Praja Abhilasha network has been fighting alongside communities to regain lands taken during wartime and after the tsunami
By Raajan Francis | Praja Abhilasha
On December 26, 2004, a powerful tsunami waves devastated the Sri Lankan coastal areas around the country destroying fishing villages, flooding rice fields and plantations and sowing grief among rural and urban communities. The disaster affected particularly fishing communities on the coast.
Sri Lanka is a very popular tourist destination, particularly for northern Europeans, and hundreds of tourists were killed by the tsunami. Much of the tourist infrastructure was destroyed also in the Southern, South/Western, Eastern and Western regions of the country.
The international community rallied to help tsunami survivors and millions of dollars were contributed by individuals, businesses and charities.
While the Sri Lankan government was beginning to organize relief efforts, international relief organizations arrived to provide help. While intentions to help were sincere, some negative influences surfaced.
Foreign organizations and countries competed for visibility in the relief efforts. Billboards advertised campsites and donations. Journalists and television crews mobilized to broadcast interventions. Powerful foreign governments and international institutions began voicing their interest in working on post tsunami reconstruction plans.
The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Japan, the European Union and others offered the Sri Lankan government to assist in the development of policies for the reclassification of coastal land to restrict local access and use to rebuild and expand the tourist infrastructure.
In May 2005, many grassroots organizations, non-governmental organizations and community groups gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the invitation of the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue (EISD) and the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO)and agreed to form a network of organizations representing marginalized communities from coastal and farming areas affected directly and indirectly by the tsunami.
By early September 2005, the “Praja Abhilasha” Network (Joining Hands Sri Lanka) was formed. The network is countywide and composed of 25 organizations. It is inclusive of all faiths and religious bodies present on the island although there are no institutional churches among its membership.
The response members present at that constitutive workshop identified the focus areas for their work together.
“We agreed that the Tsunami has only exacerbated the underlying causes of poverty in our country. We have decided to focus on the following key issue. Access to Land as it is the core issue of poverty in our society. We agree to work on the right to land as a human right of the people as it relates to the right to life and livelihoods of the people, in a context of globalization, privatization and International Monetary Fund imposed economic reforms in our country”.
In 2007, Lionel Derenoncourt, the former Program Associate for International Hunger Concerns with the Presbyterian Hunger Program, encouraged Praja Abhilasha to focus on land issues. Praja Abhilasha began engaging in campaigns on the following land issues: displacement by war, human and elephant conflict (co-existence issues), land tenure, and plantation (Tea Estate workers) issues, etc.
Praja Abhilasha has organized and mobilized affected communities through its partner organizations to fight to regain land lostand the network has celebrated many victories with the land campaign.
Praja Abhilasha has been supported in this work by the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. The network was also fortunate enough to receive assistance from Chenoa Stock, a PCUSA mission co-worker, who served as Companionship Facilitator for the network, connecting the network in Sri Lanka with Presbyterians in the U.S. After Chenoa left in 2011, Rev. Thomas John served as the Companionship Facilitator for both India and Sri Lanka. Both Chenoa and Thomas helped the network and members to move forward with strong land campaigns.
There have been many victories gained by the collective efforts of the network members, such as:
- In 2007, 35 farming families in Buddidasungama won their land struggle and were able to live on their land without disturbances from wild elephants.
- Due to continuous advocacy work, the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps of Tsunami affected families were closed before 2009 after the government provided houses and compensation for the families.
- 3000 fisher families were able to continue their livelihood after the struggle against the Sea Plane Project in Negombo lagoon was won in 2010.
- In March 2015, the cabinet decided to release 345 acres out of 1200 acres of land taken in Ragamwela, Paanama.
- 380 families were able to return to fishing after the community was mobilized to win the Iranaithivu Island land struggle in 2018.
- In Mannar, Mullikulam people received back 650 acres of land in 2012 and 75 acres in 2017 in northern province of Sri Lanka.
- In Polpithigama, Irudeniyaya , more than 30,000 farmers are still engaged in farming due to continuous protest.
- Supported the struggle of Pulakkudiruppu in Northern Province and the people received back 54 acres of land.
- In 2017 and 2018, 133 acres of land in Kepapilavu released in Mulaitivu in northern Province.
- Won two court cases regarding the Paanama Land grabbing issues.
- Praja Abhilasha mobilized people to fight the resettlement of IDPs in Jaffna, with 33 out of 45 camps closing 2015-2019 Protected the water catchment areas and irrigation tanks in Polonnaruwa through continuous campaign, research, and reforestation programs in 2019.
- Mobilized Silawathurai community in Mannar to regain 18 acres of land occupied by the military in 2019.
However, Sri Lanka has recently elected a new President, who is not expected to respond favorably to land rights struggles. So, we expect that it may be very difficult to gain back lands currently under military occupation in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
The new political climate will challenge us to be more strategic. We will continue, with the support of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, the struggle to regain people’s land to eliminate hunger and poverty.