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 Post subject: Kandalama Revisited
 Post Posted: Thu Jan 04, 2007 1:49 am 
Kandalama Revisited
The saga of building Kandalama Hotel

The saga of the building of the hotel at Kandalama will form an enduring part of the history of the environmental movement in Sri Lanka. Kandalama was a watershed event in those lessons which were and still are being learned and in that several parties gave something and gained something in the solutions which were arrived at.


by Dr. Rohan H. Wickramasinghe
The Island / 1999

Kandalama! A place name which shot into prominence in 1992 and became nationally and internationally known and which shows no signs of relapsing into the obscurity from which it emerged. The battles which were fought over it included, it is said, a telegram sent to the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro half way across the world, beseeching that a stop be put to the construction of the hotel. Threats included, it is said one that the hotel would be converted into a hospital or sanatorium if its construction was achieved.

The saga of the building of the hotel at Kandalama will form an enduring part of the history of the environmental movement in Sri Lanka. It is true that no two development projects are identical as regards their probable impacts on the environment. However, Kandalama was a watershed event in those lessons which were and still are being learned and in that several parties gave something and gained something in the solutions which were arrived at. There were no outright winners, although there are some who were probably more politically than environmentally motivated in their campaigning, who are still not satisfied with the outcome. (Politically is used here in the broadest sense and not merely considering "party politics").


What actually was the problem". Numerous rumours were rife at the time. A view which commanded considerable currency at the time was that someone tried to sell land for the hotel to the developers and was turned down and commenced a campaign against the hotel out of pique. Another theory was that a leading politician was held to be in favour of the construction of the hotel, so his political opponents set out to embarrass him. Yet another view voiced was that groups which had shortly before been seen campaigning against the establishment of the Voice of America station at Iranawila descended in their numbers on.

This theory would have it that vocal groups were developing in Sri Lanka as they have in the West and elsewhere, who would enjoy protesting on behalf of a "cause". Certainly, some of those in Colombo who were very vocal in protesting against Kandalama had either never been there or at least had not been there for decades. It was also more than mildly curious that even during the height of the agitation against the Kandalama Hotel nary a word of protest was heard against another tourist resort development which was also in the process of construction on the opposite side of the same tank. There appeared to be a deafening silence about it! This seemed to lend weight to the arguments that political factors of one sort or another played an important part in attempts to build up opposition to the Kandalama Hotel. Again, there were those, including journalists, who were merely "doing their job" in one way or another.

What were some of the objections voiced against the construction of the hotel at this site? Even considering only the main ones, they were numerous. It would be detrimental to wildlife (plants and animals) in the area. It would draw on the water of the Kandalama tank and reduce the quantity available for farmers. There would be pollution of the waters of the tank and of the surroundings in general. The foreign guests would corrupt the unspoilt villagers who live around the hotel by inter alia introducing a drug culture and preying on them sexually. (It was striking that none of these objections were voiced against the tourist development in construction on the other side of the tank!)

One difficulty faced by the developers was that the lease of the land had not been finalised. This persented a possibility for opponents to block the construction of the hotel. Indeed, at least at one point it is said that the heat was so intense that the developers were seriously considering cutting their losses amounting to possibly some millions of rupees and abandoning the venture. However, they apparently decided to presevere and re-examine whether the project was indeed environmentally detrimental and if not, whether they could make a sound argument in support of their project. Alternatively, if there were in fact, weaknesses, could adjustments be made to bring the project in line with acceptable criteria? The criticisms which had been made were looked at systematically one by one.

a) Impact on wildlife and forest cover

This may possibly have been the most sensitive of the issues raised. World over this is and rightly so a concern of many. It is today causing anguish to those who read of the fires set by Man and which are consuming large tracts of forest in the Amazon and in Indonesia, among other locations. Immense slaughter of animals, large and small, in parts of Africa is being reported and discussed in hushed tones as well as the seeming indifference and/or incapacity of governments to control this in the face of migrations of huge numbers of refugees from time to time. Closer to home, and earlier generation's protests put a halt to the logging of the Sinharaja forest.


What was the reality in the case of the development of the Kandalama Hotel? Visitors to the site at the time the battles were being fought in 1992 observed chenas being burnt to one side of the site of the projected hotel. On the other side, was what appeared to be a fifty acre plantation of eucalyptus, exotic trees which with pines are much favoured by some foresters but which do not support much of our indigenous wildlife.

