Hotel boom spells doom say islanders

By Leon Berenger on the island of Mottuwarama, Kalpitiya

These days there is a lot of activity on a remote island off the coast in Kalpitiya in the Puttalam district, with heavyweight businessmen being involved in an alleged land grab that has concerned local residents who fear they would lose livelihood and land.

Rev. Fr. Anthony Vincent Ranga Fernando J. M. Aslam Ms. Hameed

The island of Mutwal or Mottuwarama, wedged between a lagoon and the Indian Ocean with a land space of some 800 acres and one kilometre away from the Kalpitiya mainland, is today at the centre of a simmering dispute between the villagers and outsiders, including land developers and hoteliers.

It all began with the military defeat of the LTTE two years ago and since then the place is a hub of activity with everyone claiming his/her piece of land, without proper legal documentation to prove ownership.
Leading the protests for the villagers is the local Catholic priest who claims that some four acres belonging to the church premises has also been swallowed up by the new land grabbers, adding that if the present trend continues unchecked there will be little land left untouched by them.

Rev. Fr. Anthony Vincent charged that developers and hoteliers were erecting barbed wire fences across many parts of the island, and in one case a 12 foot high sand bund stretching some eight kilometres has been erected causing obstruction to the free movement of the people.

He said there were about 10 different property developers and hoteliers who were on the island and the number will only increase. “If they intend building hotels, then both the sea beach and the lagoon front will be acquired. If that happens the villagers, who are mainly fishermen will have no access to these areas and that would impact badly on their livelihood,” Fr. Vincent said.

Land fenced off by a hotelier
A typical humble home on the island. Pix by Saman Kariyawasam
Islanders preparing for the church festival
Mottuwarama Sinhala Vidyalaya students enjoy a game of cricket
Threatened: The mangroves in the area

“Every year this little island holds an annual church feast where more than 200 Catholic families, converge. The feast has been held every year, even during the height of the LTTE activities. But this time we don’t know how many will arrive for the festival on Sunday,” he lamented.

“Hoteliers will not be happy to have a humble church and a common cemetery in the premises. They will say, it is not good for business,” Fr. Vincent concluded. Another serious concern of the people is the adhoc clearing of the mangroves that border the island. This could affect marine life.

M. H. Iyoob, Secretary of the Protection of the People’s Rights Organisation (PPRO) said that in one particular area about 20 blocks of 10 perches each have been cleared of the mangroves to make way for beach huts and cabanas.

“This is disastrous and something must be done immediately to stop the rot before it is too late. It is illegal to clear mangroves as they are protected under the Forest Ordinance. I have made over 14 written complaints to every possible authority both at the regional and national level, even to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But there has been no response,” an angry Mr. Iyoob said.

Dinesh Fernando of the All Ceylon Fisher Folk Trade Union (ACFFTU) said, the islanders, mostly fishermen who knew no other trade were dependent on the catch from the surrounding sea for their survival and their fear was therefore justifiable.

“If they are forced to leave the island they have no other place to go to or any other work to do. When the conflict was raging very few people knew about this island. But now everyone is flocking here. The reason is simple. At that time an acre of land was between Rs. 50,000 to 100,000 depending on the location. The present price is Rs. 2.5 million for an acre,” Mr. Fernando added.

“That is the reason for the present attraction. It is like a horde of bees being drawn to a pot of honey. This is an island that has been neglected for so long, where people lived even without electricity. The authorities never cared, but now it is a different story,” he said.

“I will not budge from this island. This is where I was born and this is where I shall die,” declared 43-year-old Anthony Harrison, a father of two. “These are times when strangers arrive at the island daily. They can be anyone --. people on the payroll of property developers, police sleuths who knows?” he said.

His sentiments were echoed by P. Shanthi Costa, a mother of two, who claimed that her grandparents had inhabited the island as far back as 1920. “This is the only place, my family knows as home. It is frightening to think of losing it. Outsiders say we will be better off once the hotels are operational since there will be job opportunities and more money. However, I prefer the way things are,” she added.
R. M. Maharoof, fears that with the introduction of the hotel industry there will be a clash with their familiar way of life and culture.

“I come from a small and closely knit Muslim community. Western influences are not needed and are certainly not welcome. It is frightening to think as to what will happen to our village style of life that we share with our fellow islanders whether they be Sinhalese or Tamils,” Mr. Maharoof said.

The imam of the lone mosque on the island J. M. Aslam said, “The people here, Muslims or otherwise are used to a village way of life. The people are content although they have very little in the way of facilities such as health, transport and communication.

“Now we are told the place will be developed and more jobs will be provided for our youth. They warn that certain people with hidden agendas are spreading false rumours. I do not know what all this means, but certainly this quiet and peaceful island has been disturbed,” the imam said.

