The Bar Reef Special Management Area Plan

SARID, December 19, 2003

By Vinod Moonesinghe (
Editor, Environmental Foundation Ltd., Sri Lanka (


The Bar Reef, off the western coast of the Putlam district, is the largest and most bio-diverse coral formation in Sri Lanka, being home to 156 species of coral and 283 of fish. It is also one of the few remaining in a pristine condition. It is made up of a complex of reefs which stretch parallel to the coast of the northern end of the Kalpitiya peninsular and to the islands in Portugal Bay.

Although it was declared a marine sanctuary in 1992, there has been virtually no management and it is under threat both from natural enemies (crown-of-thorns starfish and coastal erosion and sedimentation) and from human activity. Now it is at the centre of an effort at conservation through sustainable development with popular participation.

Coastal Resources Management Project

In 1999, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) decided to fund a Coastal Resources Management Project (CRMP) in Sri Lanka. The main objective of the CRMP was to establish integrated management of coastal resources in order to improve their sustainability. It was to do so by addressing the problems of coastal erosion, pollution, unmanaged fishing, over-exploitation of resources and poverty in the coastal areas.

Eight Special Management Areas (SAMs) were earmarked, out of 23 threatened localities, for immediate action. Pilot projects were carried out at Rekawa and Hikkaduwa, followed by projects at Negombo, Kalametiya and the Maadhu River estuary.

The Bar Reef was considered the most important, but was tackled last because it was thought to be the most complex. The Bar Reef SAM encompasses the northern part of the Kalpitiya peninsular, including the Mutwal peninsular, and the islands of Karaitivu. It is comprised of 11 Grama Sevaka (GS – village official) divisions (the smallest administrative division in Sri Lanka) north of the road running East-West to the Kandakuli fisheries harbour. It encompasses all the areas where human activity impinges directly on the welfare of the reef ecosystem.

A Field Project Implementation Unit (FPIU) was set up at Kandakuli to create a sustainable development plan for this zone.

The threats to the ecosystem of the Bar Reef were identified by the FIPU as over-exploitation of fish resources (there is an observable decline in the number of fish – no Tuna had been caught by mid-December, whereas it is normally prolific at that time), unsuitable fishing methods (such as deep purse-seining, which damage the coral and deplete fish resources) and pollution from human activities (prawn farms and agriculture).


The nexus between poverty among the coastal population and increasing pressure on coastal resources has been recognised. A major cause of deprivation among the fishing community is the depletion of resources. In many areas, the inability of the resource base to regenerate itself under the pressure of exploitation was observed to set up a vicious cycle of resource depletion and poverty. The socio-economic development of these areas was therefore identified as a key element in sustainable management of the ecology.

Deprivation among fishing communities was characterised by the scarcity of opportunities for income generation, poor housing and lack of access to basic amenities. A lack of skills, education and training and opportunities for earning an income among women makes families vulnerable in the event of the death or disability of male income earners.


From the beginning, an attempt was made to involve the local administration (the Divisional Secretary and his subordinates such as Grama Sevakas – village officials), Non-Governmental Organisations, popular organisations (such as Fisher Societies) and the people themselves in the planning process.

Preliminary surveys were carried out to identify the basic obstacles faced by the populace. A social development plan was to be developed to deal with those problems associated with poverty and resource depletion. With this in mind, a Community Co-ordinating Committee was formed with representation from the CRMP, the local administration, NGOs, and popular bodies.

It turned out that very few organisations or institutions were active in the area. No state officials or NGOs were present at all in the Palliyawatta GS Division (ie the islands in Portugal Bay). Only the Fisher Societies, associated with the Fisher Solidarity organisation, were widespread.


The major socio-economic problems that were identified were:

1. Lack of roads in village areas and lack of maintenance of existing roads.
2. Lack of suitable fish storage facilities.
3. Pollution of ground water.
4. Lack of drinking water.
5. Spread of disease due to lack of primary sanitation.
6. Poor hygiene and education.
7. Lack of birth certificates and non-attendance at school.
8. Low price of fish.
9. Inadequate parenting and family management.
10. Marriage below the legal minimum age.
11. Breakdown in household economy.

Underlying all these problems is widespread chronic alcoholism. Officials estimate that 40% of women are habitual users of alcohol, which means that the domestic economy tends to be mismanaged. It also contributes towards widespread child abuse: officials estimate that 5% of children are victims. Thus there is a poverty-alcoholism trap, both in the short term and over the long-term, as children brought up in wretched conditions enter the workforce (again, below the minimum age).

