A Prize Catch Called Panama-Paththuwa
by Hafsa Sabry
Primary Industries Minister Daya Gamage is alleged to have been involved in the illegal land encroaching in Panama in the Ampara district. Environmentalists claim that this very minster, during the previous regime,encouraged people living in close proximity to Panama to voice their protest against the illegal land grab.
The land in question had been taken over by security forces on government initiation to be sold to foreign companies and businessmen in the tourist industry despite the claim that the villagers have owned the land for many generations since 1850.
Environmental Conservation Trust (ECT) Director Sajeewa Chamikara said that a luxury tourist hotel in Panama is expected to be constructed under the influence of Minister Daya Gamage and he is behind the land crisis in the area.
Chamikara said that nearly 350 families who have lived there for generations have been displaced in the last six years due to land issues in the area. They are believed to be the descendants of villagers who staged the Wellassa rebellion against the British in 1818. Approximately 6.7 percent of deforestation of primary forest was recorded in the Panama lands and this is regarded as one of the worst deforestations in the country.
Government authorities are now trying to convince the villagers that even though the lands have been held by them for generations as their own, they have to be acquired by the government for development purposes evicting people from the area in the process.
Environmentalists stress that the government must look at alternative places for the people to live as it is imperative that these families be kept in Panama as they are attached to the land of their ancestors. People earned a livelihood through fishing and paddy cultivation and since they were chased out from their native places they have even lost their livelihood.
Around 1,220 acres including beaches, forest, cultivations and temples in Shasthrawela, Ragamwela, Egodayaya, Horowkanda and Ulpasyaya in Panama had been taken over forcibly by the Navy, Air Force and the Special Task Force (STF).
Centre for Environment and Nature Studies (CENS) Director Ravindra Kariyawasam said 164 acres had also been acquired by the Presidential Secretariat under the previous government in a bid to legitimise the land grab. It also resulted in elephants losing their habitats.
In the meantime, the Panama Lagoon Cabana Hotel construction on Forest Conservation Department (FCD) lands by the Navy has added to the damage done to the reservation. Questions still remain as to why an authority formed to protect land declared as a reservation is turning a blind eye or shirking their duties when it has been made clear that it is illegal and a blatant violation of thelaw. The land is yet to be recovered, the culprits are yet to be brought to book and action against the law violation seems to be delayed.
Nevertheless, the people in the area have banded together to form an organisation named Panama-Paththuwa Surekime Sanwidhanaya to protect their rights and the lands. They, together with the assistance of environmentalists and experts lodged a complaint with the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (SLHRC) under No. HRC/AM/105/10/B/OT. The Commission recommended that the people had a right to remain in their ancestral land.
Meanwhile, acabinet decision had been taken on February 11, 2015 to release the lands except 25 acres as pressureby the people of Panama continued. Nonetheless, the minister had laid a foundation stone to construct 300 houses in 150 acres with the aim of relocating the Panama people in their lands. Chamikara alleged that the project had been started in an area where an elephant corridor was situated. He further claimed this will only worsen the issue of Human-Elephant conflict (HEC) and that if they are relocated in the elephant corridor they will definitely be harmed by the wild elephants that cross here. The government cannot guarantee the safety of their lives and properties as they are yet to find a solution to the already existing HEC issue.
Chamikara also claimed that elephants had lost their habitats as lands were turned into commercialised areas. He claimed the government was trying to avoid releasing the lands of the Panama people and relocate them to a forest reserve as the Panama area was rich in biodiversity. As it was surrounded by Kumana, Yala and Lahugala national parks, the area had great potential as a tourist destination. The Arugambay beach, which is a main tourist attraction in the eastern province, is close to Panama, he said.
Primary Industries Minister Daya Gamage speaking to The Sunday Leader said that the allegations are baseless and he does not understand why the media has continuously linked his name to the Panama land issue.
“The question came up even in parliament and was replied by the land ministry which clearly states that I have no involvement in the illegal land grab or any sort of land encroaching in the country. I do not even have the authority to do so,” the minister added.
Meanwhile, the Navy claims that the people in Panama have no documents to prove the land belongs to them. The Navy has not encroached into any lands but the previous government had given lands to the Navy legally to build and extend Navy camps for security purposes, they have said.
According to the 1996 Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act No. 2, the lagoon is managed by the Fisheries Management Authority. While this is being implemented, development or any other form of construction work cannot take place without the approval of the authority. Meanwhile, the current construction work in Panama is being carried out without consultation with the authorities managing the lagoon.The construction work carried out by the Navy is also in violation of clauses 14 and 31 of the Coast Conservation Act.
Even though the security forces are using the forest area under the Forest Conservation Department, legal approval has not been obtained so far from the Forest Conservation Department or any other authority required for implementing such development activities damaging the forest. In such a backdrop, it should also be mentioned that the Forest Conservation Department has no authority to permit the use of forest lands for the construction of hotels.