Colombo, Sri Lanka

Voices from Colombo and Negombo

This podcast was produced by sea is the new land for Karachi Beach Radio in 2020. It contains two main interviews recorded in December 2019, with Subashini Deepa, Coordinator of Sri Vimukthi – (“fisherwomen liberation” grassroots organisation), and Herman Kumara – founder of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement of Sri Lanka (NAFSO).

Port City Colombo:
A controversial flagship city development project under the “One Belt One Road” initiative.

By Subashini Deepa

December 2021

Post-civil war and post-tsunami, tourism has been a priority development sector for the Sri Lankan government. The tourism master plan prepared in 1984 envisioned the entire coastal belt for tourism, operating in different guises under various regimes since.  After the war ended in 2009, these plans were further expanded, with 45 tourism zones proposed for the period between 2013 and 2030.

The idea for Colombo International Financial City [CIFC] – also known as the new Port City Colombo – was conceived in 2002, under the then UNP government. The plan drafted in 2004 proposed a “megapolis” in the western region by 2030, incorporating the CIFC. In this plan, the Ports Authority, a state-owned operator, was proposed as the responsible agency for the construction of major commercial ports in Sri Lanka.

This plan, which did not materialise due to the “vast cost in building the breakwater in deep water to protect the reclaimed land” was shelved during the civil war. It re-emerged in 2012 when China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) made its first proposal. In 2014, the project was officially launched by the Chinese President Xi Jinping and the former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The project is expected to cost over $1.4bn, needing over 665 acres of land – even though the maximum that can be sold is 420 acres. As the largest single foreign direct investment in Sri Lankan history.

The project is expected to become not only a major maritime hub in South Asia, but also a financial center with shopping, tourism, office complexes, hotels with casinos and a residential area.  Although this is seen as development of the country, we as citizens are opposed to this project for these reasons:

  1. Violates national laws regulations: The agreement between China and Sri Lanka is an illegal one. The signatory to the agreement was the chairperson of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, whereas national law state that for any reclamation of land, the Sri Lankan president needs to sign.
  2. Ignores environmental laws: A report on the environmental impact assessment (EIA) should be submitted before any mega project. This has not happened prior to the Port City Colombo project. Only after the people’s agitations, the EIA conducted several stages., but these reports are in poor quality and incomplete. At the same time, the experts who conducted the EIAs in a later stage became consultants for the CIFC construction company. This is a definitely a conflict of interest.
    Sand mining in the western coastal region has devastated rich fishing grounds, coral reefs and the wider aquatic ecosystem, including the lagoon and the coast.
  3. No transparency, no engagement: No public consultation has been conducted to seek whether this is a necessary project or a priority development activity for the people in the country.
  4. Develops a debt trap: We seriously doubt the idea that Port City Colombo is good for the country’s economic progress. It will also increase the debt crisis of the country and entangle it further with the debt trap of China.
  5. Divides communities: The fisher communities have been ensnared into receiving loans given by China Harbour Engineering Corporation [CHEC] as so called “compensation”, which further divide and threaten the social fabric of the communities and their local culture.
  6. Threatens sovereignty: The extent of Chinese investment impinges on the state sovereignty of Sri Lanka. Despite the claims of the Sri Lankan government, the CIFC will not benefit for most of Sri Lankan citizens. As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, the CIFC is a top-down development project that only serves the political aim of China.
  7. Fosters crime: CIFC would be a center of money-laundering, an open playground for black money holders from both Sri Lanka and other countries. The Colombo Financial City Act passed by Parliament in April 2020 proved our suspicions.


What is happening today?

At time of writing, the sand filling  and reclamation of 665 acres has been completed. Several buildings have also been constructed. At present, particularly during the monsoon season, the western sea coast north of Colombo has faced sea erosion due to  sand mining along the shore areas. A number of houses have been damaged or washed away. Sand mining, the main environmental problem identified, is negatively affecting the aquatic ecosystem, fishing ground and livelihood of the residents of the villages in the coastal areas.

Rock mining has also caused environmental damage. The black rock is taken from inland areas. This area people also face water problems and damage of their houses.

Small-scale fishers lost their traditional livelihood and have been forced to take up other occupations. To survive, many families are compelled to pawn their jewelry for quick cash to buy food. Small-scale fisher families who reside in and around the CIFC construction areas and North of Colombo are particularly affected. Many fishing community members are anxious about future generations losing their means of sustenance, their fishing traditions, and local culture. Coastal Erosion has also been a problem for women in post-harvest processing as they lost their traditional grounds that they engaged in the coastal land masses.

What is the fisher people’s response led by Catholic Church?

The Catholic church was the first to take the lead and mobilize fisher communities and media. Under its leadership, many protests have been conducted by fisherfolk against the project. Their demands were limited to stopping sand mining, rather than halting the entire project.

They thought that this project only affected fishermen because of sand mining at sea. However, this project affects a far wider spectrum of people and sectors in society.

The agitations led by the Catholic church did not move far to stop the port city. Why?

  • The Chinese company has paid the church LKR 30m to construct Thewatta Basilica and to silence the church hierarchy.
  • LKR 500m has been paid in compensation to fishing societies and LKR 2m has been paid in loans to the fisheries cooperatives, Rural Fisheries Organizations
  • Most Media journalists and media stations, kept quiet. Some media stations promoted the CIFC.

The formation of People’s Movement Against Port City [PMAPC], Sri Lanka

The People’s Movement Against Port City formed in 2014 with the slogan: “Stop Port City: The damage to the whole country.” This collective of CSOs, scholars, youth, fisheries organizations, trade unions, religious groups, media and some women’s groups such as SVFWO continue to fight against the CIFC.

We also collected all the information related to this project and disseminated it widely. As a result, we were able to strengthen the Peoples Movement Against Port City. Through this organization we organized and engaged with a lot of advocacy and protest work.

Subashini Deepa is the Negombo district coordinator of Sri Vimukthi – Fisher Women Organisation

Read more in the section Community Actions: ‘A brief history of fisherwomen’s resistance in Sri Lanka’

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