Solving land problems in Sri Lanka

By – Sarath Fernando, Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform

Landlessness has been a serious problem in Sri Lanka for a long period. It has led to serious political conflicts in the country on many occasions. The Northern war that went on for around 30 years was largely based on conflicts that arose on land issues. Sinhala People were settled in agricultural settlements opened up in the Northern and Eastern provinces and this led to the Tamil political parties claiming that N and E provinces should be declared their “traditional home lands”. This ended up in the war for separation led by the LTTE. There had been other insurrections in the country and land reforms were carried out as a solution to the problem of youth rebellion. These reforms were in 1972 and 1975. After the second youth uprising in South Sri Lanka there was a Presidential Task for on distribution and Utilization of land which shows that the reasons for uprising was imagined to be related to land. The World Bank giving economic advice to the Government made recommendations to create a free land market in the country by introducing new Land ownership laws allowing the sale of land given by the Government to people under the Land Development Ordinance of 1930s. All these show the importance of land issues in the country. However none of the above measures have solved the land issues satisfactorily in Sri Lanka.

In Mahaweli and in irrigated agricultural settlements land given to landless farmers are not legally tradable. However, much of this land is now illegally transferred to others and thus land ownership in agricultural land has undergone considerable change. One view that prevails is that; and is too fragmented in the country for profitable investment and therefore land consolidation and accumulation of land should be encouraged. This is the thinking behind most of the land reforms that are being proposed now. “Bim Saviya”intends to give such legal ownership of land to small holders with tradable land rights, “Jaya Boomi”, “Swarnaboomi”, “Ratnaboomi” were other similar programmes which intended to encourage people to get land ownership and sell the land away. In the cities there are efforts to acquire land occupied by slums and shanties by shifting them into sky scrapers built in such locations and getting land in exchange of houses built in such flats. In Uva Province land is to be sold to big agribusiness companies for large plantations such as sugarcane. During the period of rebuilding after Tsunami there was an attempt to push out the coastal people from the beaches declaring coasts as buffer zones in order to promote tourism and build luxury cities on the beaches. This was proposed by TAFREN (Task force for Rebuilding the Nation). So there are complicated issues related to land ownership.

Another very serious issue is that plantation workers population is not given any land ownership at all. They have worked and earned so much for the country but they are not yet recognized as genuine citizens of the country. Unless they are given land they would not be proper citizens of the country and they would not accept Sri Lanka is their country too.

How do we solve these issues?

There are some principle concerns that have to be taken into consideration. Land is required for people to live on. Land is also required for production so it provides livelihoods to many people. Similarly sea is also a part of nature that provides many livelihoods and is a tremendous source of wealth. Since land is a major part of nature and it provides much of the natural resources land should be utilized in a way that would not disrupt the need and ability of nature to regenerate itself. Therefore land should be utilized in a manner that would not destroy the ability of nature to regenerate itself. Can people utilize land without disturbing its ability for regeneration?

This is possible in agriculture if ecological agriculture is utilized. In ecological agriculture soil erosion is reduced by making contour ridges, mulching and utilizing Sloping Agriculture Land Technology (SALT) system where appropriate. By recycling all organic matter, by growing as many trees as possible to capture maximum sunlight, by diversifying crops, by avoiding the use of agrochemicals so that the role played by microbes, earthworms and insects is unobstructed.

All these can be done effectively by small farmers doing small scale agriculture and not in large monocrop plantations. In such plantations heavy machinery is used and heavy inputs of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weedicides are used. This becomes expensive and is damaging to nature, they poison soil, water and environment thus making the food poisonous, water polluted and land is killed. Due to such destruction of land people have to give up using such land and shift to other lands, making the land problem more acute. Diseases caused by such utilization of agrochemicals have become very serious.

It is therefore necessary to think of ways of changing the present patterns of land utilization and land ownership.

In hill country tea plantations

We have to begin this process in the hill country. When the hill country was forest before tea plantations were established it was possible to handle the rain fall better. The trees slowed down the rainfall which reduced erosion and the rich top soil could absorb and retain much of the water in the soil, there was less flooding and there was more water available for the less rainfall seasons. The water that flowed through the rivers and streams were diverted through canals to reservoirs and was available for farming year round. Now there is no such protective forest cover and erosion is heavy which has destroyed the top soil in the hill country. Thus much land is lost and left uncultivated. To restore this, it is necessary to reforest the high elevations, which can be done using agroforestry. People can settle on such land if community agroforestry methods are used. In the next elevations it is necessary to transform monocrop tea into diversified ecological agriculture by giving this land in smaller plots to plantation people to do ecological agriculture. It is very necessary to solve the problem of landlessness of plantation worker families if they are to be made genuine citizens of the country. The citizenship of plantation people was taken away in 1947 when they were seen as voting with the left parties. Now the citizenship that is given to the remaining plantation workers is not genuine unless they are given land to do their own farming, build their own houses and have better facilities of health and sanitation and education facilities to their children so that they become recognized as dignified citizens of the country. This can be begun by distributing the land in the plantation areas to them in small plots to grow their own food, have their own cattle and so on. This transformation is advantageous to the whole country since ecology of the country cannot be improved without improving the ecology in the hill country. Use of agrochemicals in the hill country pollutes most of the water since the hill country is the main source of water and irrigation. For people in Rajarata ( North Central Province) to have safe drinking water it is necessary to stop pollution of water in the hill country.