The developers had noted that only a part of the 50 acre-site would be used for the construction of the hotel while the portion at the rear would not be built upon. Further, considerable tree planting would be undertaken using indigenous species of trees. They noted that a nursery of a thousand indigenous plants had already been initiated and a further 100 trees three to ten feet in height would be brought to the site. They, also, made the seemingly valid observation that since some of the activities which would be developed for the benefit of tourists would be nature trails and bird watching walks, it was in the development's interest to maintain intact the bounty of nature.

The argument has been made before, notably in the early proposal to establish a Safari Lodge in Gal Oya National Park, that it is preferable to have informed and responsible activities in an area rather than leave it empty of human presence other than those of poachers and illicit timber fellers and fuelwood gatherers. In a context where some governmental agencies seem bent on planting up large acreages with exotics such as pines and eucalyptus and other authorities are either in disarray or underfunded to carry out the functions they are charged to do, there is certainly much to support this viewpoint. Significant extents of what is marked out as "natural forest" in maps has over the years quietly degraded into scrubland while even portions of this country's "Strict Natural Reserves" are being squatted on for residential and agricultural purposes with the attendant drenching of the cultivations with agricultural chemicals.

b) Water usage

Another set of concerns voiced were regarding the water requirement and usage by the hotel. They included, for instance, questions as to 1) whether development activities should be allowed in catchment areas, 2) whether the taking of water for the hotel's needs would result in the reduction of water availability in Kandalama tank and 3) the possibility of the pollution of the water of the tank as a consequence of the hotel's activities.

Regarding the question of the advisability of permitting development activities in catchment areas, some clarification of definitions and background data is in order. Firstly should be noted the Encyclopaedia Britannica definition: "Drainage basin, also called catchment area or watershed area from which all precipitation flows to a single stream or set of streams......The boundary between drainage basins is a drainage divide: all the precipitation on opposite sides of a drainage divide will flow into different drainage basins. "In this context. It must be noted that 103 river basins of the country cover some 59,217 sq. km. or over 90 per cent of its land area. With thousands of small village tanks irrigating around 269,000 hectares in the Dry Zone prohibition of development activities in catchment areas will leave much of these areas free for encroachment, forest destruction etc. The population of the country in 1991 had been estimated at around 17.2 million which approximates to about one person per acre of land. We cannot afford any longer to hope to support our growing rural population by subsistence agriculture. It would appear necessary to encourage high yielding (while responsibly managed) development activities.

As regards the question as to whether the hotel's water consumption would reduce the availability of water in the tank for the traditional use by farmers in the area, the hotel was planned for a peak water consumption by guests and staff of 40,000 gallons per day (gpd). Water was to be obtained from two tube wells (combined capacity = 45,000 gpd) sunk to over 100 feet which would not be recharged by water from Kandalama tank. It was noted also that Kandalama tank has silted over centuries and the bottom clay strata was said to be impermeable. This observation was given credibility by the findings that the static water levels in the tube wells and the tank were different as were the chemical compositions of water samples drawn from each.

As regards the possibility of pollution by sewage effluent, it was noted that none of this would be released into the tank. Two sewage treatment plants were to be commissioned and the design was to ensure that the effluent would be within prescribed standards. In any event, regular monitoring of samples of tank water directly offshore from the hotel would be carried out by the authorities during and after construction.

c) Social and cultural impacts

The possible social and cultural impacts of the development merited serious consideration. Opponents of the Kandalama Hotel frequently pointed to what had happened at Hikkaduwa. What was previously a quiet coastal hamlet with a charming resthouse and exquisite underwater coral gardens had been transformed into a garish tourist trap frequented largely by less-than-affluent clientele the poorest of whom rent floor space in a fisherman's hut for the night and buy a lunch packet shared among two for a meal. The deterioration of the locality has been rapid and it is unlikely that it will ever regain its earlier charm. The coral gardens for one have been grossly damaged by over-visitation (as well as other causes). A drug culture is said to have grown up and prostitution of various types is said to take place both in the town as well as in houses which are out-of-town but still within easy access. It was feared that the character of the rural folk at Kandalama would also be changed following encounters with foreign tourists.

