4th June 2000

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Drowning cries

A proposed hotel on islands in the Negombo lagoon poses a threat to the livelihood of fisherfolk
By Hiranthi Fernando

The fisherfolk of Negombo are up in arms. They fear for their livelihood and the moral welfare of their children. The cause for their concern is a proposed 100- room hotel project on two islands in the Negombo lagoon, by Kings Island Hotel (Pvt) Ltd, said to have been approved by the Board of Investment (BOI).

Fishermen's Society President M. Lionel Fernando said they have protested strongly about this project. "The Negombo lagoon has 11 islands. The investor plans to construct a hotel on Kuttikele, a large island at the mouth of the lagoon," he said. "The adjacent island, Kuttikaduwa, in the Munnakkara area, has been earmarked for the car park."

When they protested, Negombo Mayor Ananda Munasinghe called officials of the BOI, Fisheries Department, Divisional Secretariat, Harbour Corporation, and Fisheries Extension Office, along with the Parish Priests of Grand Street, Sea Street and Munnakara churches and 40 representatives of the fisherfolk for a discussion.

"At the meeting, the ownership of the islands was questioned by the fishermen," Mr. Fernando said. "The investor stated that he has a deed for Kuttikele, which he purchased from the former owner. He also claimed to have a promissory note from the owner of the second island."

However according to the fishermen, Kuttikaduwa had been acquired by the government 15 years ago as an anchorage site for small fishing boats. Though the owner refused the compensation as he was dissatisfied, the gazette notification of the acquisition was not withdrawn.

Negombo Divisional Secretary E. Wijepala says that according to their registers all the islands are crown lands. "There should not be any valid private deeds." No individual can construct a hotel on them as it is an environmentally sensitive area and it would have a hazardous impact. A final decision would need the agreement of the institutions concerned.

The fishermen are also worried about the destruction of the mangroves on the islands. "If the hotel is to be constructed, the mangroves would have to be cut down," Fishermen's Society Secretary Christopher Warnakulasuriya said. "Only a week before this hotel project was discussed, the Harbour Corporation and the Fisheries Ministry had a big ceremony to plant 10,000 mangroves on an island. It was a project by World Vision to prevent erosion and facilitate prawn and crab breeding. We are getting aid from foreign agencies to grow mangroves. People are not allowed to cut a single mangrove on the islands or encroach one yard, to build anything. Last week, fisherman Damien Fernando from Munnakara, cut down a tree on his own property and was arrested. He was kept in remand for two days and had to be bailed out. Now here comes an investor to put up a hotel, cutting down the mangroves on two islands."

"The mouth of the Negombo lagoon is exceptional for breeding of fish," said fisherman John Cyril Fernando.

"Sea water from the Moya (mouth of the lagoon) and fresh water from Hamilton's canal come together here, and the mixture makes it a good breeding ground. If they pollute the mouth of the lagoon what will happen? The lagoon will be destroyed and the fish will not breed. This lagoon is the biggest lagoon that still breeds fish. The Puttalam lagoon has suffered due to pollution by prawn farms."

Fr. Leslie Fernando of St. Mary's Church at Grand Street, said the lagoon would be destroyed if the hotel is built on the islands. "We have enough hotels, which are not half full. Why another? Sea Street and Kuda Paduwa have become notorious for child sex and prostitution. So far, this side of Negombo, Kuttikaduwa and Munnakara areas, have had no problem because there are no hotels here. The fishermen are determined to see that this hotel does not come up and corrupt their children. The people of the area are asking the government to takeover all the islands and protect them."

These fears were echoed by fisherman Joseph Pieris at Munnakara, a village where 90% are fisherfolk. "There will be more Baumanns and our children will be ruined."

Taking a boat ride round Kuttikele, we saw several 'No entry' signs. "This is the old traditional waterway used by the fishermen," Lionel Fernando said. "When they build a hotel and car park on opposite islands, we will not be able to cross this waterway. Movement in the lagoon will be obstructed."

