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In Vidattaltivu, the ocean never seems very far away. A stiff breeze carries a briny saltiness and the hungry calls of birds, which circle the small harbour where the fishermen moor their boats. Looking out from the coastline, visitors find their view of the horizon is circumscribed by dense, green mangroves. However, beyond the borders of the trees, lies open ocean and coral reefs teeming with colourful fish. This place is a kind of natural paradise.

 Of course, it has not always been so for the people of the village. 28-year-old Susaidas Suren was born in this coastal town in Mannar district. This remote community was devastated by the war—Suren himself was displaced three times. But now they are trying to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. They want to share the beauty they know so intimately with tourists, and in the process rejuvenate their village. 

A VERY DIFFERENT WAY OF LIFE

 Suren is one of a group of young people behind the Vidattaltivu Eco Tourism Society. Under the EU Support to District Development Programme, UNDP came in to back the community organisation with a boat yard that could serve as a meeting point and administrative centre. The dock was also deepened to improve access.

 In districts such as Mannar, Ampara, Vavuniya, Puttalam and Anuradhapura, EU-SDDP has focused on young people interested in becoming entrepreneurs, while simultaneously supporting their increased engagement in governance and promoting youth leadership at a local level.

Here in Vidattaltivu, the programme focused on helping youth revitalise their community. Aside from the infrastructure, they also needed help to iron out the logistical details such as first aid and life jackets that were key safety requirements. Various members of the team have gone for training and been certified as guides. It has been a steep learning curve for people used to a very different way of life.

RELIANCE ON THE OCEAN

These families have traditionally relied on what the ocean provided—but it is becoming harder to make a living from fishing. The conflict brought many disruptions and now the competition is also stiff. 

Generations of people here have been reared with the idea that if they protected the ocean, then it would always provide in abundance. But now they are facing competition from outsiders with a very different philosophy. “They come here and use dynamite fishing,” complains Suren, adding that while the culprits are hard to catch, the toll on fish populations has been noticeable. “We are forced to find alternative sources of income to support ourselves.”  

THE HIDDEN WONDERS OF VIDDATTALTIVU

The group of some 28 young people are doing their best to advertise the many wonders of Vidattaltivu. Over the last year, they have hosted some 10 groups of visitors; taking them bird-watching and snorkelling, they have also conducted tours of the mangroves. Just 25 kilometres away from Mannar, there are other nearby attractions in Vidattaltivu, including the St. James church. One of the largest in the Mannar Diocese, it is over 400 years old.

EXOTIC CREATURES AMONG US

Still, the area’s greatest draws might be natural: sea turtles and leather back turtles; exotic fish playing hide and seek in the tall sea grass; birds like wimbrels, grey plovers, terek sandpipers and white-winged terns are everywhere. Head out on a boat, and if you are lucky enough, you might even spot a dugong. “It looks like a human being,” says Suren, who has seen the dugongs swimming lazily in these waters. “It is a mammal like us, and drinks milk. It should not be lost to this earth.” 

He is not alone in his instinct for conservation. The society has been conducting outreach and awareness programmes aimed at protecting the fauna and flora in this area. So long isolated, the coast here is pristine; the group is determined to keep it that way by conducting regular clean-up efforts. 

LIFE ALTERING DECISIONS

Suren admits frankly that the eco-tourism venture could be life altering for young people here. With a scarcity of jobs and few opportunities to build new skills, people are desperate for work. “We have university graduates living here who cannot find a job,” he says. “We know we have to help ourselves which is why we want to develop this eco-tourism project further.” He hopes people will come to see what Vidattaltivu has to offer. “It will make a big difference if we succeed.”   

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