10/08/2012, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Card Ranjith defends fishermen against mega tourist projects

by Melani Manel Perera
The president of the Bishops' Conference calls on the government to change its tax policies and stop the rush to development. Negombo Lagoon is the area most affected by tourist projects harmful to the environment and local fishing communities. Local priests complain about rising drug addiction.

Negombo (AsiaNews) - Sri Lanka "needs development" but must focus on "its people's welfare, and respect everyone's dignity, rights and liberty. By contrast, making decisions on people's backs will not turn it into the 'Marvel of Asia'," said Card Malcolm Ranjith, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka.

During a press conference at the Cardinal Cooray Educational Centre in Negombo last Thursday, the prelate called on the government to review its tax policies, slamming choices that favour multinationals at the expense of people and nature, especially in Negombo Lagoon (Central Province), the area most affected by the rush towards development, known as 'Little Rome' because its inhabitants are predominantly Catholic fishermen.

In 2011, President Mahinda Rajapaksa launched a series of development projects, especially in the area of tourism, in order to turn Sri Lanka into the 'Marvel of Asia' with resorts and luxury hotels. The goal is to attract 2.6 million tourists and billions of rupees by 2016.

However, the projects were given to multinational corporations without any input from local residents. The latter at best can hope to find jobs in the new resorts, after having their property seized and their rights violated.

What is more, "Some influential people are using the lagoon as a dumping ground for waste," said Fr Pradeep Chaminda. This and the destruction of the mangroves are causing huge damages to the local ecosystem. If it continues, "the livelihoods of as many as 4,000 families could be jeopardised,' the priest said.

Drug addiction, especially among youth, is another major problem. For Fr Terrance Bodiyabaduge, police and the authorities are doing nothing to tackle the issue, leaving locals to cope with it as best they can.

"There is a sense that there is a plan to destroy the lives of fishermen, young people and children," he explained. "The area was known for its strong drinks, now for its drugs. It is a tragedy because children are the future of our Church."

Recently, the authorities went after Cardinal Cooray Educational Centre's electrical bill. The government wants to charge the Centre as if it were a business, said Fr Francis Senanayake. However, "We train teachers here, we host conferences and offer programmes for families. We are not involved in activities for profit or trying to earn money."

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