FADING HOPES FOR ANCESTRAL LANDS
Around 111 families in Ragamwela and Shastrawela have been displaced due to the land disputes, and they are now compelled to live in their relatives’ or rented houses. As this predicament occurred amidst the all-powerful Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, the politicians of the rival parties spoke much about this concern in their election campaigns, but to no avail. Meanwhile,
Primary Industry Minister Daya Gamage who is a prominent politician in the Ampara District had told the victims of this problem that he would take necessary measures to retrieve their native lands and hand them over to them. The people who had toiled for the victory of Minister Gamage during the last parliamentary elections now remain disappointed because they claimed that the politician who promised to protect their land rights was now attempting to construct a luxury tourist hotel named ‘Pãnama Lagoon Cabana’ and also an international relations centre on that plot of land.
DISREGARDED DECISIONS BY THE LEGISLATURE AND JUDICIARY
In view of the efforts made by the people to re-gain their lands, the Cabinet of Ministers on February 11, 2015 had decided to return these lands, held by the tri-forces, back to their rightful owners. Even after the lapse of one year and seven months since this decision, the people remain displaced. No formal process had begun to hand over the land to the people. According to the Cabinet decision made under the directive of President Maithripala Sirisena, 340 out of 365 acres of land was ordered to be returned to the genuine owners as constructions on 25 acres were underway. However,
as nothing materialised and justice was not done to the people, they had gone to court seeking legal assistance. Accordingly, the Pottuvil Magistrate’s Court had confirmed the ownership of the people in those lands. The Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission had also recommended that such constructions were illegal. It is unbelievable that at a time the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary have instructed the return of these lands to their original owners, it has not happened yet.
FARMERS AND FISHERFOLK WHO LOST THEIR LIVELIHOODS
There are still 36 families occupying these lands despite letters from the Lahugala Divisional Secretary to evict them. While some villagers intend to start cultivation, some others are in doubt as to when they will be kicked out from their native lands. Punchirala Somasiri, a victim of the land struggle, shared his part of the story with us.
He is currently living in his sister’s house with his two kids. “First, we were informed that a part of our property is taken to build a housing scheme for war heroes. We were also keen to give a part of our land for the housing programme. But, the Sri Lanka Navy cordoned off the lands by an electric fence and said they would build a Naval camp on our property which later became a hotel. In spite of our strong opposition, the Navy went ahead with the construction forcibly,”
he said. He along with others who faced this dilemma had gone to the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission which had confirmed that the said constructions were illegal and they should be discontinued forthwith. Despite this declaration by the HR Commission, four more Cabanas were put up in three month, he added.
“The police have not yet taken action on the complaint we lodged over the destruction of our homes and the eviction in July, 2010. We allege that they were from the Special Task Force,” he said. Since Pãnama is located next to a coastal area, there are hundreds of people who depend on the income earned by fishing. The new constructions of the hotel had adversely impacted on the fishing community. Vineetha Dasanayake who is engaged in fishing said the fishermen started losing their livelihood since they were not allowed to use the waters due to the construction of the hotel. Rathnamali Kariyawasam, another landless villager, alleged that they have been cheated by Minister Gamage for whom all the villagers worked hard during the last general elections.
“We have taken a decision to enter our lands which are held by military personnel. We are now living in these temporary huts until our properties are returned. We are often interrupted by the government officials. Therefore, we still live in fear as to when we will be re-evicted,” Rathnamali said. The journalists were able to meet the Pãnama people and witness these sites during a media tour organised by Oxfam, an international confederation of 20 organisations, networked in more than 90 countries.
SERIOUS VIOLATION OF LAWS
There had been no proper practice of legal procedures in taking over these lands. Senior Environment Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said when the forest lands belonging to the Forest Conservation Ordinance were for other purposes, an environmental impact assessment should be carried out in advance. However, no such environmental impact assessment has been carried out before constructions were initiated by the Navy. He said the constructions were illegal in terms of the National Environment Act.
According to the National Environment Act, the Central Environment Authority (CEA) could issue a directive under section 24 B for the immediate suspension of the activities until such permission was granted following the proper procedure. However, he said he was aware that the CEA was unable to exercise its duties due to political pressure. When it comes to lands that fall under the coastal zone, the Coastal Conservation Department had to issue a permit. As far as he was concerned, there was no permit issued for the constructions.
“If there are any archeological sites in the vicinity, they should carry out an Archeological Impact Assessment called AIA under section 43 C of the antiordinance. No such assessment has been carried out,” he said.
They followed directions of Presidential Secretariat : Defence Secretary
Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi ruled out the claims of the people that the lands were forcibly occupied by the military. He said the tri-forces were only engaged in the constructions as instructed by the Presidential Secretariat.
Therefore, they cannot comment on the claims of the people, he said. “What is noteworthy is that we did not take over any land. Whatever we did was going ahead with the instructions given by the Presidential Secretariat. The easiest thing is to put the blame on the tri-forces for every single thing that happens in the country.
People can say anything, but we have not taken over any land by force,” he stressed. However, several attempts made by the Daily Mirror to contact former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to inquire about this concern failed
The giant development plan targeting tourists
Primary Industries Minister Daya Gamage said the lands people demanded were located within a distance of 300 metres from the beach which was prohibited to be built on. “Everybody in Ampara has lands except the second generation whom I am targeting to be benefited from a 350 housing project.
Most of these people who are protesting already have lands. Since many of them are uneducated, they are misguided by some non-governmental organisations,” he said. However, he said the land issue that started during the previous government would be completely solved from the housing project. Meanwhile, the minister pointed out that he had a number of tourism development projects to be launched in the Ampara District which was gradually filling up with tourists after the end of the war. In the giant development plan for tourism, primary industries in Ampara such as coconut and sea food are proposed to be improved by using new technological methods with the support of Vietnam and Thailand. “My plan is to develop tourism in Ampara just like in Thailand.
These plans should be supported by people because it is the people in Ampara who will be ultimately benefited,” Minister Gamage said. A housing project with 350 houses was initiated by Minister Gamage with the purpose of giving lands and houses to those who claimed they were deprived of them. According to the minister, some 350 houses (20 perches for each) would be given to families on a concessional loan scheme. The minister said the houses would comprise of an extra room which could be rented out for tourists. Thus, people would be able to stay at home and make an additional income in the near future, he added.