A meeting among the leaders and representatives of the different causes and people in Jaffna was held on 29th Sept. to discuss the following steps in land issues. During this meeting, it was mentioned that, to some extent, this bureaucracy fight is “worse than the war on the people of this area”.
It was also recognized that everyone has their own agenda, but that they all work for the people, which should be the common base from which they build a bigger organization to put more pressure on government authorities. While most organizations do not like to discuss land issues, the people who reunited for this meeting all work towards resettlement and land rights.
Multiple districts have already created umbrella organizations that allow the smaller organizations to not only work on their regional goals but also to achieve more on the district level. Striving for a strong alliance would allow the people to be spoken for, and help the cause gain more national and international attention. No politician advocates for the fisher folks and their communities, hence the need of a united group to build a stronger case.
One of the problems on the rise is the lease of harbours to private companies by the government. There does already exist plans for the government to lease harbours on the southern coast to private companies for as long as 30 years. There has been no information as to what would happen to the already existing fishing businesses, nor what kind of quotas would be imposed on them.
While this issue is currently concentrated in the south, it will surely come to the northern coast, where the army is already occupying one of the biggest harbours. It is quite concerning, as the people benefitting from such deals will most likely not be the fisher folks and their families. Similar to the sugar cane business, the companies will aim for revenue and production rather than encourage small-scale fisheries.
These leasing plans are part of a bigger proposition the government is pushing forward, which is the building of megacities. These megacities would require for the federal government to grab lands and resources to build roads and other infrastructure. The representatives of the government will come see the groups advocating for land rights and try to convince them that building megacities are good for the country. They will act baffled when groups refuse to give up their fight because they consider land grabbing in the name of development to be for the greater good.
But is it really? For a long time now, people have been contradicting the government’s official numbers about money invested in resettlement and people resettled. Furthermore, people who have been moved for development purposes mention that they do not receive proper compensation for their troubles. If you ask government officers, they will say that a lot has been done towards the resettlement of displaced peoples in 2016-2017. However, people on the field didn’t notice any significant changes. This issue worries the civilians that there might be more corruption than they first believed.
The Act for Freedom of Information now allows citizens to fill a form requesting data such as the amount of money invested in resettlement projects, the number of homes built, etc. NAFSO encourages its partners to fill such forms and challenge government officers who are reluctant to give them the information. In the event of a refusal to answer the questions asked on the form, it is possible to fill one and send it directly to authorities in Colombo.
· In the North, people receive 750 000 LKR to build a home. In Colombo, there were incidents where people had to compensate for their homes, and they received 3 million LKR. Why is the treatment different? It should be the same for all.
· Military camps and police stations are being built in bulk, even now that the war is over. In one area, the police simply started to occupy the locals of a school. They built a fence around their new quarters, and the well for the school to get water is within the fence. As a result, the children do not have water at school. Why is that allowed?
· Fishing communities are being pushed away from harbours occupied by the military.
· A lot of people are still in camps, and the authorities say that they will get their land back, but that the process will take a while. Little to no information is given as to why the process takes so long.
· The traditional area where the people are from has been labelled as a Wild Life Sanctuary, meaning that police and Wild Life officers constantly harass the landowners. The government wants to make that area a park, most likely to increase tourism. For this purpose, they had planned to use 600 acres of land. However, they have since requisitioned about 48 000 acres of land. The people are trying to argue that their presence will not affect wildlife, as coexistence was already established amongst the species.
· Furthermore, the fishers do not have access to the beach, which keeps them from fishing. They want to protect wildlife and do not believe the government’s park will sufficiently do so. They just want to be able to rebuild their lives.
This outrage amongst the representatives led to the creation of an alliance, called the People’s Alliance for Land Rights (PALR) of Jaffna. Strength is in numbers, and an alliance may very well have more impact than dozens of groups working incoherently.
One of the phenomena that were witnessed is that people rarely acknowledge that the government has started the process of resettlement. Hence, the tensions remain high, as most will believe the government is refusing to release all land, which is misleading. Additionally, it has become obvious that the departure of the numerous NGOs that were initially doing field work has badly affected the camps and the people within them.
NAFSO’s next Workshop of Land Rights will be held in Jaffna on October 14th and 15th, 2017. The team encourages people to attend both days, as the first day a course on Land Rights is presented and, on the second day, lawyers will be available on site to discuss next steps.