Land policy of the govt will be its undoing
Posted on December 12th, 2016

By Rathindra Kuruwita and Umesh Moramudali Courtesy Ceylon Today

SandunThudugala of the Law and Society Trust has been a vocal critic of land and agricultural policies of both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena- Ranil Wickremesinghe administrations. Speaking to Ceylon Today he expressed deep concerns over the 2017 budget and the future of Sri Lankan farmers, fishers and urban slum dwellers of Sri Lanka.

?: You have been critical of the 2017 Budget and the emerging land polices of the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) Government. What are your main areas of concern and what steps are you taking to counter them?

A: Right now the biggest issue is with the fall-out of the new land policy of the government. During the budget speech the Finance Minister stated that Sri Lanka needs to change the way it does agriculture. It was also said that we needed to modernize the sector and make it more export oriented and that the government is going to facilitate the process.
What was not said is that they believe that only multinational companies can make this transformation happen and that they will facilitate the arrival and activities of these giant companies at the expense of small farmers.

Around 40 per cent of Sri Lankans are involved in agriculture and out of that around 75 per cent are small scale farmers. The government believes that the small scale farmers are a hindrance to modernizing agriculture and that these farmers should be replaced by multinational companies. One of the main obstacles is the current land laws and policies, a result of past decisions.
So the government has now embarked on changing these laws to remove the barriers against the large scale land ownership by these companies. One of the steps that have been taken is the proposal to get rid of the Land Reforms Commission and create a Land Bank. Currently about 70-80 per cent of Sri Lankan lands belong to the State. A number of farmers have also been given State land by institutions like the Land Reform Commission. Through the Land Bank the government wants to centralize the control of all these lands and hand State lands to private companies.

This is not a novel idea of the government, the World bank and the IMF have been pushing our governments to carry out similar land reforms, to hand over the ownership of lands to private entities. This is something that will have crippling consequences to the country.

One of the main problems that will arise by the privatization of land is the fate of small scale farmers of the country? What will they do when they lose their livelihoods? Recent examples show that they will have to join the multinational farming companies as labourers. We have seen this happen in areas like Pelawatte and Buttala. Former small scale farmers are working in big farms for Rs 530 per day and out of that Rs 70 is being taken by the man power companies that deployed them.
This might be the future of 40per cent of our population.

Q: With multinational corporations getting involved in farming in
Sri Lanka will it not affect our food security?

A: Yes, the second problem is that most of the multinational agricultural companies will engage in production aimed at foreign consumption. So what will happen to the food security of the country? There was a food crisis across the world in 2008 because a number of countries in Africa and South America followed the kind of policies that Sri Lankan Government wants to implement. Luckily, we did not suffer from food shortages as Sri Lankan small scale farmers ensured that there was a constant supply of agricultural produce. But if the government strips the small farmers of tier lands and replace them with large companies, we may face a severe food crisis in the future.

Third problem is the massive ecological devastation that can arise from the agricultural practices of multinational companies. These companies will clear large swaths of forest land and carry out mono cropping that requires colossal amounts of artificial fertilizer. This will have an adverse effect on our water sources as catchment areas are deforested and harmful toxins are mixed with the water. We have already seen the harmful effects of this, it’s not as if we do not know the effects of CKDu that plagues residents of most of our agricultural hubs. This health crisis will only worsen as we promote mass scale mono cropping agriculture.

The fourth problem is that the land is a highly political issue in the country and depriving people of access to land will most likely lead to a political crisis. If you look at youth rebellions we see that one of the main reasons which drove rural youth towards such was the lack of meaningful employment. Some previous governments identified this, for example the Land Reforms Commission appointed in 1972 as the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government was able to recognize that access to land will help rural youth to be meaningfully employed.

So you see issues surrounding Sri Lankan lands are complicated and that a lot of thought is required before a decision on land reform is taken. The current administration has not given any thought to this complexity and is attempting to make land a commodity that can be sold in the market. We know that this is going to lead to a catastrophe and we believe that these efforts of the government must be defeated. Our main preoccupation currently is with mobilizing all stakeholders against the government’s proposals and to ensure that people have access to land use.