In Coconut Plantation Areas

The next area where land problems have to be solved is in the areas where most of the land is utilized for large coconut plantations. This is in the North Western Province (the coconut triangle) here much of the coconut plantations cultivate only coconut and there are many landless people living in these areas. The reason for planting only coconut was not because other crops could not be planted in thecoconut estates but because many of the owners were absentee land lords who only wanted the coconut yields to be plucked during the plucking season. They had their watchers to prevent people entering such land.

Coconut plantations could be divided in to smaller plots of say ½ acre to 1 acre plots and given to landless people in those areas to be used for ecological mixed farming. It is possible to grow other plants such as pineapple, mangoes, arecunut , guava, jack, bread fruit and so on. It is also possible to gliricidia and grow pepper, grow vegetables without affecting the coconut. If ecological agriculture is used yields would increase. Soil fertility improves, recycling and mulching could be done. Dr. Ray Wijewardane’s coconut plantation illustrates this and he did not use any external inputs on his land, he used Dendro power to produce all the electricity needed. This can solve much of the land problems in the North Western Province.

In areas where irrigated paddy farming is done there should be measures to prevent farmers from illegally transferring land to rich farmers. This is largely to pay back their debts. Farmers get indebted since todays paddy farming is not profitable farmers do ther cultivation only to get loans. Indebtedness is due to the high cost of production and low prices they get for their produce. This can be changed by shifting to growing traditional varieties of paddy that do not require costly chemical inputs. Availability of such traditional seeds will have to be improved by encouraging more farmers to grow such varieties that fetch higher prices in the market. This will also improve the health situation of farmers as well as the consumers. Today there is a growing fear among people about diseases such as the Kidney disease which can be a helpful factor to be utilized.
In Uva Province

Another area that could be utilized to solve problems of land is in the Uva Province. There is more land available in this area compared to other provinces. In our studies we came to know that in Siyambalanduwa area each family had around 5 acres of land. However much of this land is not sufficiently utilized due to problems of lack of water. This can also be solved by doing ecological agriculture. If on a small plot of land many different plants are grown this will improve the soil fertility and improved humus content will make the soil retain more water. This land use pattern can be gradually expanded. The overall yield will be much higher. Growing of single crops such as sugarcane or maize must be changed. The overall yield the people get today by growing such single crops can be increased by growing a diversity of crops. Marketing should be arranged through cooperatives doing direct marketing between traders and consumers. The only way of solving water problems is not by construction of reservoirs but by improving the water retention ability of the soil. Use of ecological agriculture will improve soil fertility, water retention in the soil and reduce drought losses. These will make it possible for more people to share the land available in Uva Province. In areas where there are land shortages such as the highly populated areas in Gampaha district and in the Western province better use of land can be done by doing diversified crop farming as done in ecological home gardens. On a small plot of land of say ¼ acre it is possible to grow one or two mango trees, one avocado pears tree, one or two lime trees several orange trees, some vegetables and some murunga trees on the fence and so on. So if such arming is done in a cluster of 25 acres in all there would be a 100 times the number of such plants which is quite a lot.

In urban areas too there are techniques of urban home gardening that can be utilized. In a country such as Sri Lanka where the per capita land holding is small it is very necessary to improve the overall productivity of land. This has to be done without the use of external chemical inputs that are expensive and destructive and they have all to be imported too. This can be done in other areas too, such as in the North and East, in the coastal regions and in all agricultural areas in the country.

One basic principle that must be utilized in relation to land ownership can be learnt through this story.

“ When Prince Siddartha was still young he saw a swan falling from the sky, one day. He ran towards it and found that the bird had been hit with an arrow and was bleeding. He removed the arrow and stated nursing it. Prince Devadatta came running and claimed that the swan was his since he shot the arrow. Siddhartha replied saying that the bird did not belong to Devadatta since he was trying to kill the bird but belonged to Siddhartha since he was trying to save it’s life nursing it”.

Therefore land should belong to those who try to save land and its regenerative ability and not to those who kill land by destructively exploiting land.

Mahatma Gandhi when he launched the salt satyagraha said that the law proscribing Indians to make salt in their own sea was unjust and that he was going to violate this unjust law. He started a long march of about 200 miles and asked others to join. The British police could not stop his march and he made salt when he reached the coast. Others followed him and from next day all Indians began to make salt and the law became ineffective. Private ownership of land did not exist in Sri Lanka, King nominally owned land but the people were free to utilize land. British acquired ownership of land since they wanted to plunder land for their tea and coffee plantations. They cleared the hill country for tea and the next elevations for rubber. The Sri Lankan rich acquired the land for coconut plantations. They have all used land destructively. Therefore it is right for people to enter such land and convert such land for regenerative agriculture that would save life of land. This can be done nonviolently since people are going to allow land to be regenerated, preventing land from death and destruction. This would be the best way land problems could be solved in Sri Lanka.