Too determined to be defeated : Panama residents adamant to fight for their lands | Daily News

Too determined to be defeated : Panama residents adamant to fight for their lands

Proposed land located in a rock quarry

 

A soft breeze flits across the flat expanse of sandy scrubland as three women stand over a pot of rice. In the distance, waves lap at the shore. The thuds can be heard over the conversation.

“Our families have lived on this land for three generations,” said P. Somasiri, the leader of a community-based organization in Panama, an area just south of Arugam Bay in the Eastern Province.



Panama residents

 

He stands in front of a temporary shelter made from sticks, the roof from dried plants. There are no walls or doors, no electricity or running water. There are 36 such shelters here, one of which was recently damaged by an intrusive wild elephant.

After years of waiting, some people from the villages of Ragamwela and Shastrawela have returned to their land. Their cases are far from settled, though.

These towns, along with the settlements of Ulpassa, Egodayaya, and Horakanda lie on land that is of disputed ownership.

People settled there in the 1800s, but few inhabitants possess government-issued land permits. Despite this, many residents claim that they can furnish proof of ownership through other documents.

Though the government claims that it owns the land, a 2010 investigation by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) found discrepancies in the government’s ownership claims. The inquiry found no clear owner.

The land these towns once occupied is extremely fertile; residents reported growing maize, mung beans, peanuts, aubergine, and chiles in the sandy soil. Furthermore, the location is perfect for fishermen and women.

Perhaps more important, however, is that the plots lie on prime real estate. The vast area stretches from the coastal road to a stretch of pristine beach. As Somasiri crossed the beach in order to point out the estate on which he once lived, three foreigners carrying bright red surfboards could be seen in the distance.

“We used to cultivate the land and fish in the ocean and lagoon. Now most of us work as day laborers, and we live with family nearby. We just want our land back,” said Somasiri.

So what happened to the people who lived in this idyllic seaside setting?

Forcibly evicted

In 2009 the navy demanded that residents peacefully give up their plots in the hamlets of Ulpassa, Egodayaya, and Horekanda. The navy then built an electric fence around the villages and erected signs that claimed the land for the government. Military camps sprang up soon afterwards, along with the Panama Lagoon Cabana, a hotel owned by the navy.

Lagoon access was immediately restricted, and fishing was disrupted due to various building projects, including the construction of the Navy hotel and an International Convention Center, a project that has been discontinued. Furthermore, people were barred from cultivating crops on the land.



The temporary shelter that several women live in 

 

On July 17, 2010, a group of armed men destroyed the villages of Ragamwela and Shastrawela in Panama. Homes and fields were set ablaze, and the populations of the towns were summarily evicted without compensation. Many lost their land permits. Despite the residents’ complaints, local police refused to investigate the incident.

The Navy and Air Force also seized adjacent land belonging to the Forest Conservation Department. In total, around 1,220 acres were requisitioned.

Shortly thereafter, the communities requested the aforementioned HRC investigation. Noting the unorthodox nature of the evictions, the HRC advised the government to give back the land and follow previously defined legal procedures in the future.

Renewed hope after regime change

It was only in February of 2015, after the government change, that some progress was apparently made. A Cabinet decision ordered the government to release the previously seized lands back to the people.

The local authorities in charge of returning the land, conversely, have not followed through. Moreover, when people tried to settle on the property, the police stopped them with threats and in a few cases, prosecuted them for trespassing.

It was only after a 2016 decision by the Pottuvil, Ampara Magistrate’s Court ordering the government to stop restricting people’s access to the land that the police and military allowed the people to return.

It was only after this decision that the inhabitants built the 36 temporary houses and began cultivating the land. The people here however, are still waiting for their properties to be officially allocated. In May, the Divisional Secretary of Lahugala moved to lawfully expel the settlers.

The residents of Ulpassa, Egodayaya, and Horekanda are still banished.

Central to this situation is the question of how best to carry out development projects without harming residents. An incredible location for tourist hotels, the Panama acreage is clearly extremely valuable to the government.

What is especially interesting however, is the disconnect between the Cabinet and local authorities. Why, even after this decision, is nothing progressing?

The people of Panama believe that their plots are destined for tourism development. “We have heard that the land will be given to private developers to build hotels,” said Somasiri.

It appears that this is indeed the case.

Earmarked for tourism

“Though the Cabinet decision came in 2015, the area was later designated a tourist development zone. Because of this, the government cannot give back the same land. We are currently pursuing court cases to get people off the land for good,” said a well-placed source from the Divisional Secretary of Lahugala who spoke to the Daily News on condition of anonymity.

Another option that could resolve the stalemate is the resettlement of people on alternative land. To this date, however, the residents of the Panama villages contend that the plots they have been offered are uninhabitable.



Land near the villages that has been designated a tourist development zone

 

“The land they have presented us is located in a rock quarry.

Nothing will grow here and there is no water. I don’t know how we can be expected to live here,” said Muthubanda Jayantha, while adding that wild elephants often use the quarry as a passageway.

The quarry is decidedly rocky. A small pond of brownish water lies in the center. It certainly does not seem a locale ripe for human settlement.

Furthermore, the property is very far from the fishing lagoon and any arable fields. “We need to be able to fish and grow food. This is not possible if we live in the rock quarry,” said Rathnamali Kariyawasam.

The quarry lies about 400 meters from the coastal road, and there are rumors that a flower nursery and garden will be built right near the road.

The Eastern Province official stated that the Local Government is surveying other properties near the quarry that are better suited for human habitation. “The people won’t be given the land in the quarry. There are better options for them that we are currently reviewing,” he said.

Another issue that the government and people are at odds about, is the price of the new plots. The Panama residents claimed that they must spend Rs. 500,000 for 20 perches of quarry land and then pay for the construction of the houses themselves. Moreover, they claim to have been told that they would be eligible for a loan of Rs. 500,000 from the National Housing Development Authority.

Unfair evaluation process

Somasiri also complained about the government’s vetting process for potential recipients of quarry plots. “The government interviewed people about the land, but the main criteria of eligibility was that they have money. This is unfair because our livelihoods have been taken from us. If we can’t fish or farm, how can we pay?” he asked. He added that the government has drawn up the housing plans, so people might not have the freedom to build the houses they want.

The government, conversely maintains that the land will be given for free. The same official stated that loans would be available to those who needed them to finance the construction of their houses.

What is clear in this back and forth is the divide between the government and people. The citizens palpably distrust the local authorities to the point where they have purportedly stopped meeting with them.

“We declared a public consultation that was supposed to last for a month. It has been three months and nobody has come to discuss the matter with my office. People are just shouting and are not trying to talk about the issues,” the official said.

The inhabitants of Panama, for their part, are extremely disappointed in the their Local Government officals. “We worked hard to see a shift in the regional government. The politicians we helped elect are not helping us at all,” said Viritha Dassanayake, a local fisherwoman.

“We will not depend on political parties in going forward,” she added.

Though they are facing an uphill battle to reclaim their land, the residents of Panama have no plans to abandon their fight.

The idea of taking the government’s land, whether it is the rock quarry or a better option, was unpalatable for many of them.

“We are determined to stay and continue the struggle. We have been fighting for a long time, and it does not make sense to give up now,” said Somasiri.


 

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