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SRI LANKA: Preparing For a New Chapter of Development

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, May 28 2009 (IPS) - As Sri Lanka prepares for a new chapter of development after ending nearly three decades of conflict, ecologists among other experts here are calling for a ‘green’ revolution against the usual foreign investment, private sector-driven type of progress.

Foreign investors are already inquiring about the prospects in the war-weary north – now cleared for an economic boom – while five-star hotels in Colombo are seeing increasing demand for their rooms from foreign businessmen and Sri Lankan expatriates. The government is inviting the Sri Lankan Diaspora to invest in or return to the country, and at the same time is urging big business from overseas to invest here.

“Is this the kind of development we want?” asked Rainor Makolage, a fitness trainer in Colombo. “We need to develop using our water and land resources. We should not cut trees and ruin the environment. Our development plan should be homespun and not copied from overseas,” Makolage, who hails from southern Sri Lanka, told IPS.

Optimism about Sri Lanka ‘really’ taking off – as was expected following the post-1977 phase of economic liberalisation – is growing after government forces crushed Tamil Tiger guerrillas and killed their elusive leader Velupillai Prabhakaran last week. The bloody campaign that has cost thousands of lives triggered a mass exodus of people and scuttled the economy. Economists say Sri Lanka’s true potential has been stalled by the war, where economic growth has been averaging 4-5 percent when it should be growing by 8 percent or more.

Tourism has been the worst affected sector.

But, ecologists are questioning the rush to promote mass tourism by the authorities. “We need to promote agro-eco tourism. We need to promote a tourism that will not ruin the environment and take away the little resources we have,” argues Piyal Parakrama, ecologist and executive director at the Colombo-based Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies.

Tourism authorities have announced plans to garner 1.5 million tourists per year by 2016 – this year 500,000 tourists arrived. The figure of 500,000 has eluded Sri Lanka for many years.

Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority Bernard Goonatilake told reporters that the government is launching an international campaign next month that will go on until the end of the year – targeting the UK, France, Germany, Russia, the Middle East and India.

Already local hoteliers are looking at building hotels on the east coast – which has some of the best beaches in the world – with or without foreign collaboration to cater to mass-market, low-cost tourism.

Sarath Fernando, a veteran activist for farmers’ rights and coordinator of MONLAR -which represents farmers and peasants – says the usual kind of development that governments undertake will not work.

“What is the kind development envisaged? The government will invite foreign investors and the private sector to invest for the sake of the national economy, but do they take the interests of the people to heart?” he asked, adding that like in the past, investors will come, use the land offered cheap, cheap labour, while also getting tax benefits.

In fact, a Sri Lankan garment manufacturer said his company put up a factory in the East – after it was cleared of Tamil rebels a year ago – because of the tax holiday offered. “We invested there purely because of the tax holiday and other concessions. There was no other reason,” he told IPS.

Fernando, referring to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech in Parliament last week where he said there were no minorities, but only patriots who love their country and non-patriots, noted that if this is true, then people should also be given land and allowed to freely decide their future.

“Take the tea and rubber plantation workers for example. For more than a century their lifestyles haven’t improved although tea is the biggest commodity export. They have no decision-making powers and their daily wage of 300 rupees [about three dollars] is even less than the village worker who gets 600 rupees,” he said.

Fernando said the kind of development that is needed should benefit locals – it should not be transplanted from somewhere through foreign investment. “If the government doesn’t consult the locals on development, the same issues [that led to the war] would remain where Tamils will struggle for land rights against investors who come from outside.”

Parakrama says Sri Lanka must go back to being an agriculture country and have a vision based on a ‘natural resource account.’ “This is just like running a private company where it operates within the available resources unlike the government which lives beyond its means.”

He said Sri Lanka – once known in the West as the granary of the East – needs to develop agriculture in the North which was once very productive and provided some 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s food requirements before fighting broke out.

Economic growth indicators have not included the North for the past 25 years, according to the Central Bank as data collection was not possible.

Parakrama stresses that, instead of building factories which pollute the environment, the authorities must use the country’s natural resources, develop water harvesting and water security.

“Fresh water is a valuable resource and there is a lot of fertile land in the northeast. For basic living you need food… not computers. The irony however is that the farmer is struggling while the man with the computer has a far better life,” he said.

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