As the Election Approaches
People Demand Access to their Rightful Lands
14,127 acres of land belonging to minority Tamil and Muslim farmers in Ampara has been taken over by the government.
“About 14127 acres of land belonging to minority Tamil and Muslim farmers in the Ampara district has been taken over by government and individuals. This has become a huge obstacle in reconciliation efforts in the area,” said Khairuddin Nihal Ahmed, Executive Director of Human Resources Institute, spearheading the struggle for land repossession. The Catamaran interviewed him in this regard.
THE CATAMARAN: What type of land issues are there in Ampara District?
Land ownership is a social identity. It is only possible to ensure harmony through fair land distribution. Economic development depends on proper utilization of land. Since independence several projects have been initiated in the name of development in this district. A large are area was demarcated for Forest Conservation, Wildlife Conservation and for Archaeological sites. But the government has taken no notice of the human habitation within these areas which were agricultural and pasture lands belonging to poor, minority residents of the area living here for generations. Some areas have been occupied by the forces under the pretext of national security. Due to these many have become victims by losing the lands they owned.
THE CATAMARAN: What efforts has your organization made to recover these lands?
Our organization is the ‘Ampara District Alliance for Land Rights’ (ADALR). We have brought affected landowners together. Based on the complaints received so far to our organization, we have prepared a survey report on the loss of 14,127 acres of land from 18,608 owners. This report has been made with the help of our organization’s legal counsel by verifying official documents. Further, we have created a documentary film with the testimonies of affected people and documented a list of lands to take the case forward.
These lands come under the purview of Akkaraipattu, Attalaichenai, Pottuvil, Tirukoil, Alayadivembu, Lagugala, Damana, Samanthurai, Nintavur, Irakkamam and of Ampara Divisional Secretariats. We are presenting these reports to responsible government officials, politicians and international human rights defenders with the intention of solving these problems and releasing lands to their owners. We also have frequent people’s rallies and demonstrations from time to time according to need to create awareness. We also seek the cooperation of other civil organizations and the media to highlight the severity of the issue.
THE CATAMARAN: Is it not legally possible to confront this as ‘right to land is a fundamental right’ of the people?
Many who lodged complaints with us have already sought legal recourse. They complained about forcible evictions from their lands by the police. Some have been attacked and injured by the occupiers. Farmers visiting their own fields have been arrested by officers of Forest Department and Wildlife Conservation Department and actions filed against them. Some cases have been dismissed as the Departments of Forest and Wildlife had failed to submit proper evidence of trespass. But this does not solve the issue of people being restricted from entering their own lands.
A verdict in a land-related lawsuit in Pothuvil area was resolved in favor of the farmers. The magistrate who issued the verdict was later interdicted. Farmers believe this happened because of his verdict. Many lawyers are also hesitant to file lawsuits for similar cases after the Pothuvil incident.
THE CATAMARAN: There are a considerable number of parliamentarians representing minorities in the Ampara district. Aren’t they voicing for the rights of the people?
The responsibility of solving these issues mostly lies with politicians. They are well aware of the problems. However, their lethargic response has created suspicion among the people. The loss of these lands began with the planned settlement after the implementation of Gal-oya Development Project in the Ampara District. This settlement still continues to this day. Some land grabbers took advantage of the war situation.
THE CATAMARAN: How do you think this issue impacts the district’s racial harmony?
Thousands of acres of agricultural and residential land were taken over by the Sugar Corporation under the Galoya Development Project in the Ampara District in 1965. Muslims were forcibly evicted from these lands. Until then, these lands had been farmed with government authorization. The Sinhalese were brought in from the South to harvest sugarcane on lands used for paddy cultivation and given ownership of those lands. This has happened in many other areas too such as Nuraichcholai, Ambalatharu, Omarankai, Senaikandam, Solavattai, Velamaraththu Veli, Siyatharavattai and Ponnanweli.
How can we expect reconciliation when lands of the minority Muslims and Tamils are grabbed and offered to majority community with state sponsorship? This is a gross violation and injustice inflicted on minorities. For example, lands Ambalatharu Vattai (750 acres), Keeththupattu Bawapuram (96 acres), Omarankai Vattai (650 acres) and Ponnanveli Vattai (600 acres) of the minority have been forcibly taken.
THE CATAMARAN: What about the struggle you are carrying out as a presidential election is nearing?
Over 18,000 people have lost their lands in the Ampara district. They have resolved to support only those politicians who will win their rights in the upcoming elections. Landowners are raising awareness among their close relations in order to garner support for their resolution.
We declared a ‘Land Recovery Week’ in August this year. We are carrying out poster campaign, demonstration and public awareness programs at district level. This activity will continue monthly. People who have lost their lands have begun house-to-house campaigns requesting the support and cooperation of all to restore the status of their lands and ensure that there will be no more land grabs.
THE CATAMARAN: What role does national trilingual media play in bringing out this issue?
Only some Tamil publications have given this issue attention. The story should be published in Sinhala and English language media to bring about awareness among the majority community. False propaganda is being continuously unleashed as minority populations attempt to take over the forest lands. The fact is that lands of poor people are taken away and this must be brought to light.