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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Buffer Zone and its Implications in the East

Online edition of the Island: Feature: Proposed Buffer Zone and its Implications in Eastern Sri Lanka: Tsunami victims’ perceptions - I, By N. Shanmugaratnam

The government seems to be more interested in enforcing the 200-meter-ban than addressing our needs in a comprehensive manner. The concern it professes about our future security sounds hollow when nobody from the government has so far bothered to engage in dialogues with the victims to find out their views and preferences regarding the future.

- A young university graduate from Maruthamunai (28 February 2005)

We are determined to keep our land but we as a group will consider housing in a safer place only if we can continue with our fishing and farming as we have been doing until two months ago. But we are worried that someone will take our land with the help of the government. We have heard that foreigners want to build hotels on our beach.

- A displaced woman from Komari (28 February 2005)

They were among the first to be hit by the tsunami in Sri Lanka. Yet, two months after the disaster their lives remained shattered and the vast majority of them were being haunted by fear and uncertainty about the future. This message recurred powerfully throughout my conversations with groups of tsunami-displaced men, women and children along the eastern coast from Komari in the south to Verugal on the Batticaloa-Trincomalee border. In two days of field visits, I tried to gather and understand the affected people’s perceptions regarding the proposed 200 meters buffer zone (for the North-East) and its implications for their livelihoods. The government’s decision was taken under a state of Emergency and without any consultation with the victims or their representatives.

It has also come to light that the government had not sought professional advice on this highly complex issue. Recent interventions in the media by knowledgeable persons suggest that the government’s decision was ill informed, arbitrary and might even be legally unsound. However, the state machinery has already been directed to enforce the buffer zone rule under Emergency Regulations. In the East, government officials, especially the Divisional Secretaries and Grama Niladharis (Village Officers) are busy advising and instructing tsunami victims that they should abide by the buffer zone rule for their own future security.

Many tsunami victims I met were under the impression that the buffer zone had legal sanction. This ‘new law’ as perceived by the innocent victims has created new concerns among them about relocation and livelihood security. In the absence of a systematic campaign to enlighten the people on the probability of a tsunami occurring in the future and how to be prepared for it, the buffer-zone-approach seems to have reinforced the fears of the victims. It is in such circumstances of psychological stress and inadequate information that the people are being compelled to take major decisions. In this article I present what I heard from the tsunami victims I met and some of my own observations.

Mixed Perceptions

The perceptions regarding relocation to ‘safer areas’ were mixed. There were persons who believed that relocation would save them from a future tsunami, which could happen any time. The fear of another tsunami occurring in their lifetime seemed to be the sole reason for them to prefer relocation to ‘safer areas’. However, the same people had other concerns about the choice of location. There were groups that regarded the whole idea of a buffer zone as unrealistic and unacceptable. These people were keen to go back to their habitats and rebuild their lives, and there were others who were undecided. Moreover, there was widespread suspicion whether the government had a hidden agenda to promote privatisation and commercialisation of the coastal zone resources.

Many also feared that the army might be used to enforce the buffer zone and military camps and high security zones might be set up on their lands in the future. It was obvious that the people were in need of more detailed and accurate information and assurances. It appeared that the local officials were not informed enough to provide clear answers to questions the people had.

The tsunami struck this region on top of the ravages inflicted on it by a protracted war. The spatial and socio-economic impact of the latter was uneven in the North-East. However, the war had generated new grievances concerning livelihood security and human development among wider sections of the people including coastal communities. It had already weakened the capacities of many who survived the tsunami to cope with the shock and its after effects. Further, the peculiarities of the political economy of the fishing communities have always kept most of the fishers on the margins of livelihood failure. Small groups of big boat owners and middlemen dominate the sector. Majority of the fishers operate small boats or work for a wage. Most of the small fishers are locked in asymmetrical relationships with middlemen on whom they are dependent for credit to carry on their fishing and to whom they are obliged to sell their harvest.