Proponents of Kandalama Hotel, however, claimed that the characterics of the tourism development at Hikkaduwa and that at Kandalama were hardly comparable. The development at Kandalama was a 5 star-hotel and its upmarket clientele, while being relatively more affluent than the average tourist at Hikkaduwa, may reasonably be expected to be a mature employed professional or wage earner. This is also the case with the clientele of the 5 star - Triton Hotel at Ahungalle, where little or no problems with prostitution and drug abuse had been observed in the 10 years it had been in operation by 1992. (The few instances of drug problems in Ahungalle had been attributed to "lekage" from Hikkaduwa).

Another important similarity between the Triton Hotel and Kandalama (both of which, incidentally, are part of the same hotel chain) is that the buildings of neither give directly onto a thoroughfare. While the residential area of the Triton is set well back from the main Colombo to Galle highway, Kandalama Hotel is at the end of an access road. In each case, the hotel security staff can ensure that "undesirables" in the form of drug pushers or touts are not permitted to enter the premises, while at Kandalama such individuals would be noticeable from after as they make their way along the deserted road.

Those patronising Kandalama may often be on a visit to the "cultural sites" in the region (such as those at Sigiriya, Dambulla, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy) and would be spending the daylight hours touring and only return to the hotel in the evening after a tiring day out; thus contact with the local population would be minimal.

The tourist engaged in wildlife observation and visiting the cultural sites may generally also have interests different to those at the beach resorts and inquiries from police, clergy etc. at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Tissamaharama and Kataragama did not reveal any reason to believe that foreign tourists at these towns contributed significantly to problems related to drug abuse or prostitution. One of those interviewed in this connection was Venerable Dharmalankara, Chief Incumbent of the Sri Bharathindra Pirivena of Anuradhapura, whose clear recollections went at least as far back as the time of Messrs S. D. Krisnaratne and Freeman contesting for a seat in the Legislative Council. On the other hand a member of the Police interviewed at Tissamaharama noted that a significant number of sex-related problems between members of the local population needed resolution from time to time.

There was however, another aspect which needed to be considered. Was it reasonable to hope that the villagers of Kandalama would remain unchanged in this rapidly changing world of ours? They no longer live the cocooned life that they did in the past. Bus travel, newspapers and radio would have exposed them to the iniquities of the world outside. Many of them in the district would have sought employment in garment factories and other establishments within the country whilst others would have swelled the numbers of those going for employment to Middle Eastern countries, Italy etc. For those who stayed at home, sights and sounds of the world outside are being effectively brought in many languages to their households by television (Incidentally, the wishes of only one member of a household is sufficient to expose all willy nilly to a given programme.) This includes not only locally produced "Kopi Kade's" but programmes originating from England, Japan, USA, India and so on beamed by the three local television stations in operation at the time. Inquiries revealed that there were at least three shops in Dambulla selling television sets and at least 14,500 to 15,000 sets in the Matale district alone. So the seeds for change had already been sown.

d) Economic considerations

Many of those campaigning against the Kandalama Hotel in 1992 possibly had no clear idea of the economic circumstances of many households in the Matale district. According to figures published by the Department of Census and Statistics in 1992 resulting from a survey carried out in 1985/86, the average monthly income of the 72,917 households was Rs.1946.43 and of these 1876 households had an average income of Rs. 187.84 and 18,351 households received an average of Rs. 591.02. There were 14,075 households with five members and an average income of Rs. 1942.58 and 30.415 households with six or more members and an average income of Rs. 1930.72. A household in Matale with an average total monthly expenditure of Rs. 1840.42 spent Rs. 1116.17 on food and drink (other than liquor). While the direct and indirect employment and other income earning opportunities created in connection with Kandalama Hotel would not solve the economic problems of Matale, still it is a step in the right direction. More importantly perhaps, it gives on the job training and experience to the village youth, building familiarity with contemporary quality standards and confidence in themselves and among their associates which would stand them in good stead when seeking employment further afield.


It is history that approval was given for the lease of land to the developers and for the construction of the hotel which was finally opened for business on June 24, 1994 without fanfare. The fears expressed in 1992 as to possible environmental problems which may arise as a consequence of the construction and operation of the hotel have not so far been realised. I was recently invited by the developers to visit the finished product as their guest and observe at first hand the impact it has had so far on the environment after some years of operation.

(Dr. Wickramasinghe is the author of "Contemporary Environmental Challenges: A Sri Lankan Reader")

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