Sri Lanka lagoon set for tourist development
Tiny flying fish glint as our boat is pushed off from the shore with a long stick to get us through the mud and seaweed. The motor is fired up and we head for one of the 14 islands lining a beautiful lagoon in the Kalpitiya region of western Sri Lanka.
The water is pale blue-green; the heat, even early in the morning, intense.
These slender, sandy islets lie between lagoon and open sea, a haunt of dolphin and dugong (sea-cow). We land near the tip of the longest island, Mohothtuwarama, nicknamed Dutch Bay Island, and meet three fishermen heaving their boat into the ocean.
They show us some small sharks and other fish they have caught. But the three - Jude Dayalan, Antony Regan and Rexi Manoj - are anxious about what is happening half a kilometre away. A grand plan is being implemented to open 17 hotels on these islands, with 10,000 beds for tourists - equal roughly to the local population.
"In five or six places there are boards prohibiting us from fishing," says Jude, a father of three. The others interject emotionally.
"There's another island nearby, Illuppanthivu, where we can't fish any more at all.
"Earlier we could go anywhere to fish. Now they've restricted us by starting to build hotels everywhere."
Under the Kalpitiya plan, two of the 14 islands have already been leased out to private consortia. This is one of 15 tourism zones designated by the government to attract local and multinational investment - part of an ambitious plan to raise current tourist figures five-fold within five years, to 2.5 million per annum.
But this is a remote community, only recently opened up because of its proximity to the former war zone. Indeed, on our first attempt to get to the island navy patrolmen turned us back to the mainland, forcing us to get official permission to visit.
Although the women and children come and go from Kalpitiya town across the water, as there is no secondary school, these 14 islands have about 2,000 families. They are a mixture of Roman Catholic and Muslim, almost all of them fishing as there is no good soil or fresh water for farming. Unusually, many of the Catholic population are Tamil-speaking Sinhalese.
Herman Kumara of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, a campaigner, says the tourism project gravely threatens their livelihood and is being imposed from the top down.
"These people don't know what is going on - what will happen to their lives and livelihoods - and how it will create any benefit, any positive things for their lives," he says.
We take a tour on Dutch Bay Island, lurching around in a trailer attached to a tractor. Much of the land is partitioned with barbed wire, while signs show the earmarked projects. One promises the West Paradise Resort with amenities including a spa, swimming pool and children's park. A nearby plot announces a boutique hotel.
But, whatever the locals' fears, others say tourism is what they need.
Southward along the lagoon shore, Neil D'Silva, a Sri Lankan tourism developer and chairman of Dutch Bay Resorts Development, is with his small team, surveying his hotel, already under construction.
With infectious enthusiasm he shows us around, describing each luxury chalet as a "hideaway spa" and haven. Huge windows will give views of mangroves. Guests will be ferried in unmotorised boats to barbecues on deserted beaches.
Neil D'Silva says that contrary to "misinformation", fishing families will gain considerably from these hotel schemes, getting a more reliable income than now.
"There are [already] 25 or 30 families benefiting, because they pull water for me, they mix concrete, clean up gardens, dig holes - and this is only the construction period," he says.
"The actual livelihood improvements start when the hotels start operating. I need boat riders, gardeners, hotel staff, kitchen staff, all that."
And, he adds, he will need lots of the fish they catch.
The fishermen are not yet convinced. Nor are some others, including a woman called Senul Abdeen Saleema. She lives mostly in Kalpitiya town but says Neil D'Silva's hotel occupies coconut palm land that belongs to her - inherited from her grandfather - and that a fraudster using forged deeds "sold" it to Mr D'Silva.
"They have grabbed five of my 12 acres for the hotel," she says. "I'm very sad. I need to marry off my daughter but we have no income and my husband is sick."
She shows us where the developers have put up a huge sand rampart, flanked by a channel, to make the land inaccessible. Other people come up to us with similar allegations.
Neil D'Silva denies wrongdoing and the matter is now in court.
But the campaigner, Herman Kumara, says murky land grabs are happening in much of post-war Sri Lanka.
"People are worried they will be thrown out from this land, so they should allocate certain land for future generations - for expansion of villages; they should give ownership of this land to the people who are living in these areas - that should ensure their livelihood will not be disturbed."
Minister of Economic Development Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena admits that land deeds have been forged in some places. But he tells the BBC such problems can be solved only through the courts and insists that, overall, local people are being sensitively treated.
"We discuss about these fishermen," he tells the BBC. "And we decide what we can do in future for them to have development - houses and other facilities - and we allocate separate areas for their fishing berths."
Campaigners for fishermen's rights complain about the pattern of tourism development nationwide. They say projects like the ones on the Kalpitiya islands are far too grandiose and not socially or environmentally sensitive.
Entrepreneurs say that, on the contrary, tourism projects will improve the lives of Sri Lankans and that they have done so already in other areas.
How post-war Sri Lanka develops its tourism industry will continue to be a hotly debated affair.