A letter from Chenoa Stock in Sri Lanka
June 16, 2009
The issue of land has been an important topic in Sri Lankan news lately, as the Sri Lankan Army has supposedly brought the 30-year civil war to an end by capturing the last land held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist rebel group that had been fighting against the government for a separate Tamil land. This defeat included finding and killing all of their top leaders, including the LTTE’s chief leader, Prabhakaran. Many on the island hope this will bring positive change to the country and to the dynamics between Sinhalese and Tamils, but people who are working in the humanitarian field have turned their attention to the internally displaced people (IDPs) in the north, where most of the fighting had been.
Though one is never sure what to believe from the media, it is said that more than 300,000 Tamil civilians who escaped the battlefields are now detained in overcrowded camps in the north, which are guarded by the military. The conditions of these camps are grim, and they lack basic facilities. Yet due to access restrictions, humanitarian agencies find it difficult to reach the camps to provide assistance and support for these civilians. These civilians are not permitted to leave because the government is ostensibly is trying to find rebels hiding within the camps.
Though I have not been to the north, I have many friends in NGOs who travel there regularly and tell me of the dire situation. I’m only able to have the slightest understanding of this situation thanks to the members of one of our partner organizations based in the north. At our workshop on land rights policy in April, people from our partner organizations gathered, including people who participated in our land rights research and have been affected by one of the six land issues that Praja Abhilasha, our Joining Hands network, has identified (development, tsunami, war, human-elephant conflict, land tenure and other natural disasters). We had experts on each issue lead comprehensive dialogues and conversations in their field. They’d talk about the background of the issue in Sri Lanka, its development, and the land policies and situations related to those issues. Then participants would break into groups, according to issue, to discuss their progress in the months since we last met, brainstorm alternative solutions and decide on common steps that should be taken. People from the north talked about the struggle they face when traveling from the north to the south: they need a pass to travel out of certain areas, and they are harassed by the army and police. Others shared the problems within their own communities and their displacement issues. The workshop was very positive, a time for us to gather more details about each issue, as well as have each community hear about land issues around the island that may be similar to theirs.
Since this workshop, we have begun further research on one particular case in the eastern coast. When the construction of Oluvil Harbour was proposed in early 2000, it was supposed to affect people in Oluvil, Attalaichchenai and Palamunai. At the time, many people in the nearby fishing communities opposed the project because construction would limit their access to fishing waters, pollute the water and take the land that they had owned and cultivated for generations. Their protests were ignored. In 2004, the government received cabinet approval, and in 2008 the government began construction. Due to this project, 2,000 laborers who worked with 32 beach fishing nets ("seines") lost their livelihoods. (These nets are so huge that 50-70 people work on each one.)
In addition, the government expropriated the land and farms of 29 people in Sinnapalamunai and 24 persons in Oluvil. These people have been cultivating this land for years, and some of them even held deeds and government permits for it. When shown this documentation, the government said that the land was not crown (government) land and therefore the documents were void. They subsequently stated that the land was privately owned by someone who had sold it to the government’s Port Authority for use in the harbor project. The community members were totally unprepared for this and were evicted from their homes and fields without certification of their ownership, which left them with no right to compensation for their losses. Letters have been sent to higher authorities in the government requesting compensation for their losses, but there has been little response to their pleas. Some fishermen who were on a list to receive compensation got nothing at all because when the money was distributed the mudalali (the de facto boss of the fishermen) removed their names from the list and replaced them with the names of his family members. The mudalali has great influence over decisions regarding who is approved for compensation. Therefore, the people feel a strong, united effort to unveil this corruption is needed.
So this is where we stand at Praja Abhilasha. We have sent two teams of people to continue to gather details from these communities and to open dialogue with the government. As there are many layers to every villager’s story, it has taken us some time to get the facts straight in order to create an accurate report on which to build our campaign. But we continue the dialogue, and the situation becomes clearer each time we interact with the community. Though the communities first wanted to stop the construction of the harbor completely, since the work is well under way now, we’re fighting for compensation and for the rights they deserve as people of that land. The fishermen who can’t go to sea or whose catch has decreased due to the construction pollutants and the military security will continue to struggle until they receive what they deserve and are able to regain a sense of livelihood again. Now that the communities are aware of their rights and the true situation and are willing to gather in solidarity around a campaign that enables them to actualize these rights, we believe we have a good chance of success.
Land rights research report
At the end of June, we will be launching our land rights research report, which we carried out last year around the island. The report will be printed in Sinhala, Tamil and English and will be distributed to all of our partner organizations, both within Sri Lanka and internationally. It includes an overall view of the land situation in Sri Lanka, a detailed description of the land issues within each district, a review of the land policies and laws of Sri Lanka and how people can exercise their rights in each situation. We hope this will give our members a greater understanding of their land rights, while at the same time giving them the confidence to join our movement and fight for their rights.
So as we continue to work with our partner organizations — those struggling both in the north and the south — and to form our campaign amidst a country transitioning from war to peace, we have faith that our work will help bring justice and peace on a small scale, which in turn has the potential to affect the whole.
We are grateful for your support and prayers, both for the Praja Abhilasha Joining Hands network and for Sri Lanka, as both move into new times, looking ahead towards peace, equality and reconciliation.
I will be returning to the States in September and October in order to participate in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s World Mission Challenge (see below). I will be speaking in Montana, North Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota, so if you will be in any of those areas, let me know! After October, I will return to Sri Lanka, as I have extended my contract through 2010 (if the visa works out!). I hope I can see some of you when I am home!
World Mission Challenge
From September 25 to October 18 this year, 40 PC(USA) mission personnel will visit hundreds of congregations across the United States to tell how God is at work around the world. World Mission Challenge ’09 (WMC) is the successor to Mission Challenge ’07. So far, WMC has 150 of the 173 PC(USA) presbyteries signed up to participate (that’s 86 percent!). For a list of the participating presbyteries and the mission speakers, see the Mission Challenge Web site.
World Mission Challenge will conclude with World Mission Celebration, a large gathering for Presbyterians who care deeply about mission. The event will be held October 22 to 24 in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the adjoining Duke Energy Center.
Joining Hands – Praja Abhilasha
The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 109