Statement by the People's Alliance for Right to Land (PARL)

Statement by the People's Alliance for Right to Land (PARL) on the two Cabinet decisions made on 12th February and 04th March 2024 with regard to the lands owned by the state and state statutory institutions, the Proposed Amendment to the Forest Conservation Ordinance and the 'Urumaya' Programme

The People's Alliance for Right to Land has paid serious attention to two decisions taken by the Cabinet of Ministers on 12th February and 04th March 2024 regarding state-owned lands – the Amendment Bill that is already reported to have been drafted for amending the Forest Conservation Ordinance and the 'Urumaya' programme' implemented by the government.

The Cabinet Decisions

The said two decisions of the Cabinet of Ministers are as follows:

  1. The decision made on 12 February 2024 to lease out to selected investors the large extent of lands belonging to the Janatha Estate Development Board and the Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation that have remained uncultivated and without making a productive use over a long period of time (owing to various reasons, such as legal issues, institutional conflicts and lack of capital) for export oriented cultivations and for producing export oriented livestock products. 

  2. The decision made on 04 March 2024 to establish a Land Management Trust under the chairmanship of the Secretary to the President to avoid the complexities that have arisen due to the lack of a common integrated procedure for releasing to investors lands out of the extent of about 82% of the total extent of lands in this country, which are controlled under various government institutions, and to identify as quickly as possible the lands that can be released to investors and to expedite the process of releasing such lands to investors.

'Urumaya' Programme

The abovementined decisions to release the existing state-owned lands to private investors have been taken at the same time as the government is also implementing its programme known as "Urumaya", which prima facie seems to be in opposition to the aforesaid initiative, for awarding transferable freehold deeds for 20 lakhs of lands that have been currently given to people under land permits and grants. The view of the People's Alliance for Right to Land is that all these measures form the phases of an operation that brings about structural changes that will have an extremely adverse impact on the people's right to land.

It is our observation that the government is awarding transferable freehold deeds to the people within a planned process in which all the structural factors required for the people to use the lands effectively have been done away with. The vast majority of the lands that are proposed to be released in this manner are those that are either used for agricultural by the rural people or those that can be used for agriculture in future. There is no possibility of effectively using those lands for any other purpose either. Can the people make their living by the agricultural activities carried out in those lands? The government is staying away from the market giving way for the businesses of middlemen who heavily exploit the farmer, and the government also grants huge favours including loan assistance to such middlemen. All subsidies and assistance given to farmers by the government including fertilizer subsidy, agricultural extension services and agricultural insurance have been cut off. Farmers have been deprived of access to credit through state banks, and the structural protection required for the exploitative lending institutions is being provided. Steps are being taken to privatize even the supply of water, which is a shared resource required for farming. The only option that the mere awarding of a freehold deed under all these circumstances leaves for the people who get the land is to sell the land and convert it into money. Under these circumstances, businessmen can amass these lands using their financial power and the process of disposition of state lands to private businessmen, which is being carried forward again in another round by the government, will happen through this programme as well. Therefore, it is our conclusion that "Urumaya" is nothing but a cunning strategy of the government which is going to become a doom for this people.

Ammendment to the Forest Conservation Ordinance

Meanwhile, as per the information that has been reported in various ways by now, there are efforts to amend the Forest Conservation Ordinance No. 16 of 1907, last amended by Act No. 65 of 2009, with the intention of utilizing for commercial purposes a large number of forests that are protected by Section 20 of the said Ordinance as other state-owned forests and are proposed to be declared as forest reserves in the future. According what we have come to know by now, the amendment bill for that purpose has already been drafted. Under this amendment, it has been planned to add a new section as Section 20(a) immediately after Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance and to declare the other state-owned forests as multiple-use management forests. Under this new amendment, it is proposed to introduce a new process that empowers the subject minister to manage these forests by way of authorizing the non-governmental sector to engage in generating renewable energy, implementing eco-tourism projects and in such other identified activities in multiple-use management forests in order to gain economic benefits. Many of these lands, which currently exist as other state-owned forests, and laws relating to which are being amended to facilitate handing over of them for various businesses, are unique eco systems that connect the existing reserved forests and act as water catchment areas for lakes and reservoirs, that provide habitats for many rare and endemic species of animals that are facing the threat of extinction, and that serve as key habitats for elephants and as elephant corridors. Currently, the total area of forests controlled under Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance as other state-owned forests is about 345,811 hectares or 854,155 acres, which is constitute 18% of the total area of forests remaining in the country. The government is making arrangements through its new amendment to the Act to hand over this extremely ecologically sensitive lands to investors creating a massive bio-ecological and human disaster.

