We will not move, say beachfront people of a lost paradise

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The Independent Online

The midday sun is beating down on Kapuganage Pedase as he shifts the remains of his house into a pile of rubble by the road. For all of the former labourer's 55 years, he has lived on this plot. A stone's throw from the makeshift tent where his family now live, the surf washes lazily on to the beach.

The midday sun is beating down on Kapuganage Pedase as he shifts the remains of his house into a pile of rubble by the road. For all of the former labourer's 55 years, he has lived on this plot. A stone's throw from the makeshift tent where his family now live, the surf washes lazily on to the beach.

"I am going to stay here, whatever it takes," he says. "We'll fight to the bitter end. My father and grandfather worked hard to buy this land".

Mr Pedase and his family are among the 500,000 Sri Lankans who are being told to abandon their ruined homes and move inland. This week, the government announced that attempts to rebuild homes within 200 metres of the shoreline would be deemed illegal.

As you travel south from Colombo to Hambantota nearly 200 miles away, the scene seems similar. Families - those "lucky enough" to survive the tsunamis - sit among the rubble day after day. They fear the authorities will take their land if they move.

A government spokesman told The Independent that its plan to relocate communities to new settlements was a necessary precaution because of the threat of another tsunami.

Mr Pedase says: "Even though people are in shock, we don't believe there's any danger of another wave coming. This land is worth a lot of money, about £20,000. I think the government is going to sell it on to foreign hotel developers."

The growing popularity of this area has meant land prices have quadrupled in the past two years. The south-east coast alone attracted more than 500,000 tourists last year. Before the tsunami, tourism was among the country's biggest sources of foreign income.

One of Sri Lanka's most-visited beaches is Mirissa, a mile-long stretch of golden sand with a fringe of coconut palms. For the guesthouse owners here, the consequences of the policy could be devastating.

Harasha Baduge, 26, who runs the Water Creatures bungalows on the beachfront, says: "If we're not allowed to rebuild our guesthouses on the beach, tourists won't come. Within one year we could get this place up and running again, but we're scared to start rebuilding in case we have to move."

The exact details of the policy are unclear. Unofficial documents seen by The Independent, suggest there will be one rule for the poor coastal communities and another for the wealthy hotel chains. They state that hotels will be considered on a "case by case" basis. Mr Baduge believes the larger hotels on the beach will be able to stay. "It's people from the local area who have always run the smaller places", he says. "The authorities are giving themselves the chance to clear the coast of what the government sees as unsightly developments."

A short stroll up the sands, the Paradise Beach Hotel stands, or rather, lies. Only a few of the 20 bungalows remain. Here, tourists paid £40 a night, often as part of a package holiday. Most smaller hotels charge only £4 and attract backpackers. The owner, Ananda Jayadewa, says: "We really haven't been told anything; it's the uncertainty which is the problem. But because of our size, we're hopeful. I think in some ways this could be a good thing, because many of the buildings on the beach are here illegally."

Nearly 70 per cent of buildings on the south coast were put up illegally, government figures show. These people are technically squatters on state land.

Official discouragement has started. Sampath Malavaratne, from the Matara planning division, said the government was starting to cut the electricity, telephone and water supplies inside the designated 200m zone. But for some groups access to the coast is essential to their livelihood. Before the tsunami, fishing provided most of the jobs in the south.

In the Matara region, more than 20,000 families rely on the sea for their livelihood.

In the village of Totomuna, groups of fishermen stand amid mounds of bricks and debris. It looks as though the tsunamis hit yesterday. More than 200 people died here when the waves struck and the survivors are not optimistic.

Tukshana Virasuriya, 33, who lost his nine-month-old daughter, Sajita, in the disaster, says: "It was bad enough losing our families and our boats, but now we've been hit with this. We have to live by the sea; we run our businesses from our homes." He does not believe new homes will be provided for them. For him and his family, the refugee camp at the local school could be their home for the next year.

President Chandrika Bandaranayake has promised a special reconstruction programme for fisherman. But the details have yet to be released.

"The government has done nothing for us in the past, and I don't have much faith in them now," another fisherman, Indica Fonsecka, says. "Moving us inland will destroy the communities here. This is our home. We don't want to go."

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