The Peaceful Protest of the Tamil Dairy Farmers of the East

The Tamil dairy farmers of Sithandi in the Eastern province, who uses Mailaththamadu area, are holding a continuous demonstration and a protest that has been running for more than 146 days. Their demand is to evacuate unauthorized planters from the Mailaththamadu area and to let the dairy farmers of Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim ethnicities engage in their livelihood without interruption.

Mailaththamadu has been the allocated feeding ground for the cattle of Batticaloa district dairy farmers since 1972. Spanning over 15,000 hectares, Mailaththamadu is located inside the boarders of the Maduru Oya National Park, and now it falls under the Mahaweli B zone of the Mahaweli Authority. More than 990 dairy farmers of Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim ethnicities use this land for their cattle’s grazing and fodder. Out of approximately half a million cattle being reared in the Batticaloa district, almost three hundred thousand use Mailaththamadu as the feeding ground. More than 3000 families, both directly and indirectly, depend on this land for their survival and livelyhood. After the war started between the government forces and the armed youth of North and East in the 80’s, most of the dairy farmers stopped using Mailaththamadu for their own safety. But, since the war ended in 2009, they resumed their old livelihood the way they knew it and started going back to Mailaththamadu. However, the Forest Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation promptly barred these dairy farmers from entering the Mailaththamadu area. But the divisional secretaries of the Chenkaladi and Kiran divisional secretariat offices decided to grant the dairy farmers access to the Mailaththamadu area in the same year. After that, the dairy farmers were able to engage in their livelihood without any problem for two years in 2010 and 2011. However, the year 2012 was not the same.

The current problem started in 2012 when unauthorized personnel who have moved in from Dehiaththakandiya, Polonnaruwa, and Aralaganvila areas have forcibly made temporary settlements within the reserved area to conduct illegal farming activities. Even though the Mailaththamadu area was only allocated as a attle feeding ground in order to minimize human activities within the Maduru Oya reservation area, these illegal settlers have made settlements and started cultivating the land. The land, which was already not sufficient in size to sustain the 300,000 cattle it was supposed to feed, is now being used by these illegal settlers for their farms, making it yet more insufficient. They have also constructed illegal electric fences, which kills cattle on a regular basis, and they have resorted to violent methods such as poisoning, injuring cows using sharp objects, and even shooting them with guns to stop the cows from entering the illegal farms.

Even under these conditions, instead of taking actions against the illegal occupiers of the land, the Forest Department is taking actions against the dairy farmers who has the right to use the land. Since after the Good Governance came into power in 2015, the hardships of the dairy farmers of Mailaththamadu have only increased. In the dairy farmers’ opinion, the direct and indirect political power dynamics of the then president Maithripala Sirisena, who is from Polonnaruwa, has created a certain level of political protection for the illegal occupants from the same area.

In 2015, the Provincial Minister of Agriculture of the Eastern Province made an inquiry about the Mailaththamadu land, and it was discovered that in 1975 the land was allocated to the Mahaweli B region for dairy farming. On the same year, the district secretariat has sent a letter ordering the Batticaloa District Forest Department to remove the illegal farmers from the Mailaththamadu area. The Forest Department has disregarded this order so far.

However, the Forest Department has filed a case against the dairy farmers at the Dehiaththakandiya Magistrate Courts and the ruling for this case was made in 2017 accepting the rights of the dairy farmers. Regardless of the court order, the Forest Department and the Mahaweli Authority both have failed to remove the illegal occupants from the Mailaththamadu area, which is an unacceptable situation. Furthermore, the Eastern Provincial Minister of Agriculture has filed a case against the illegal planters at the Eravur Tourist Court and the court has ordered the removal of the illegal farmers from the area as well. Hence, approximately 106 houses and 300 families of illegal farmers were removed from the area by the Mahaweli Authority and the Forest Department. As the rights of the dairy farmers were accepted, they were able to engage in their livelihood until 2019.

As the ‘Good governance’ Government ended and Gotabaya Rajapakse came into power in 2019, the problems of the dairy farmers came to face them with a different face. The illegal settlers escalate the level of violence by burning down some of the dairy farmers’ huts, laying jaw bombs to injure and kill the cows, assaulting the dairy farmers, and shooting the cows being some of them. The TNA parliamentarian, M. Sumanthiran, has lodged a case against the illegal occupiers at the Colombo High Courts to which the court has given a verdict ordering the Mahaweli Authority and Forest Department to remove the illegal settlers from the Mailaththamadu area. But, the Mahaweli Authority and Forest Department continue to disregard the court order. As this is a direct violation of a court order the dairy farmers have lodged another case against the Mahaweli Authority and Forest Department.

The 2023 case filed by he Mahaweli Authority at the Eravur Tourist Court has resulted in a verdict ordering the removal of the illegal occupiers of the land, and the previous Inspector General of the Police has ordered the removal of the illegal occupiers as well. On October 2023, the President Ranil Wickramasinghe has met the dairy farmers at Mailaththamadu. As an act of defiance, the illegal occupiers have killed more than 300 cattle since the president’s meeting. The hand of law does not seem to be strong in protecting the dairy farmers of the Mailaththamadu area. Mailaththamadu dairy farmers are not opposing dairy farming done by the people of the south. All they are asking for is to the illegal farmers to be removed from the area so that the legal dairy farmers can continue their livelihood without disruption or danger.