clearly mentioned that the right to land is a basic right of the people they govern, and that they too have a right to sustain themselves for future generations.

The right tone for a positive vision of the country’s future is heard in the hopes and aspirations of Dinesh Suranjan, a small-scale fisherman, social activist and trade union leader from Kalpitiya islands:

“My parents were living on this island, Uchchimune. And today, I am living there. We are collecting water from a spoon and we are safe living under a coconut tree after our daily fishing activities and other daily routines. So, we have very simple life. We do not have big dreams. But, we need not to be disturbed with our lives. My mother and I want to die in this land. My bones should be mixed with this soil and fertilise the land for future generations. I urge not to disturb our simple way of life through tourism.”

Dinesh echoes the concerns of most fishermen in the country, whether inhabiting coastal or inland water bodies. How do we make sure their voices are heard by those policy makers and bureaucrats who dream only of the financial prospects of Asia’s wonders? This is a real challenge for the citizens of this country. It is not a conspiracy. It is not the act of traitors. There is real patriotism and dreams for Asia in Sri Lankan society today, but no media to expose common views and no effective civil society or dominant political party to support action on such sensitive issues.