Land acquisition in the name of tourism and dubious public purpose | Daily News

Land acquisition in the name of tourism and dubious public purpose

Tourism has often been promoted as the solution towards developing regional economies and for many years, many only paid attention to the influx of tourists, dollars and resorts. But as tourism seeks to monopolise several of our natural resources, its stampede has been stopped by people in these regions who claim that their home cannot be the next tourist destination. Activists, affected people and government officials met last week at a ‘Policy forum on Inclusive Development and right to Land’ organised by Oxfam to discuss several issues ranging from land rights, regional development to tourism promotion.

The people claimed that the state had no right to arbitrarily take over their land for development, while the government in turn argued that tourism would lead to regional development and that the people themselves would benefit at the end of the day, once the projects bear fruit.

Director Planning and Development, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority P.U Ratnayake speaking on Tourism Promotion Plans in Post Conflict areas said, tourism should not be looked at as an industry that displaces local communities. “The development process should go hand in hand with the people. The government has integrated tourism development plans,” he said.

Ratnayake also highlighted that the country’s export income was approximately Rs. 900 million while the import expenditure was over Rs 3,500 million. “There is no trade balance between exports and imports, we have a huge gap,” he said.

“It has been the same for the past 10 to 20 years and the gap keeps widening. We need to have foreign exchange earning industries in the country. Many of our own people are working overseas and over 70 percent are working in the Middle East as house maids. We need to focus on skilled laborers and reduce the amount of women going abroad as house maids,” he added.

Ratnayake argued that everything was not possible overnight and it might take time.

Touching on the initial phases of the garment and textile industry in Sri Lanka he said, “They first came here because of the cheap labour, but it is no longer cheap. Many garment factories are being closed down while the Tea industry is also facing many issues,” said Ratnayake.

“Tourism on the other hand has the potential to support economic development in the country. There are many market opportunities available. Globally, tourism makes up to 10 percent of a country’s GDP but for us it is less than 2 percent. I believe we can take it up to 4 to 5 percent,” he added.

Forced evictions and land seizures; state has ignored the people

Tourism expansion in the recent years however, has had to compete with the return of land to the displaced.

Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Bhavani Fonseka speaking on land release in the North and East and its effect on communities, highlighted two scenarios in which people had to struggle to keep the land they got back from the government.

“In Sampur, nearly 12,000 people were displaced and many have returned to their lands now. In April this year, many were able to return to their lands but the basic needs such as water, school and sanitary facilities need to be improved. When the people returned to Walikamam North, they found that it was a high security zone,” she said, adding that many also had the issue of determining who the rightful owner of the land was. “There are people who have a deed for private land and permit for state land,” she said.

Fonseka emphasised that the government policy agenda regarding regional development had to be changed and that it needed to first focus on providing the people basic facilities such as water, schooling and sanitary facilities.

“Due to the 30 year war, people have forgotten their boundaries and today they are struggling to lead a normal life. The development projects have to commence with mutual understanding with the people and the government,” she pointed out.

In 2010, 350 families of farmers and fisher folk living in Panama, a coastal village in the east of Sri Lanka, were forcibly and violently evicted from lands they had cultivated and lived on for over forty years. These lands were taken over by the military to establish camps and they are now being used to promote tourism.

Together with larger civil society groups and networks like the People’s Alliance for the Right to Land (PARL), women and men in Panama took to the streets to highlight their experience of being evicted from their homelands.

Oxfam also called on the government of Sri Lanka to immediately act on the decision to release these lands back to the community who depend on them for their livelihoods and food.

The state had claimed that many of these lands were used for common benefit of the people but the victims of these development projects want to go back to their own land in order to begin normal lives.

The Land Rights Now campaign thus, has called for the immediate implementation of the decision taken by the Sri Lankan government in 2015 on the 340 acres of land in Panama, which ruled to return the land to the community.

Civil society groups however said that although the National Environment Act No. 47 of 1980 required an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) to be carried out prior to implementing projects of this nature, no EIA was carried out.

Threats to the community from wild animals have also increased, as the electric fence surrounding the land, forced elephants to seek alternative routes and villages and farm land have been damaged as a result.

Programme Director, Law and Society Trust, Sandun Thudugala emphasised that the complaints made by the communities over treatment meted out to them by the government when acquiring their lands has largely been ignored.

