Mega tourism project on Uchchamunai Island: Ecosystems on the chopping block | Print Edition

By Wasantha Ramanayake


  • Activists allege lease agreement signed without proper studies on environmental harm
  • Say ultra-sensitive ecosystem unable to sustain the impact; fisherfolk’s livelihood threatened
  • What happened to Hikkaduwa and Pigeon Island will happen to Kalpitiya, they warn
  • SLTDA denies charge, says agreement was to help Swiss investor with approval process

The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) has signed an agreement to lease out Uchchamunai Island to a Swiss investor without a proper study on the harm the project could cause to the sensitive ecosystems, environmentalists alleged.

But the authority denies the charge and says the agreement was signed simply to facilitate the investor to obtain approval from the relevant authorities.

The agreement comes under the Kalpitiya Integrated Tourism Resort Project (KITRP), also known as the Kalpitiya Tourism Development Master Plan (KTDMP) of the SLTDA.

Environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara said the lease agreement violated laws that called for the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report before the land was leased out.

He also said no Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) was done. The SEA is carried out to assess the project’s overall impact before preparing the master plan.

mr. Chamikara said he believed that the project’s overall environmental impact on the highly sensitive eco-system around the Kalpitiya peninsula was multifaceted and negative.

Fourteen islands alienated to the SLTDA for tourism development separate the sea from the Puttlam lagoon, which has unique and diverse eco-systems consisting of mangroves, bushes, dunes, coral, sand and stone reefs, mud rest and seagrass bed.

“These reefs, mangroves, and seagrass facilitate breeding of various types of fish, crabs, prawns and dugongs. Large constructions, sewage, chemicals and any large-scale tourism activity will inevitably destroy the delicate eco-system,” he warned.

The environmentalist also said the project could even hurt the livelihood of those engaged in fishing on the island.

“The export of white crabs exclusive to the area and other fish varieties bring in a large sum of foreign currency,” he said.

“People visit these islands to see various attractions, such as sand dunes. However, once leased out, these islands would be out of bounds for people and would be the exclusive property of the investor. The project could result in the breakdown of the tourism structure in the area,” Mr. Chamikara said.

It was ad-hoc and unchecked tourism that destroyed the corals in Hikkaduwa and the Pigeon Island, he said, adding that these two tourist spots stood as a testimony to the authorities that if Kalpitiya’s natural environment was harmed, it would eventually kill the tourism value of the area.

Lawyer and environmentalist Jagath Gunawardana pointed out that according to an environmental assessment done by the Urban Development Authority (UDA), Uchchamunai Island and its surroundings had been identified as part of an ultra-sensitive ecosystem.

“Such a dynamic environment is unstable and not suitable for constructing large permanent buildings,” Dr. Gunawardana said.

He said that in terms of the Tourism Act, the SLTDA was required to conduct environmental assessment to educate prospective investors to make an informed decision before signing any agreement.

dr. Gunawardana expressed doubts about the authority carrying out such intensive environmental assessments before implementing the master plan. “Reputed international investors are much concerned about the environmental impacts of large projects. By failing to provide a big picture, the SLTDA is rather discouraging investors, not necessarily encouraging them,” he said.

All Ceylon Tourism Service Providers Association (ACTSPA) Secretary Suranjith Wevita pointed out that the Kalpitiya sea was a breeding ground for many fish and turtle. At the same time, its surrounding attracted various bird species. He said that the construction of luxury and super-luxury upmarket hotels with 4,000 rooms and facilities for water sports activities would inevitably damage this unique ecosystem.

“The traditional lifestyle of the indigenous fishing community on the island itself is a tourist attraction, and this too would be disturbed because of this mega project,” Mr. Wevita argued. He added that these fishermen contributed to 80% of the fish yield in Kalpitiya.

Instead of mega projects, the promotion of community-based tourism models would minimize environmental and socio-cultural damage, he said.

SLTDA Director General Dhammika Wijesinghe said the Swiss investor signed the agreement only to start the formal process. She said that the scoping committee consisting of approving authorities such as the Central Environment Authority and the relevant Pradeshiya Sabhas would be involved in granting approvals before the project got underway.

“If the project has adverse impacts on the environment, the project should be modified accordingly to minimize such impacts,” she said.

She added that the agreement envisaged the development of 30 percent of the island’s land area.

Refuting the claims that the island had been leased out hurriedly to bring in the much-needed foreign currency, she said the agreement only provided a legal basis for the investor to proceed with getting necessary approval from various agencies. “The actual investment comes much later,” she added.

