After the end of the civil war, people had high expectations for the transition towards a just and democratic society in Sri Lanka. However, for the Paanama people, the period since the formal ending of the war has instead led to the robbing of their natural resources driven by the state and state-affiliated organizations. Since 17th July 2010, an alliance of the State, the Air Force, the Navy and private investors have been pushing through and upholding a process of violent dispossession and displacement of 5 communities in Ragamwela, Shashtrawela, Uplassa. Horewkanda and Egodayaya.
In Ragamwela and Shashtrawela around 380 acres of land were grabbed by the Air Force, while 860 acres covering the villages of Uplassa. The Navy has grabbed Horewkanda and Egodayaya. As a result, some 350 families that have lived off and with the land and ocean through paddy farming, fishing and Chena cultivation have been displaced. These areas have been turned into militarized zones with electric fences surrounding them – robbing the former occupants of their human rights to practice their customary livelihoods and lives.
The initial grabbing of the land in 2010 was made with reference to ‘security’ and building an area for war heroes. However, 6 years down the line, little if any actual building activity has taken place in either the navy or air force controlled areas. Instead the Navy is currently running a tourist hotel in the pristine Paanama Lagoon. In light of the huge potential commercial value of the entire area for the tourism industry in Sri Lanka, the community members we spoke to were beginning to think that the Navy and Air Force are in fact just working as a ‘front’ to make way for tourist development of the entire area.
Aside from the direct violence inflicted upon the community and the continuing denial of their human rights, the case is especially absurd as the law and top-level government is in fact on the side of the people. Two court orders as well as a cabinet decision under the new government in February 2015 have stated that the lands grabbed must be vacated and returned to the Paanama people. However, none of these orders and decisions have been followed or enacted. As a result, after many years of broken promises, the Paanama people – with women playing a strong role – took the situation into their own hands on 27th March 2016, when they re-occupied the Ragamwela community. To this day, despite threats from the police as well as District Secretaries they continue to defend their lands in the struggle for formal recognition of their rights. This struggle is based on the principle of fighting for ‘the right to land, not the right to sell’ and a vision of building a people centered alternative development model based on diversified livelihood opportunities consisting of small-scale farming and fishing as well as engagement with tourism on community terms and under full community control.
In this struggle, we from the WFFP want to clearly state that you are not alone – we as representatives of fisher peoples from all around the world stand firmly by your side in solidarity and we urge the government at all levels to listen and uphold the demands of the Paanama people.