Our Land Our Life | Daily News

Our Land Our Life

From the North, South, East and West, from the Central hills and even from the indigenous community, more than two hundred representatives from communities, civil society activists,

researchers, scholars, lawyers and many others gathered at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI) at Wijerama Mawatha on August 23 and 24 to initiate a year-long participatory peoples’ process to formulate a comprehensive set of legal and policy proposals to safeguard the peoples’ right to land in Sri Lanka.

“This has become urgent because of the continuing exclusion of peoples concern in state policy with respect to land rights,” said Dinushika Dissanayaike, Director of the Law and Society Trust (LST), who together with the People’s Alliance for Right to Land (PARL) were the force in bringing all the above mentioned together.

“Since the late colonial era, the governance of land through legislative and executive (administrative) instruments and power has been the locus of intense political and social conflict in Sri Lanka. Despite repeated calls by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a ‘National Policy” on land remains elusive,” she added.

“Land grabbing could be defined as disrupting the livelihood of people legally or by force,” said Herman Kumara, convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NaFSO). “Land belongs to the people whose livelihood is dependent on it. Similarly the ocean belongs to the people whose livelihood is dependent on the ocean and not to the government. Does a government elected by the people for a five year term have the right to lease out land for a period of 99 years or sell it to another country?” he questioned.

land rights in the context of post war and transitional justice

Session one of the convention moderated by P. B. Gowthaman dealt with land rights in the context of post war and transitional justice process at which representatives from areas in the North and East aired their tales of woe on how they have lost the land they thrived on due to the war and in the guise of development and zoning.

Arumanayagam representing the ‘adhivasi’ community said his community has been forced to give up their livelihood due to the zoning of their ancestral hunting grounds and the introduction of new laws. “We are fined or imprisoned even if we enter the forests on which our ancestors thrived by collecting bees honey and hunting. The government wants us to engage in other occupations and give up our traditional livelihoods,” he lamented.

On the conclusion of session one P. Kahunathan, Land Commissioner of the Northern Province explained how the government was addressing all the issues raised. “Sadly we are unable to permit the ‘adhivasi’ community to continue with their ancestral occupations under the existing laws and regulations brought into force as the forest areas including the fauna and flora are fast diminishing and it is best that the adhivasi community engage in other ways of livelihood,” he said.

“State land comes under the purview of more than ten government departments. Officials who were forced to leave their territories in the north and east due to the war have returned and are taking action to reposes and safeguard land which were under their departments which has caused much issues.”

“Two and a half years ago we were full of hope and expected that a lot of things promised, including Constitutional reforms and transitional justice would be fulfilled, but it seems that nothing has materialized today,” said land rights activist lawyer Bhavani Fonseka. “The interim reforms promised are yet to come. We are still debating on the devolution of land rights through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It also introduced the National Land Commission of which the people are not even aware of.”

“We have heard of various guises adopted by the government to acquire and zone land by which way they can control and limit the access of the people. Zoning should be done in a transparent manner. There are so many departments such as Archaeology that can take over our private property overnight by zoning. Acquisition is a more transparent process which can be contested in court but there were some instances where acquisition notices were pasted on trees within high security zones not accessible to the public,” she said.

Land, livelihood, environmental rights

The second session was on land, livelihood, environmental rights and development moderated by Sandun Thudugala, Head of programs at Law and Society Trust. The land grabbing at Panama, Uma Oya, Siyambalanduwa, Pasikudah and the loss of livelihood due to the port city projects were raised. Kusumawathy Welendra speaking about the Uma Oya project said it was the women that were facing the most hardships as they had to manage for five or six days with just 500 litres of water.

Vimalaraj highlighted the loss of livelihood faced by the fishermen of Passikudah. He said these fisher folk were forced to move from beach to beach to make way for tourist hotels.

Speaking on the Port City project, Subashini said that it is the women who suffer the most

due the loss of livelihood faced by the men.

The loss of land due to the Yan Oya Irrigation scheme and the sugar cane plantations being setup in Siyambalanduwa were also presented. The issues were discussed by a panel comprising Iromi Perera, Sajeewa Chamikara and Chinthaka Rajapakse.

Land rights of the plantation communities

Session three was on the land rights of the plantation communities and moderated by B. Skanthakumar.

“The plantation community have been a group of people who have helped boost the nation’s economy for the past two hundred years but do not own land or a house of their own as the line rooms they presently live in belong to the estate they work on,” he said.

A panel moderated by Fr. Sarath Iddamalgoda and comprising of Herman Kumara, Vijay Nagaraj, Mirak Raheem and K. P. Somalatha of the Uva Welassa women’s organization discussed the future of the peoples struggle to safeguard their land and the legal and policy reforms to ensure their rights.

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