Sri Lankans protest as officials seize their land for tsunami 'safety zone'

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The Independent Online

When the tsunami hit Arugam Bay, a small community on the east coast of Sri Lanka, more than 300 people died. Then, the country's rival communities, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, stood shoulder to shoulder as they grieved.

When the tsunami hit Arugam Bay, a small community on the east coast of Sri Lanka, more than 300 people died. Then, the country's rival communities, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, stood shoulder to shoulder as they grieved.

Almost six months after the Boxing Day disaster, the friends and neighbours of the victims have come together again in a show of solidarity, amid fears that the face of Sri Lankan tourism is being changed for ever.

Their target is the government inspectors, who have arrived to begin taking back government land which has, up to now, been leased to the people.

The land acquisition - a strip along the beach 200 metres wide - has been called a safety buffer zone, but the organisation acquiring the land is the tourist board. Last month, they informed local people of their plans to develop the fishing area as a tourist site and build new hotels in place of the small-time cabanas the people of the area used to house surfers and travellers who were holidaying off the beaten track. Any constructions, they said, would be bulldozed.

The Sri Lankan government's decision after the tsunami to enforce a ban on building within 200 metres of the beach is feared to have wider-reaching implications than protection from another disaster. While the locals are protesting against the destruction of their livelihoods, the requisitioning of land has also prompted fears that the government is retaking control of the land in order to attract the business of hotel conglomerates.

With banners reading "People not profit", "Haven't they suffered enough" and "save Arugam Bay", they chanted and stamped the ground for more than three hours on Monday, blocking the only road into the village. Troops patrolled the area with sub-machine guns at the ready, as burning tyres stoked with driftwood cast pungent black smoke into the air. Amid the smoke, the people carried effigies, vaulting them high in the air. "It's our tourist chairman," said one protester in broken English, pointing at one. "They'll put him in the fire, up in smoke."

The effigy was Udaya Nanayakkara, chairman of the tourist board, who has been charged with the task of informing residents of plans for their village. Detailed maps obtained from a tourist board meeting with residents on 17 May show new hotels near the beach and within the buffer zone, confirming the locals' fears about the development along the miles of newly vacated sand space. The isolated bay is a curved beach with white sand, lined with palm trees, and considered one of the top 10 surfing destinations in the world.

Mr Nanayakkara told the meeting, according to the minutes: "Maybe your forefathers lived in that area, but the 860 acres belongs to the government. It will be developed as a tourist zone. We will put up buildings and develop the area and we will ask you to come and work there. We are thinking about the higher-level tourists, not the five-dollar tourists."

The devastation in Arugam Bay is plain to see. Debris lies piled up on the side of the dusty road that runs through the community; a bus, parked by a wave, still stands battered, windowless and water-marked. "We had 11 boats and 15 bicycles that came into our front yard," said Marlene Tissera, who has owned the Hideaway guest house since 1978, and is one of the six people who have been served notice to leave their hotels and cabanas, which provide modest beach accommodation. The six have been served notice to demolish anything they rebuilt from the foundations after the tsunami.

The process of acquiring land has rolled 10 miles up the east coast, as far as Batticaloa, where local fishermen and cabana owners own their land. Even in these cases, the government is still taking the land for development - although the 200-metre zone is not yet law - promising to lease it back to the previous owners.

In Arugam Bay, a fishing community which has benefited from the surfers who make the nine-hour land journey from the capital, Colombo, the plans go further. A marina is proposed in the prime surfing area, as well as a helipad, sea-plane landing strip, and an area allocated for 1,500 housing units for displaced residents. This, at nearly a mile from the beach, is too remote for shops and not an ideal place for locals to cater for tourists.

"Are the government going to compensate for land we're going to give up?" asked one local who did not want to be named. "And we're wondering where and how and when government aid is going to be spent."