The regional office of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission and the local Magistrates Court have both determined that the land should be returned to the community and after the change of government in 2015, a cabinet decision was taken in February 2015 to return the lands in Panama taken over by the government to the community. But to date no action has been taken and the community continues to be displaced, he said.

Thudugala said the lack of transparency and accountability, especially by the military in forcefully taking over land for development, does not give the communities confidence in the state’s decisions.

“Political power is exerted in favour of powerful and rich individuals or companies eager to exploit the land. Common people who are victims of tourism development are neglected when it comes to decisions pertaining to the economic policies based on community tourism,” he added.

Thudugala noted that while there are many positive sides of the government, there are many sectors that they have failed to understand in order to arrive at an understanding with the people.

He warned that if these issues are not addressed properly, the people will be frustrated and there would be anarchy. “The people have not been taken into account in the development process, even if the government claims it is for their betterment,” he said.

Tourism will provide employment opportunities

Ratnayake meanwhile, argued that tourism would provide employment opportunities for the people in the long run and uplifting their living standards.

“The percentage of youth entering the field of tourism is not very high and yet there are many openings for employment. The youth also should focus on this growing field as there are many hotels coming up and no other industry could offer them better salaries,” he said.

He further said that anyone who is willing to work in the tourism sector can join one of the government training institutions and start working in their own region or in foreign countries as tourism was a globally accepted field.

“As a nation we should consider the tourism market. Compared to many other industries, tourism is developing at a fast pace. Recent research shows that the customer interest towards our country has increased; about 60 to 65 percent are loyal tourists who often pay a second visit to the country. It is a good sign for sustainable development in the field of Tourism,” he said.

Tourism promotion plans

Ratnayake speaking further on the development of the tourism sector said that it required greater attraction, accessibility to air, land and sea, accommodation facilities with hotels, holiday homes, heritage homes and home stays and other activities, in order to attract more tourists. BOI incentives could also be obtained to improve facilities such as round tours, shopping, water sports and adventurous events to attract more tourists.

“Even though many people blame the government for tourism development in Pasikuda, the regional economic development in the area has increased. People were involved in minor jobs but today people are leading a better life,” he said adding that the Ministry of Fisheries was now planning to set up a fisheries harbour in collaboration with the Tourism Development Authority.

“Tourism will help the people live a better life. It will share the benefits of development with the people. Domestic air connectivity with the international airlines as well as railway and bus stations need to be considered in the future,” said Ratnayake.

Speaking on government policy on tourism he said that the government’s focus on tourism development in the coastal areas would effectively connect it with air services. Tourism is to be one of the main foreign exchange earners for Sri Lanka with the aim of increasing tourist expenditure per day to $125 – 200.

Working Director, Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority (REPPIA), N. Pugendren speaking on post war development, resettlement and land distribution said that the government had taken all possible initiatives to release the lands of the people, but there were many issues yet to be resolved.

He said 258,231 families in the Northern Province and 882,892 families in the Eastern Province had been resettled. There were another 12,815 families in the North and 136,700 families in the Eastern province to be resettled. Along with resettlement, there are 156,332 houses that needs to be constructed.

The briefing note published by Oxfam to inform the public of the debate on development and humanitarian policy issues recommended that the Divisional Secretary of Lahugala should refrain from preventing the community from returning to their land. The Divisional Secretary should withdraw the eviction notice issued to community members and take steps to implement the cabinet decision, it read.

They also stated that the government of Sri Lanka should provide adequate compensation for the loss of income, livelihood and destruction of houses and household belongings and should support them to restore their livelihoods when families return to their land.

The District Secretary, Divisional Secretary and all state authorities should ensure full disclosure to the public in regard to any development plan to be implemented in the region. The public’s right to information and to review, amend and protest proposed plans should be respected and protected. They emphasized the fact that the state should seek to acquire land only when there is a clear benefit to the local community or to the public.

It also stated that the Minister of Lands must ensure due process, specified by law relating to the acquisition of private land by state. Independent and compulsory EIAs and Social and Human Rights Impact Assessments should also be carried out prior to any decision to acquire private land and to implement development projects.

The civil society organisations highlighted that the government of Sri Lanka should implement the National Involuntary Resettlement policy to ensure that rights of individuals affected by development projects are protected. 

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