CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 18 November 2017

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Land grab scourge in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO (UCAN): Punchirala Somasiri was a successful farmer in Sri Lanka until a group of men forced him and his family off their land in the Ampara district in the country’s southeast in 2010.

“The men wore masks and they set fire to our houses and the paddy field,” Somasiri, who is now the secretary of Panam Paththuwa Protecting Organisation, a local land advocacy group, said. He believes the men were working for corrupt officials.

Somasiri, who is Sinhalese, explained that around 350 families have been displaced and the police have kept them away from their land for a year.

He says the navy ended up building a camp and a hotel—Panama Lagoon Cabana—on some of the land. 

Early last year, Sri Lanka’s cabinet decided to release 340 acres of the original 365 acres back to the farmers. However, the decision remains unenforced, despite reminders being sent to the authorities from Somasiri’s organisation.

This is not an isolated case.

Father Sarath Iddamalgoda, from Colombo, says that Sri Lanka has had land-grabbing issues for decades.

“Since the 1970s there has been a rush of land grabbing. During the 1980s a lot of it occurred in the Moneragala district for sugar cultivation,” Father Iddamalgoda explained.

Land grabbing went into overdrive after Sri Lanka’s 25-year-long civil war ended in 2009. Studies done by the Oklahoma Institute show that following the conflict, large tracts of land inhabited by Tamil communities in the north and east of the country were taken by the military.

Not only was the land taken, in many cases it was developed away from agriculture for commercial purposes.

“The army has expanded non-military activities and is engaged in large-scale property development, construction projects and business ventures, such as travel agencies, farming, holiday resorts, restaurants and innumerable cafes that dot the highways in the northern and eastern provinces,” the study reveals.

“The army officially runs luxury resorts and golf courses that have been erected on land seized from now-internally displaced peoples,” it adds. The Sri Lankan government says the study’s claims are an exaggeration.

The Environment Conservation Trust says that during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005 to 2014), government-supported politicians and the military forcibly acquired around 200,000 acres of land.

Herman Kumara, the co-convener of the People’s Alliance for the Right to Land Rights, says that rights advocates point out that the land grab issue reveals weaknesses in the country’s constitution, even though it does recognise the right to land ownership.

“No one should be evicted from their home or have it demolished without a court order made after considering all the relevant circumstances,” Kumara says.

A lawyer, Jagath Liyana Arachchi, says the government needs to recognise that land and property is a fundamental right.

 

“The constitution should be amended, so if rights are violated the affected parties can go to court and file a case and get compensation,” Arachchi says.

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