BERAGAMA, Sri Lanka, Feb 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
T hese days, Vimalabudhi Thero, head monk at the Beragama village
Buddhist temple, is consumed more by worldly concerns than
matters of the soul.
With news that Chinese investors are eyeing the fertile
plains he calls home, villagers worry this could end generations
of family farming in their verdant corner of southern Sri Lanka.
"My biggest fear is that I will be left with a temple and a
bunch of Chinese donating alms to me," the monk said from the
veranda of his living quarters, surveying the vast paddy fields
stretching before him. His whitewashed temple is now a protest
command centre, used by villagers to mobilise against change.
They fear that local farmland will be swallowed by a
proposed 15,000-acre investment zone set up by the government to
attract Chinese investment. And that fear means Beragama is now
in the throes of heated public protests.
Less than half an hour's drive from the nation's second
biggest airport and port, its access to this key infrastructure
and stable water supply has made the area a magnet for outside
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and the Chinese envoy to
Sri Lanka Yi Xianliang, announced on January 7 that work would
begin to create the zone, which Chinese officials predict could
bring as much as LKR750 billion ($5 billion)in investment funds
to the region.
The money, however, does not impress Vimalabudhi Thero.
"It is not that we are against investments, we want
investments in this region, but we don't want to lose our
Beragama - which lies about 250 km from the capital Colombo
- was itself born out of another government development plan,
one launched nearly 80 years ago, when people were moved in to
settle an area that was little more than jungle.
At the tail end of British rule, the then-government began
shifting people into fertile areas to establish agriculture. The
settlements attracted even more people after Sri Lanka's
declaration of independence in 1948, village elders said.
Since then, families have lived and worked productively in
the area, growing mostly rice in vast paddies.
"These are our ancestral lands, they are fertile. In the dry
zone, this land with water supply is vital, that is why these
lands have been eyed," said Dushan Pathirana, a third generation
resident. "We don't want go and live 70 km from here. Our lives
are here, we can not be uprooted like that."
Government officials in the district told the Thomson
Reuters Foundation that no decision had yet been made on which
land might to be acquired or which people moved.
S H Karunarathne, the District Secretary for the local
Hambantota region said land mapping was the only work underway.
"We have been directed to survey the land area, that is it. We
have no instructions on acquisitions."
The villagers, however, are not taking any risks and have
mobilised to stop the map makers.
"The surveyors come without any announcement, like a flying
squad - that doubles the fear," Vimalabudhi Thero said.
The monk said he had attended a meeting with the Prime
Minister, Ranil Wickremasing, and had been promised that any
villager who lost land would be properly compensated.
According to government officials, new investment is
urgently needed to ease the nation's debt repayments.
Sri Lanka's foreign debt is estimated by its Central Bank to
be about $64 billion, with around $8 billion owed to China.
DISQUIET AT THE TOP
There is also opposition to the project from the country's
own politicians, even those who back foreign investment.
The former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lost
power to incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena in January
2015, led the plan to attract Chinese investment to the region.
This included construction of the new port and airport in
Hambantota, which according to the current government is
During a meeting on January 10, just three days after the
investment zone was announced, Rajapaksa told the Chinese
ambassador that he believes agricultural land should not be
handed out on long, 99-year leases.
Rajapaksa told the Chinese diplomat that the government
should first use the 4,800 acres available for investment near
the port, before looking for land elsewhere.
"The disruption caused to the people of the area will be
immense if 15,000 acres of land were to be acquired for this
purpose. The government should fill the free port with
investments first before opening more zones," he said in a
He also revealed in a twitter Q&A that the Chinese
themselves are concerned about how the project will be
implemented - but did not elaborate further.
For now, uncertainty reigns. Villagers in Beragama know the
investment zone is likely to go ahead but nobody knows just
which land will be targeted.
Last week, the only sign of activity was a foundation stone
unveiled by the prime minister and the Chinese envoy.
"Now we wait for the government to tell us what is being
taken," said Pathirana, standing in the shadow of the pagoda.
"When the next step comes ...they will only take our land over
our dead bodies."
($1 = 150.1000 Sri Lankan rupees)
(Reporting by Amantha Perera, Editing by Paola Totaro and
Lyndsay Griffiths Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation,
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