The island had mangroves all around it and some coconut trees. Although the mangroves on the periphery were intact, an area on one side had been taken up by a prawn tank. There was a watch hut and some buildings. An electricity line could also be seen.

The fishermen claimed that the prospective investor was already breeding prawns without a permit. "The polluted water is let out into the lagoon," Mr. Fernando said. "Fish and prawns breed in the lagoon under the mangroves. All that will be lost when the lagoon becomes even more polluted with the construction and the hotel waste."

Kingsley, a katudel fisherman who fixes V- shaped nets on posts in the lagoon to trap prawns said, "All the families of three groups of fishermen depending on this livelihood will be displaced. There is no other place we can do this fishing. However much we protest, strong chemicals which are used for prawn culture will be let out into the lagoon. From the construction project too, there will be pollution. Some fish are already affected by a rash due to pollution by the Free Trade Zone. Some species cannot be found here now."

Mayor Munasinghe said he is totally against the project. "The Municipal Council will not give its approval. It will be a health hazard. They cannot build without Municipal Council approval."

They too are not in favour of a hotel on the lagoon, Director General of the Fisheries Industries Department Nagodavitana said. "The fishermen are more important. The land has been acquired by the Department. The developer has no right to it."

The Director of the Central environmental Authority, L.H. Jayasinghe said that since it is a coastal zone, the project proposal has been forwarded to the Coast Conservation Department. An Environmental Impact Assessment should be carried out by them.

Meanwhile, the Director of the Coast Conservation Department, H. N.R Perera said that approval has not been given yet. "We have to scope the project and consider all the issues. We will get the developer to address these issues.

"We have decided to consult the Ministry of Fisheries and other authorities involved such as the CEA. We have to get confirmation from the Divisional Secretary about land ownership. The developer also has to give a well- defined project in terms of an acceptable base map."

No pollution, says developer

Preliminary approvals for the hotel have been obtained from the Board of Investment and the Tourist Board and now the proposal has been put to the Coast Conservation Department for a report, said the Chairman of Kings Island Hotel (Pvt) Ltd., M.D. Guruge.

Referring to the protests he said the fishermen were being misled. According to Mr. Guruge he has purchased all the land except about one-and-a-half-acres on Kuttikele. He now owns about 10 acres, which he purchased from five owners. "I have a deed to the land I purchased," he stressed. "The title can be traced to 1875. I gave copies of deeds to the former Divisional Secretary, who accepted that I do have a title to the land."

He has no intention of cutting the mangroves, which are found only on a 10-metre strip along the edge of the island, he said, adding, "These mangroves give privacy and a natural environment and we will preserve them. They prevent erosion and will provide shade for the cabana-style rooms. Anyway we are not allowed to cut mangroves."

The prawn culture project did not belong to him, Mr. Guruge explained. That portion of the island is not his. He did not think they had a permit for the prawn culture but he did not object, since the authorities should enforce the law. There would not be any pollution of the lagoon or the surroundings. The hotel's design is not elaborate. It has a central hall for functions and simple cabanas facing the mangroves. The Tourist Board has insisted that there should be a sewage purification plant, Mr. Guruge explained.

"Environmentally, there are certain conditions which we will definitely fulfil," he said. "The lagoon will be cleaned and beautified. At present, people throw rubbish into the lagoon. We want to show the world, Asia's best lagoon."

He was also not intending to disturb the activities of the fishermen. Their use of the lagoon will not be curtailed. His main interest in the second island was to keep a few vehicles and boats to ferry the tourists. "My idea is to invite tourists to see our fishing activities," he said. "It would also be beneficial to fishermen, as they would be able to sell their fish at higher prices and take tourists out in their boats for a fee."

He said he is going slow on pushing the project approvals, because of the protests. "I am a local investor willing to invest a large sum of money to develop the country. We will not exploit the resources as many multi-national investors do. However, if objections continue, I will take the money elsewhere," he added.

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