What is the danger?

What could be the outcome of handing over the lands of this country that are under the custody of the state to large-scale investors for the use of export oriented purposes either directly under the abovementioned cabinet decisions and the proposed amendment to the Forest Conservation Ordinance  or indirectly under the 'Urumaya' programme? Providing lands in this manner to private investors for large-scale cultivations and for tourism related projects and various investments that are not environmentally sustainable is nothing new for this country. From the very day the economy of this country was liberalized in 1977, all the governments that have been in power in this country have given lands, which is the greatest resource of this country, to various companies to be used for investment purposes, which is highlighted as of great importance by the government headed by the incumbent president. In fact, in the early 1980s, 'investment' was hailed as a gateway to the future economic prosperity of this country. The argument that was put forward at that time to justify the said act of handing over lands was that the government of Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to make the necessary capital investments to benefit effectively from the land resource, and therefore, private investors need to be attracted to large-scale land units and their capital investments should be accommodated. On the other hand, it was argued that, since the governments of this country have continuously failed in the management of state owned enterprises, it would be more practical to hand them over to the private sector, which is capable of managing them more effectively. The third argument was that employment opportunities could be generated for the people of this country through these investments. Even today, what the government headed by the President is telling us as novel ideas regarding the disposition of state lands is nothing more than the same arguments that have been being said for over 40 years.

What we have gained

As far as the said arguments are concerned, what can we observe if we take into consideration the benefits this country has received from the lands that have been given to investors? In the past period of just over four decades, lakhs of acres of land of this country have been handed over to private investors. None of the lands that have been given to large-scale monocropped plantations such as tea, sugarcane, maize, tobacco, banana, mango etc. is economically productive at present. When compared to the limited benefits this country has received from the said businesses, the immense destructions that the people and the environment of this country have had to face in the long-term resulting from such businesses have been far more serious. Most of those investors adopted farming methods that completely destroyed the fertility of the soil within a very short period of time by applying large quantities of external inputs and have now given up those lands by leaving barren lands after reaping maximum profits from those lands. Groundwater resources in these areas have been severely depleted. People living in these areas have had to face a number of long-term diseases including the chronic kidney disease due to unsustainable, adverse environmental practices. There have been long-term, irreversible impacts on the ecosystems because of the massive destructions that have been caused to the environment through these plantations. It is because of these ill-fated decisions that the never-ending human-elephant conflict was created and is intensifying day by day. Many of these outcomes have almost completely deprived the future generations of the benefits they could have yielded from the land resource.

What reality are we witnessing today regarding the promised economic benefits to the people? Poverty has not decreased at least by one decimal in any of the areas where these investments were made. People have fallen into deeper levels of poverty and indebtedness than those they used to be in before. They have given to private investors the lands from which they could have reaped benefits sustainably, and now they have become poor and indebted and are suffering from diseases and facing attacks by wild elephants, and are living miserable lives without even a drop of clean water to drink. This is not a fate that is unique to Sri Lanka – this sad reality is unfolding in the same manner in the Asian, Latin American and African countries, which have given their lands to private companies for large-scale mono-cropped plantations based on the same grounds as those mentioned by the rulers of this country in their arguments (which the present government highly commends). In fact, none of the economic grounds mentioned in the arguments put forward by the government regarding such lands is new. They have been implemented by countries in the world over a long period of time, but have been proved ineffective.