The SLTDA’s tourism planning, development, and investor-relations Director, Prasad Jayasuriya, explained that the COVID-19 pandemic and the lengthy approval process had delayed the signing of the agreement.

He said the investor’s representatives came to the country on May 8 following a Board of Investments (BOI) ultimatum that the agreement had to be signed before May 11. Accordingly, it was signed only on May 11 due to disturbing incidents that broke out on May 9 in Colombo and elsewhere.

dr. Jayasuriya said the SLTDA published an advertisement calling for proposals for the tourism development of Uchchamunai Island under the master plan. He said that there was only one proposal, and it was evaluated and approved in 2020.

He said that in terms of the agreement, the investor could only start the process of getting approval from various line agencies such as the Central Environment Authority (CEA). “The investor could not initiate the process without any rights to the property,” he pointed out, rejecting the claims that the authority had violated the laws by signing the agreement.

He claimed that the investor or its local agent did not have any conflict of interest with the SLTDA or its directors.

dr. Jayasuriya also assured that around 450 families living on the island, mainly fisher folks, would not be relocated. They would be allowed to live and engage in their traditional occupations without hindrance. “The investment will uplift their livelihood by providing better housing and infrastructure,” he added.

The Kalpitiya Peninsula is one of the most beautiful coastal areas in the north-western province. Its varied ecosystems consist of bar reefs, coastal plains, saltpans, mangrove forests, salt marshes and sand dunes.

The SLTDA drew up the masterplan — the Kalpitiya Integrated Tourism Resort Project (KITRP) — to develop 14 islands in the peninsula as tourist destinations. Whale and dolphin watching and the bar reef sanctuary are among major attractions, while the area is also popular among foreign tourists for its fishing wind, kite surfing and kayaking.

Islanders fear land grab and disruption to their lifestyle

Twenty-eight-year-old 28-year-old Uchchamunai Islan resident Ramani is a preschool teacher says the tourism development project will disrupt the livelihood of the islanders’ and their freedom to live in peace and harmony.

She says her husband, a fisherman, earned a decent living and they live a peaceful life a host of challenges such as lack of access to potable water, electricity and health care. “Tourism not only brings tourists, but it will bring other social ills such as narcotics drugs, causing harm to the community.”

“We don’t have enough drinking water; we dig wells to get drinking water. World vision, an INGO, had built some wells for villagers. A Christian charity had provided some of the villagers with common toilets. I travel by boat for 30 minutes to take my 18-month-old baby to the clinic in Kalpitiya town as there is no hospital on the island.

“We prefer this lifestyle and don’t want new road networks to disrupt our lifestyle.

Educated at a convent school with assistance from the church, Ramani says the island’s only school had classes up to Grade five but now it has classes up to Grade nine. It has only five teachers.

She says the islanders’ mail meal usually comprises rice and fish or dried fish. Rarely do they eat vegetables because to buy vegetables they have to go to the town and they rot fast.

The government and an INGO provided the islanders with solar panels to get electricity with each house getting enough electricity to operate a fan, a TV, a few bulbs and plug points to charge mobile phones. Although she got married at the age of 24, most of the girls and boys get married before they are 20. Newly married couple would build a house of their own with coconut fronds or some with bricks.

Rev. Father Nelson, Chilaw Director of SEDEC, the charity arm of the Catholic Church which runs several projects on the island, says that authorities have not informed the people about the project.

“The tourism authorities should tell the islanders what the project would mean to them and whether the Government could give them an assurance that their lands will not be touched and they will be allowed to continue with their traditional occupation without hindrance. If that happens, not many islanders would object to the project,” he said, whatever the promises the authority gives should be legally binding.

SEDEC employee Rukman Silva, 38, says once children leave school, they join their fathers to go to sea or engage in lagoon fishing. Only a handful of children go to mainland Kalpitiya to continue their education.

So far Uchchamunai has produced only one graduate, says Rukman. According to him, an average fisherman earns a monthly income of Rs. 20,000, which he mainly spends on food. Once a week, they go to Kalpitiya town to buy essential items.

Another employee of the charity says that islanders fear that their lands will be grabbed by the investors. She said the islanders don’t have title deeds to the lands.

The 1400 acre island has a cemetery, a school, community coconut cultivations and dry fish processing areas. Its houses have been built with coconut fronds, metal sheets and bricks.

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