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The Village That Could

Sri Lanka, September 30, 2005

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    A grocery reopens with help from Mercy Corps and Oprah's Angel Network. Photo: Jim Jarvie/Mercy Corps Photo:

Lyn Robinson remembers the tsunami's aftermath like it was yesterday.

“When I arrived, it was a scene of total devastation,” recalls Robinson, Mercy Corps’ Program Manager for the Oprah's Angel Network-funded program in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka. “The village was destroyed. Everyone had lost someone, and some people had lost their entire families.”

The devastating waves of the tsunami swept away hundreds of lives, as well as the livelihoods of the survivors. Only ruins remained where hotels and restaurants had stood minutes before. More than 90% of the fishing boats were swept away or destroyed.

Today, the village has returned to life. Hotels and restaurants have re-opened, and fishermen have returned to the sea. People here recognize that a major catalyst for this rapid revitalization was the implementation of Mercy Corps’ livelihoods recovery program funded by Oprah's Angel Network.

“Despite the magnitude of the disaster, the survivors began to pull their lives together within weeks and move forward,” says Lyn Robinson. “The courage and determination of the people of Arugam Bay is an inspiring example of the strength of the human spirit.”

Habibaumma, one of the few female fishermen in the community, was on the shore getting her boat and crew ready for the day’s fishing when the tsunami waves came. Older fishermen on the shore recognized that the sea was abnormal and called for her to run.

She made it to safety, and watched in horror as her friends and neighbors struggled to higher ground. Already widowed, Habibaumma saw her only means of support, her boat and nets, being destroyed.

Habibaumma was determined to rebuild her life. With assistance from Mercy Corps and Oprah's Angel Network, she quickly replaced her fishing nets so that she and the fifty men and women on her crew could return to sea and recover their livelihoods.

The Arugam Bay program was one of the first in Sri Lanka to focus on the recovery of livelihoods. Within days of the tsunami, Mercy Corps designed a long term, comprehensive strategy with the philosophy of “Building Back Better” which includes training, institution building and support to local businesses.

Mercy Corps, through funding from Oprah's Angel Network, supports a number of activities in Arugam Bay, including:

  • The installation of street lights in town to increase security and safety
  • Tourism recovery clean-up activities
  • Rebuilding of restaurant and tea shop owners’ livelihoods
  • Support of local fishing industry activities
  • Landscaping to replace trees and plants lost in the tsunami
  • Training for tourism industry employees, including hotel and restaurant management, computer support and advocacy
  • Support to small groceries and stores, mostly women-owned
  • The design and launch of a website to promote tourism in Arugam Bay (www.visitarugambay.com)

Fighting Back for their Future
Before the fateful tsunami on December 26, 2004, Arugam Bay was just beginning to emerge and prosper after twenty years of civil war. After peace accords were signed in 2002, it quickly became the most popular tourist destination on Sri Lanka’s east coast. One of the top surf sites in the world, it attracted surfers from abroad in search of great waves and beautiful beaches.

The white beaches and world-class waves of Arugam Bay not only caught the interest of tourists, but of outside developers as well. In the midst of struggling to rebuild their lives after the tsunami, the community of Arugam Bay was hit with another potential disaster: an attempted “land-grab” by outside business interests of their prized beaches and budding tourism industry.

Thanks to the determination and spirit of the Arugam Bay community, the take-over bid has proved unsuccessful so far. The community was able to organize, fight back and win.

In June 2005, the Chairman of the Sri Lankan Tourist Board sent a letter of formal apology, retracting his previous statements that private property in Arugam Bay would be acquired by the state-controlled Tourist Board for redevelopment.

To ensure that the needs of the community continue to shape and drive the rehabilitation agenda in Arugam Bay, Mercy Corps and Oprah's Angel Network have designed a series of activities to help this self-reliant community not only get back on their feet, but to determine their own future.

Mercy Corps is facilitating preparation of a Community Development Plan, in which stakeholders can share their needs and wishes for future development.

Arugam Bay has demonstrated its determination to build back stronger, as well as its fighting spirit, over the past seventeen months. It has firmly established itself as Sri Lanka's little village that could.