In Chundikulam village, located on the eastern tip of Jaffna Peninsula, farmers are facing a peculiar challenge.
They are unable to access their lands in which they have recently sowed vegetables. “Border stones of the Department of Wildlife Conservation have sprouted on our plots,” said S. Arunthavaraja, a resident, pointing to a dull grey stone with the letters ‘DWC’ painted on it. “Once a stone like this is put on our lands, we have been told not to enter the area, as it is part of the government’s conservation effort,” he said.
His problem is yet another reflection of a widespread concern in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority north and east. On the one hand, successive governments in power during Sri Lanka’s post-war decade show records of returning people’s lands until now held by the military. On the other, scores of families, who have returned to their villages following years of war-time displacement, have been highlighting other, more recent “threats” to their land, mostly from the government’s archaeology and forest departments. Last year, farmers in the Eastern Province filed at least a dozen cases challenging authorities to reclaim their lands that they once cultivated or used as grazing patches for their cattle.
The nearly 250 families in and around Chundikulam, over an hour’s drive from Jaffna town, and bordering Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts, are largely engaged in agriculture and fisheries for a living. During the civil war, they were displaced to Mullaitivu — some residents recalled walking to the neighbouring district — and returned to their village in phases, in 2009 and 2011. “When we came back, there was absolutely nothing here — our homes were destroyed. And now, the government has declared our ancestral lands ‘wildlife reserve areas’,” said Natesa Yogaraja, a community leader.
“Our village also has a heavy military presence, you would have seen. The CID will likely question us for even speaking to the media,” he said. The Marunthakeni area in Vadamarachchi East has several military check points, as residents pointed out. “They say it’s to prevent narcotics trade. Every day, we read about big hauls being seized in different parts of the country. What does that mean? How do the drugs enter our country despite all this surveillance?” he asked, referring to the government’s rationale for persisting military presence in many coastal areas in the north.
According to Chandralingam Sugirthan, a former member of the Northern Provincial Council, many families had title deeds for the private land, and some others were cultivating state land for decades. “When the war ended, the government began gazetting these lands as areas earmarked for conservation,” he said. The problem, he said, has persisted for years now, across governments. “Authorities neither inspected the areas in person, nor consulted people living here for many generations before declaring them wildlife reserve areas. It is the same story across the north and east.”
Addressing Parliament recently, Jaffna district MP Gajen Ponnambalam said the forest department has been declaring hundreds of acres of private land, or permit land of the people, as protected areas. “If there is a reallocation of state land, it is often given to people belonging to other districts, to systematically change the demography of the north and east. When we tell these truths, they say we are racist, or communal, or against Sinhalese, that is not the case. But you cannot pauperise the people of the north and east to the benefit of people outside,” he told the House.
According to the 2018 performance report of Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Conservation Department, about 50,000 acres in Chundikulam, which was earlier a bird sanctuary, was “upgraded” to a national park in 2015. Residents had raised the matter with the former Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration as well, but to no avail.
When contacted, Chandana Sooriyabandara, director general of the Department, said the concerns of the people o Chundikulam had been brought to his attention. When the area was upgraded to a national park, several human inhabitations were excluded, he said. “But there are some disputed areas. We had planned to undertake a field visit to review our conservation plan, but we had to postpone it due to the pandemic,” he told The Hindu. “We will consult the locals soon and resolve the issue,” he said. For residents like P. Yogalakshmi, 62, it is perplexing to how lands she grew up on, saw her father and grandfather cultivate, has suddenly ceased to be her family’s. “See, we have all the papers,” she said, opening a file with her pale-yellow title deed.
According to Mr. Natesa Yogaraja, the recent moves also threaten the village’s food production. “If we are allowed to cultivate our lands, the entire village will be self-sufficient. Let authorities take action if we hunt illegally. In all these years, our people have never harmed the birds and animals in this habitat. We have coexisted.”
The people of the village were neither against the government in Colombo, nor part of some protest highlighting ethnic issues, he observed. “We are just struggling for our livelihoods here,” he said, kick-starting his two-wheeler with a prosthetic leg. Like scores of others in the province, he was severely injured in war-time shelling.