History of the social disturbances caused by deprivation of lands

What has to be said about the third argument put forward by the government – generation of employment opportunities – is no different. The arguments that have been being put forward since the origin of agricultural colonization scheme in Sri Lanka were centred around the failure of the agricultural sector to generate employment opportunities for the people, which has been a strategy to escape the governments' failure to create employment opportunities for the people. The country's labour force continues to be forced to be engaged in primary farming even without introducing value-added production methods in agriculture, let alone leading the country to industrialization. This process has not only hampered the qualitative development of the workforce of this country, it also has deprived them of an economically sustainable way of life. What has been proposed now will further continue the same system. Consequently, the people who lose their lands in this manner will have to become wage labourers, and the tragic situation of the lives of the people who have become wage laborers in large-scale agricultural and livestock investments have become extremely pathetic. On the other hand, those who were displaced from rural areas having lost their lands and have migrated to the urban labour markets are living extremely difficult and miserable lives at present, and the governments of this country have failed to generate employment opportunities for them, and even the available job opportunities are dwindling day by day leaving them vulnerable to being exploited on extremely unfavourable labour conditions. 

This situation will lead to the creation of a generation of landless persons, and in a context where there is no economic capacity to provide a dignified alternative to those people, there is a danger that this will develop into a socio-political crisis. During the period of last two centuries, the factor of land ownership has played a crucial role in all the rebellions / public uprisings that have occurred in this country. It is indisputable today that the foundation for the 1848 rebellion was built on the pain and protest of the native people who lost their lands due to the land acquisition laws that were brought in order to facilitate the plantations of the English colonists. The commissions that were appointed to investigate into the causes of the youth uprisings in the south in 1971 and 1987-89 have made it clear in their reports that the pain of the landless people, too, contributed to the spark of those uprisings. The report of th Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, too, has shown that the problems of land loss and land ownership were there in the roots of the causes for the struggle in the North which lasted for thirty years. It is without any sensitivity to these tragic histories that a new generation of landless people is being created through the abovementioned decisions of the governmnet.

This is treacherous to all unborn future generations of the human and biotic community

Moreover, it is no secret that most of the political conflicts that Sri Lanka has faced over the period of more than seven decades since independence were rooted in the issue of people's right to land. Making lakhs of people landless and destitute persons through these plans will lead to another destructive socio-political conflict in this country.

What is most dangerous is that, it is the most valuable resource of this country – the land – that is being destroyed by the government headed by the President considering it to be their private property. In fact, these lands do not belong to the government – they are a common resource not only of the entire human and the biotic communities presently living on these lands, but also of their future generations. The responsibility that has been assigned to the government is to properly manage this resource for the wellbeing of the people and the other members of the biotic communities living in these lands and their future generations. It is a principle that has been accepted by the land commissions that provided the basis for the land law of this country, by international conventions that contain human rights norms including the rights of future generations, as well as by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka in many crucial cases including the Eppawala phosphate extraction case.

However, we are of the opinion that the policy measures being taken by the present government headed by the President with regard to land will create very serious issues regarding the sustainable use of this shared resource, land, for the benefit of the inhabitants of this land and their future generations. On the other hand, the government's inability to properly manage the land under it is a failure on the part of the government. Giving the lands to private enterprises without addressing this failure is not the solution to this issue. What is happening through this entire process is that the land, which is a common resource of the people of this country, is sacrificed in order to cover up their narrow, imprudent objectives and incapabilities, and for the benefit of their friends and for illegal financial gains. The arguments that are put forward to justify this process are by no means new ones. They are those that have been implemented over many decades in this country as well as in many parts of the world and have been proved ineffective. Therefore, we, the People's Alliance for Right to Land urge the government to withdraw these outdated and failed strategies and to avoid paving way for the irreversible destruction caused to the people and the ecosystem of this country. We repeatedly insist that the government should refrain from taking such decisions that are so definitively harmful to the future survival of human and animal life on this land, and we reiterate the fact that no one has the right to destroy these resources that belong to future generations. Finally, what we have to say to the government is that, the people of this land or their future generations should no longer be made to pay for your incapabilities and inefficiencies. It is extremely anti-social that a government that does not even have a mandate thinks that it can do such a thing, and it is the undeniable responsibility of all the progressive people of this country not to allow such a thing to happen.