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Opportunity for sustainable development

By FS

(May 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
Foreign contractors are flowing into the city, some already housed in five-star hotels which are also seeing an increasing number of inquiries from foreign businessmen. Everyone wants a piece of the action as Sri Lanka prepares for a new chapter of development after nearly 30 years of conflict ended last week with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran and the annihilation of the once-seen-invincible Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Any doubts about Prabhakaran’s killings and prospects of a resurgence of the LTTE were laid to rest after Selvarasa Pathmanathan, LTTE Head of International Relations who lives somewhere in Asia and is considered the only remaining LTTE top ranker, acknowledged the death and said, in a statement, that the rebel group has given up its military struggle.

Everywhere there is talk of development, rebuilding and reconstruction not only in the north and east but in the rest of the country. Apart from the northeast region, the rest of Sri Lanka has also suffered from the war through civilian deaths and stalled economic progress. An economy that should have grown by 8-9 % has been growing at an average 4-5 %. Foreign investment was dented and only the most adventurous investors ventured out to put their money in Sri Lanka.

In the last two years, the two main growth sectors have been telecommunication and banking services while other industries have lacked investment. Tourism was the worst affected and now things are looking up. Sri Lanka and her people are facing many challenges and the biggest challenge today, as we see it, is in ensuring sustainable development in the the northeast. Already plans are underway to attract 1.5 million tourists in coming years, with the immediate (2009) target being 500,000.

These are essentially to fill the hotels while newer hotels will be built. Is this the right kind of development? Are we going to cut trees, carve out huge construction sites, intrude into peaceful areas of the country’s coastline and tamper with nature?

The other day, a middle-aged gym instructor in Colombo asked the same question. “Is this the kind of development we want? We need to develop using our water and land resources. We should not cut trees and ruin the environment. Our development plan should be homespun and not copied from overseas,” he said. Piyal Parakrama, ecologist and Executive Director at the Colombo-based Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies, is also questioning the rush to promote mass tourism. “We need to promote agro-eco tourism. We need to promote a tourism that will not ruin the environment and take away the little resources we have,” he says.

Sarath Fernando, a veteran activist for farmers’ rights and coordinator of MONLAR which represents farmers and peasants, says the usual kind of development that governments undertake will not work. “What is the kind development envisaged? The government will invite foreign investors and the private sector to invest for the sake of the national economy but do they take the interests of the people at heart?” he asked, adding that like in the past, investors will come, use the land offered cheap, cheap labour and also get tax benefits.

On the flipside, the business community has complained for years about enviromentalists, ecologists and the like who stand in the way of development. “Whenever you start a project, an environmentalist will start a campaign or people will block the plan. Sri Lanka’s progress, apart from the war, has also been stiffled by these campaigners,” a corporate leader said, adding that all these campaigns are ‘well funded from outside.’

Nevertheless sustainable development, particularly with the people in mind, is increasingly entering the boardrooms of multinationals in the west. There is a growing alliance between big corporates and NGOs in social responsible work. Do companies invest to make profits only or make profits plus share those profits with the community? Recently an industrialist confessed that he is putting up a factory in the East because of the tax holiday. “We invested there purely because of the tax holiday and other concessions.

There was no other reason,” he said. Yes, investments are needed and profits are important otherwise one shouldn’t be in business. But is the private sector – just like to rush to invest (essentially trade) in Jaffna after the 2003 ceasefire agreement – preparing to invest in the north and repatriate all the profits? Even more important, is the private sector going to invest in these two acutely under-developed regions without consulting the people? Will investors outside the northeast also behave like foreign investors – invest and take their profits out with some ‘cosmetic’ sharing with the community?

This is not saying that most in the private sector have honourable intentions. We for one will doff our hats to investors who are genuinely concerned about the community and sharing of profits. The north with its strong agriculture base needs to see a resurgence in agriculture and hopefully there would be a flow of investment in these areas.

Communities in the north need to be consulted in the development and investment phase that takes place. There shouldn’t be an imposition of business and industry from outside that is not to the liking of the northerner– otherwise it would aggravate many of the unresolved (political) issues like decision-making in land use and infrastructure development.

Big business needs to go in but as partners in development – where the people of the land have a bigger say, and a bigger role in their future. Profits and creation of jobs alone, should not be the only aim.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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