Land Rights Victories Post Tsunami

Joining Hands Sri Lanka continues to make gains in the fight for land rights as tourism grows

By Herman Kumara | Praja Abhilasha

Woman posing next to their village lagoon that will have been destroyed by a seaplane project. Their resistance paid and the project was canceled and planned in a different location. Photo by Valery Nodem.

“Building Back Better” continues to be the World Bank’s motto for “rebuilding stronger, faster, and more inclusively” after natural disasters. The motto was first introduced during the post 2004 tsunami development process.

The tsunami of December 26, 2004 devastated the coasts of Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing close to two million.

However, rather than rebuilding better for those who lost everything, rebuilding has been focused on growing tourism industries.

Immediately following the disaster, neo-liberal economic policies were adopted across the entirety of the tsunami-devastated Asian region. 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 assistance in the development of policies for the reclassification of coastal land to restrict local access and use to rebuild and expand tourist infrastructure for the promotion of tourism.

In Sri Lanka, the Cabinet ministers changed the land laws, in the name of security, releasing all coastal lands from the customary ownership of coastal communities.

Coastal communities were relocated to inland locations and cut off from their livelihoods, many being fishermen that depend on the sea for survival, to make way for luxury hotels, restaurants, casinos and docks.

A member of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board was quoted as saying, “In a cruel twist of fate, nature has presented Sri Lanka with an unique opportunity, and out of this great tragedy will come a world class tourism destination.”[1]

Naomi Klein, Canadian journalist, author and social activist, coined the phrase “disaster capitalism,” when observing the policy changes that were happening in Sri Lanka soon after the tsunami when voters had voted months before against those same changes.[2] According to Klein, disaster capitalism is when those in power (governments, corporations, etc.) take advantage of crises like natural disasters to implement liberal policy changes outside of normal democratic processes.

These policies led to the increased displacement of tsunami victims as funds came flowing into tsunami affected countries and the interests of foreign investors and countries were prioritized.

Birth of Land Rights Network

In this context, Lionel Derenoncourt, the former coordinator of the Joining Hands initiative of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, together with Rev. Thomas John, the former mission co-worker working with the Joining Hands network in India, Chethana, approached the National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO) in September of 2005 to facilitate a dialogue on sustainable living of coastal communities based on a human rights approach to development.

This encounter was a turning point for our work with tsunami affected communities as we shifted to a strategy of analyzing the prevailing poverty and diagnosing the root causes of it.

Fishermen bringing back their nets next to industrial project that could displace them. Photo by Valery Nodem.

At the initial workshop held in Colombo, NAFSO and the Ecumenical Institute for Sustainable Development (EISD) invited 30 organizations engaged on human rights issues related to tsunami victims, Including fisheries organizations, trade unions, women’s organizations, urban poor communities, farmers’ organizations and plantation communities.  Participants felt that land issues were at the core of poverty in Sri Lanka and hence, agreed on the necessity to converge their efforts to address this issue. Out of that workshop, the Praja Abhilasha (PA) Land Rights Network (Joining Hands Sri Lanka) was born.

Mr. Marshal Fernando of EISD in Colombo was instrumental in coordinating between Joining Hands and NAFSO at the beginning of the land rights program. Fernando stated, “We agreed that the Tsunami had only exacerbated the underlying causes of poverty in our country. We had analyzed land rights as the key human rights issue and access to and ownership of land as the core issue of poverty in our society. We agreed 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.”

Our vision as the PA network is to work towards a country where communities are free from issues of land injustice and can enjoy the freedom to access, use and own land irrespective of any differences in ethnicity, language or religion.

The PA network found that there were many land issues to address, as the people have become landless, displaced, dispossessed, dislocated, disowned, or disturbed due to land disputes.  One of the network’s first victories was to identify and agree to address all forms of land rights violations in addition to the displacement, devastation and destruction resulting from the tsunami.