Also identified was a widespread distrust of the authorities, combined with anger at exploitative relationships with fish mudalalis (merchants). It was felt that rich fishers (those employing others) were allowed to deploy unsuitable nets, that rich prawn farm owners were allowed to pollute the lagoon and ground water, to the detriment of the poor.

Wider politics were also seen to impinge on the problems here. The Liberation Tigers guerrillas, whose writ runs in the Mannar district and the seas just north of Kalpitiya, have granted permission to fishers in those areas to use banned fishing methods, which damage the coral and . This leads to agitation among the fishers of Kalpitiya to be allowed to use the same methods.


The draft plan, in preparation by the CCC at the time of writing, envisages that these problems will be dealt with through provision of amenities and by grass-roots development initiatives.

The very process of participatory development planning can aid the development process. An example cited by officials to illustrate this is the identification by villagers of the necessity for toilet facilities, after the possibility of these being provided had been highlighted during the course of a participatory appraisal.

The plan is intended to provide solutions for the problems indicated above, through action by participating organisations. Even when obstacles cannot be removed because of the limitations of the participating organisations, they are identified and the means for their removal are pinpointed so that other organisations may do so in the future.

The focus is on sustainable development and controlled exploitation of marine resources. The key to this is to provide alternative sources of income to the fishers.

Alternative employment opportunities have been identified in:
1. Growing seaweed
2. Industry based on Palmyrah and Coconut.
3. Agriculture, using new crops and methods suited to the arid climate.
4. Development of animal husbandry.
5. Fish culture.
6. Boat-based industry, such as repair and rebuilding of outboard motors and fibre-glass technology.
7. Construction industry.
8. Eco-tourism based on the Bar Reef ecosystem

Also, specifically for women:
1. Sewing.
2. Food preparation.
3. Pre-schools.
4. Dried Fish (karavala) and preserved fish (jaadi) production.
5. Composting wastes domestically using ferro-cement barrels.

The success or failure of this scheme will hinge on the socio-economic component. Whether the daunting problems of vested interests and bureaucratic obstacles can be overcome remains to be seen.


Further reading:

Integrated Coastal Zone Management in Sri Lanka, World Conservation Union (IUCN)
Guide to the Asian Development Bank plan with reports, project updates, databases and links.

USAID funds development projects in Puttalam, US Embassy in Sri Lanka, November 19, 2003
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), inaugurated three development grants to two hospitals and a fishing cooperative society near Puttalam that are designed to promote the island-wide benefits of peace.

Hartal by Kalpitiya fisher folk, Daily Mirror, November 05, 2003
Members of the Kalpitiya Fisheries Cooperative society have launched a hartal to protest the ban on purse-seine (hebili-del) fishing.

Goal: reduce poverty in coastal communities, Daily News, September 18, 2003
At the meeting of the Asian Development Bank aided Eastern Province Coastal Communities Development Project (EPCCDP), it was stated that the goal of the project is to reduce poverty and meet the basic needs of coastal communities.

Historic Kalpitiya harbour will be developed, Daily News, Colombo, September 13, 2003
"The historic harbour of Kalpitiya will be developed in all spheres so that its past will be retained while providing all modern facilities for the ever growing fishing community in Kalpitiya and the adjoining areas around the islands", stated A. H. M. Azwer, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, at a discussion held at the Pradeshiya Sabha office, Kalpitiya, to review the progress of work undertaken by the Fisheries Ministry at the request of Minister Mahinda Wijesekera.

30M to develop Kalpitiya Harbour, Daily News, Colombo, February 27, 2003
Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister, Mahinda Wijesekera said Rs. 30 million will be allocated to develop the Kalpitiya Harbour.

Palmyrah Development Board, Ministry of Hindu Affairs, Sri Lanka, 2002
One hundred thousand families in the north and east of Sri Lanka depend on this palm for their livelihood The Palmyrah Development Board organised the people involved in the industry so as to promote and assist their activities.

Coral at risk, Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, February 08, 2001
Report calling for the need for reef protection in Sri Lanka

Environmental issues relating to coal power generation, Environment Sri Lanka, 2001
Special reference to the proposed power plant at Kalpitiya

Forced migration and local political economies, NORAGRIC working paper 22, December 2000
Report on Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese displaced by the civil war. PDF


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