11/18/2010, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Some 8,000 fisher people hold sit-in against government tourist project

by Melani Manel Perera
After ten hours of protest, fishermen and their families successfully get the authorities to halt temporarily the government’s new Seaplane project. Priests and nuns, as well as other religious leaders and human rights activists, joined them in the protest action. For the local fishing community, the lagoon is their only source of livelihood.

Negombo (AsiaNews) – More than 8,000 fishermen, with their wives and children, protested for ten hours yesterday, around Negombo lagoon, and on the Colombo-Negombo main road, against the Sea Plane project, a plan to attract tourist to hard-to-reach places. At the end of the day, the government backed off, and halted dredging work. It also ordered the removal of a barge and machinery used in the work. Despite the victory, fishermen are conscious that “This is a temporary victory. We shall continue our struggle till the project is cancelled.”  

Many priests and nuns, religious leaders and human rights activists, both local and from outside, took part in the demonstration along with members of the local fishing community and the Alliance for the Protection of the Negombo.

The demonstration started at 8.30 am (local time) and ended at 7.30 pm, when protesters got what they wanted.  During the protest, Navy staff members tried to keep the action peaceful, and avoid clashes.

Demonstrators want everything to stop. They want the barge carrying dredged dirt removed from the lagoon and they want an immediate halt to all excavation work to build platforms. They also want a meeting with President Majinda Rajapaksa to put an end to the project.

“We welcome eventual government development projects, but not those that harm our environment, our lives, and our livelihood,” a group of wives and mothers of fishermen told AsiaNews. 

“The lagoon is our past, present and future. Our incomes come from it. We have not received anything from the government. Our husbands and us lead a very simple life; our livelihoods depend directly on the lagoon. Why can’t the government understand this?”

Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s younger brother, contacted (via the Navy) a priest who was present at the demonstration. During the conversation, he blamed Catholic clergy for stirring up the local fishing population.

We will continue this project at any cost,” he told the priest. “You need to disperse from this site immediately. We have given orders to Navy to use force to disperse people. Unless you disperse immediately, you’ll have to face the consequences,” he said.

However, protesters have refused to disperse without a solution.

Speaking at the end of the long day, some fishermen told AsiaNews, “This is a great victory for us, the fishing people of Negombo, together with the Alliance for the Protection of the Negombo. We are grateful for the strength given by our local Catholic priests and sisters for this cause.”

“We still hope to gain maximum support to reach a permanent solution through the mediation of Mgr Malcolm Ranjit,” they added.

Archbishop Ranjit is set to become a cardinal in the next few days.

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