Francis Raajan, the first coordinator of Praja Abhilasha, stated, “The war victims, the Internally Displaced Persons [IDP], people who were forcefully evicted and their land grabbed by the military or due to other security reasons, the people who lost their land due to so-called ‘development programs’, the people who were disturbed and lost their lives and livelihoods due to breakdown of human-elephant co-existence, the tenure rights of tea plantation worker communities who have been living in the tea estates for around two centuries but possess no legal right to own a piece of land, the urban poor slum dwellers who do not have any space for decent life, no housing, no hygienic  facilities, no education for children of landless poor, together with tsunami victims, the displaced coastal communities were in our land rights network of around 25 organizations from all over the country, irrespective of geography, ethnicity, religion, language or issues they faced, they came together, and that in itself was a victory.”

Women at a sit-in to reclaim that their land confiscated to establish a military base be returned to them. Photo by Valery Nodem.

Since the inception, PA has taken approaches which were people-centered, justice-oriented, and fact-based, which were either collaborative or at times confrontational to address people’s land issues. We have always worked to empower people and build the capacities of people impacted by land injustices to take leadership. Over the years, many leaders have emerged as a result, both at the community level as well as on an organizational level, which is another victory to celebrate.

The PA network was further strengthened when Chenoa Stock was appointed as the Joining Hands Companionship Facilitator (mission co-worker) to PA. “Chenoa was helpful to our work as she could understand our issues deeply and facilitated in connecting people’s issues to global campaigns”, said Hema Munipura, the Chairperson of Praja, Urban Poor Organization based in Colombo.

Through the work of the network, many people regained their land rights. However, our broad mobilization of impacted communities brought us a lot of unwanted attention from politicians, developers and other authorities. We were seen as troublemakers and disrupters of their development projects. The lives of PA activists and leaders, including my own came under attack.

Although the people were regaining their land rights through the network, the authorities, politicians, the developers saw the PA as a challenge to them, troublemakers and disturbers to the ongoing development activities of the government. So, there were life threats to the PA activists and the leaders of the network. I was followed by white vans and attempts to abduct me occurred three times.

Despite the danger and tremendous challenges, the PA Network has won many victories and it is a joy to see that the people are living decently on their lands again though this was a very hard and painful journey. We are continuing this long struggle with courage and determination, even though there are many challenges along the way.

Voices of Victory

“PA engagement helped to regain the land of displaced persons and closed down 35 IDP camps out of 48 while settling 16,500 families in the Jaffna district.”- I. Inbanayagam, the Chairperson, Rural Workers Organization, Jaffna.

 “We were able to resettle 380 families in 725 acres of land Mullikulam in Mannar district. People in Mullikulam appreciate the work done by PA as the organization helped them to gain their land back.” – Benedict Croos, Coordinator, District Fisheries Organization, Mannar

“Victory over Sea Plane struggle while educating, mobilizing and agitating with 5000 fisher women and men at the Negombo Lagoon helped to save the lagoon and to protect the livelihood of 3000 fishermen and fisher women is one of the biggest victories of post war history. We are lucky to work as a network of land rights and gained this victory.” – Subashinie Deepa, Coordinator, Sri Vimukthi Fisher Women Organization, Negombo

“In Paanama, Ashroff Nagar and Deegawapi, in Ampara district, people’s lands were occupied by the military. There were around 450 families displaced altogether. As a result of the people’s continuous struggle, some of the land was released and people were able to get back their lands. We are continuously fighting with the people to empower them to gain the legal rights of the land”. – K.Issadeen, Coordinator, DIFSO, Ampara

“Tourism is the main aim of constructing the elephant corridor across the farmers land in Irudeniyaya. Once the corridor is built, 32,000 farmers would lose their agricultural lands, and some will lose their houses as well as their livelihoods and their children would have no schooling facilities and will automatically become dropouts. The whole life will be a mess. The work done through the PA engagement gave strength to the people to come together and strongly resist this project of wildlife department”. –Sanjeewa Sampath, Coordinator, Praja Sahayogitha Sansadaya, Polpitigama.



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