However, B. V. I. N. Gonawala-a teacher at the tiny school of 85 pupils had a different outlook adding that tourism should be encouraged but not at the expense of the livelihoods of the villagers. “The initial approach of the investors was wrong and that has led to much confusion and suspicion among the villagers,” he said.

Neil de Silva a leading property developer and hotelier has acquired more than 180 acres on the island. He says it was all done through legal means in 2005. “The people may say what they like but I am in possession of title deeds relating to the land. The idea is to work towards the improvement of the economy and this will only enhance the living conditions of the local people. Their sons and daughters will be provided with job opportunities. There is a misinformation campaign by certain individuals and groups holding on to various agendas. Relevant authorities should look into the activities of these groups of people.

“The local church is accusing me of grabbing four acres of its land. I am a devout Catholic, this is something I will never do,” Mr. Silva said. But his claim regarding the purchase of the land is being disputed by local officialdom who say the hoteliers, developers and even the local inhabitants have no legitimate claim on the land they claim to be theirs.

Tissa Sooriyagoda, Director Planning and Development of the Tourist Board said the lands had been acquired through questionable means and the matter will be referred to courts for a final decision.

“Not a single person, big or small has a legitimate right to own land that belongs to the state. If they think otherwise, then they must prove it in courts and the matter will be settled there,” Mr. Sooriyagoda said.

His claim was backed by Ranga Fernando, Additional Government Agent (AGA) for Kalpitiya who said that investigations so far have revealed that there was not a single legitimate land owner on the island of Mutwal.

“Individuals can say what they like, but the ground reality is that mass-scale fraud has taken place during land transactions. There maybe a few honest people who have purchased land for large sums of money and if that is the case they have been tricked by clever middle-men,” Mr. Fernando said. “However, priority will be given to the villagers in future deals but as for property developers and hoteliers they will have to pack up and leave if the courts decide so,” he said.

Environmentalist Jagath Gunawardene said that if the hoteliers and the property developers are allowed to carry on with the rape of the mangroves in Mottuwarama, the marine life there was doomed.

He added that this area was abundant in crabs, prawns, lobsters and other marine life, because the breeding takes place inbetween the roots of the mangroves that are deeply embedded in the water as well as the land.

“Relevant authorities should act fast and try to stop this,” he said.

Additional reporting by Padma Kumari

A road or bridge is all we need

The board read, “Village re-awakening of Mottuwarama”, and it was erected on the shores of the island in 2009 with all the fanfare and publicity that goes with such state-sponsored events. Two years on, the lettering on the board has faded but the re-awakening has not even begun.

The skelton boat service

“We do not need a re-awakening but at least they could provide us with a road or even a bridge over the lagoon to the main land,” said Ms. S. H. Shaul Hameed who runs a small grocery.

“This is an island that lacks basic facilities such as electricity, healthcare, clean drinking water, transport, but no one complains. But officials should at least provide us with a road over the lagoon to the mainland-the distance of which is about 230 metres.

The only mode of transport available is the skeleton boat service, and sometimes this is not available.
“Give us this roadway that is all we ask, and leave the re-awakening of Mottuwarama for another day,” Ms. Hameed said.

Top to the page  |  E-mail  |  views[1]
SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Other News Articles
Chinese to build luxury port city off Galle Face
C’wealth Secretariat joins the chorus
President insists solution only through PSC
Lanka rejects Tamil Nadu demand
Hundreds affected by viral fever epidemic
Court orders Prisons Chief to produce medical report on Fonseka
Ekneligoda habeas corpus case on Aug.23
ASP donates compensation to Castle Street Hospital
New postings at Police Department
Galle Road diversion for Hikkaduwa tourism zone
A drugged nation
Private bus operators to strike from midnight today; some to defy
Residents fear landfill will lead to flooding
Chief Medical Officer comments on fumigation campaign
Witness: Police blocked and attacked vehicle taking Roshen to hospital
FUTA may go for an interim solution though unhappy
Complainant attacked at Wakf Board meeting
Lunch in a packet: What’s in that mouthful?
Lanka a hub for sea horse and sea cucumber smuggling
Schoolgirl collapses with heart attack in bus
Crocodile park in Muthurajawela
Domestic in Saudi alleges employer blinded her
Health sector TUs prompt ILO to protect their rights
Addressing the painful past as honest friends
Hotel boom spells doom say islanders
Wild animals get their own hospital
Bricks, sand, cement, pirith and a shelter over their heads
Govt. sponsored dengue
Police leadership: The good times and bad
Teen call-girl racket from North busted
Taxman delays paying dues


Reproduction of articles permitted when used without any alterations to contents and a link to the source page.
© Copyright 1996 - 2011 | Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka. All Rights Reserved | Site best viewed in IE ver 8.0 @ 1024 x 768 resolution