In many cases, the middlemen are the real owners of the boats and nets used by small fishermen. This relationship keeps the small fishers in a constant state of livelihood insecurity. The tsunami has thrown the small and the waged fishers into a world of destitution, which may be seen as a new opportunity by middlemen. And these vulnerable groups found themselves in a state of confusion, anxiety and uncertainty when they heard of the ‘200 meter ban’.

It may be relevant to look at the LTTE’s position on relocation as some of the areas I visited are under their control. To my knowledge, the LTTE has not formally rejected or accepted the government’s decision. However, an official document of the LTTE (Post Tsunami Reconstruction, Planning and Development Secretariat, LTTE, January 2005), states that a participatory approach should be adopted where relocation is necessitated by circumstances. It would seem that the LTTE is for relocation beyond 200 meters from the sea wherever land is available, as for example in Mullaitivu. In Vadamarachchi in the North, tsunami-displaced fishers told me that it was practically not possible for them to observe even a 50 meters buffer zone and they had made it known to both the government and the LTTE that relocation was out of the question. Among the people I met in the LTTE-controlled areas in the East, there were many who seemed to be in favour of relocation but had more or less the same concerns as their fellow victims in government-controlled areas regarding livelihood security and their lands close to the sea.

Safe housing is a part of livelihood security

A fundamental concern shared by all the displaced groups I interacted with was that relocation could not be seen in isolation from livelihood security, which implied people’s ability to achieve decent states of being. Housing is an integral part of a household’s livelihood system. The livelihoods of the affected people on the eastern coast were diverse and households often combined different activities such as sea and lagoon fishing, farming, trade, and waged employment. Migration to the Middle East for employment was not uncommon. However, fishing was the mainstay for the majority until they were partially or totally dispossessed by the tsunami.

Said a resident: "We paid a heavy price for living too close to the sea’, said a leader of the displaced fisher families from Pasikuda-Kalkuda, ‘and now we would like to move to a safer area but that has to be close enough to the sea, our beach and landing sites. The government wants us to move to Kumburumoolai, which is miles away from our coast. Going there is out of the question. If the government insists on relocating us, we will fight to the last for a more suitable location or to return to our village."

There were 115 displaced families from Pasikuda-Kalkuda now living in temporary huts on a land belonging to a local resident. They had lost 208 people, mostly women and children.

The leader had more to say about what he perceived as ‘hasty efforts’ by local bureaucrats to relocate his community to Kumburumoolai. ‘The Divisional Secretary seems so determined to pack us off to that place. She does not seem to know that our chief occupation is fishing which cannot be practised in Kumburumoolai. Nor would it be practical for us to live there, so far away, and fish in Pasikuda. You see we have our rights to fish in Pasikuda-Kalkuda, land our catch on the beach and keep our boats and dry our nets there. Anyone with some knowledge of fishing will tell you that fishermen need to constantly observe the sea for signs of fish movements and tidal changes. How can we do this if we lived miles away from the site of our occupation? We are fortunate to be in Pasikuda-Kalkuda, because it is a shallow bay in which we can fish all year round, unlike in other areas where the sea turns too rough for fishing during September to November/December. Of course, Kumburumoolai might have been acceptable if we were farmers. In fact, some families that depend mainly on farming have decided to accept the government’s offer and move to Kumburumoolai."

He went on to say that past governments had toyed with the idea of relocating the fishing communities of Pasikuda-Kalkuda to some other area to clear the beach for tourism development. He wondered if the same idea was behind the current move too. He said that his group had identified a suitable area that meets both the government’s buffer zone rule and the community’s need. ‘It is only 300 meters away and there is enough land for all of us. But most of the land is privately owned, which means the owners have to be willing to sell and the government has to be willing to assist us to buy. We have talked to our MP who has promised to get the land for us. If that fails, we will have no option but to return to our village.’ Relocation was not the only issue that worried this group. Like the others, they wondered how to find the resources to revive their livelihoods and move away from humanitarian relief. (Part II tomorrow)

The writer is a Professor of Development Studies at Department of International Environment & Development Studies, Noragric Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway

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