Q: As you said the issues surrounding land is complex. If the government gives ownership of land to license holders that is those who have been given State land for agriculture under the condition that these lands are not be sold, these farmers are likely to sell their plots to large companies because they face great economic hardships. This will only make matters worse. But on the other hand can you tell these license holders that they should not be made freeholders?

A: No one can oppose a man from getting a deed making him a freeholder of a land. But given the current context things are not going to be good for the small scale farmer just because he gets freeholder status. The current administration and a lot of other previous administrations have done nothing to develop agriculture. Compared to last year there has been a drastic cut on allocations for agriculture in the 2017 Budget. While, we agree that deeds must be given to the people, we also demand from the government to ensure that agriculture is made a viable livelihood. And our farmers know this, what they are demanding is not deeds but assistance to use their land in a meaningful way. There are two things when it comes to land, access and rights. Sri Lankan farmers want access. I mean there are issues with the current system, for example it takes ages to get permission to even cut a branch of a tree on those lands. We need to address those but the answer for the issues they face is not giving these farmers, who are already destitute, deeds.

Then there are the Commons. Sri Lanka still has a lot of land what you can describe as Commons. You can’t take a pure liberal view and say that deeds are equivalent to land rights.

Q: You speak about protecting the small farmers but it is also true that we need large scale farms to achieve economies of scale. In other parts of the world we have seen the government encouraging the creation of farmerscooperatives. Even Fonterra, is a cooperative of milk farmers
of New Zealand?

A: Yes indeed, that is an approach that a lot of countries are taking. It is true that it is difficult to accomplish economies of scale in agriculture with small plots of land. But commodifying lands and selling them to large companies creates a whole lot of issues. So a number of countries have facilitated farmers’ cooperatives and companies that are owned by farmers. According to the FAO ‘Agricultural cooperatives enable producers to realize economic benefits that they could not otherwise achieve alone. Groups of agricultural producers improve their bargaining power in the marketplace, reduce costs by pooling capital and resources through cooperative enterprises, and make expensive services, such as marketing, that are unavailable to individuals accessible. Through cooperatives, farmers can achieve economies of scale, by reducing the unit costs of inputs and services, enabling farmers to focus on producing goods rather than finding buyers and suppliers. Cooperatives also enable farmers to improve product and service quality and reduce risks. Agricultural cooperatives can allow farmers to address common problems, develop new market opportunities or expand existing markets. Agricultural cooperatives empower farmers and improve their position in the marketplace.’

Promotion of agricultural cooperatives has been recognized as a way of achieving sustainable development goals. So the world is moving towards that way because they have realized that mono cropping carried out by multinational companies is not a sustainable method. And cooperatives are ideal for a nation like Sri Lanka but we need to come up with a new progressive ideal of what a cooperative is because currently our cooperative system has become highly politicized. Farmers will have to decide on two things. One is how they can come together to engage in collective farming, and the other is how they can change production methods. Also now it is known that productivity of a plot of land can be multiplied by environmentally friendly agricultural practices. It is mono cropping that drains the essence of the soil and makes the land unproductive after a while. So by increasing the regenerative ability of the soil, through environmentally friendly agriculture, we can increase the productivity and harvest of our agricultural lands. Countries across the world, from Cuba to Switzerland, are now turning towards bringing farmers together into agricultural cooperatives for better ways of farming. These are not difficult changes to make but the government needs to have a vision, which our government (s) do not seem to have.

Q: Do you think our government is refusing to go down this path because of ideological reasons, as the Prime Minister and his allies are staunch neo liberals, or is it a combination of ideology and pressure from international financial institutions?

A: I think it’s a combination of both. If you look at the government you see that all the important decisions are made by a small set of ministers and their friends, for example the Prime Minister, Minister Malik Samarawickrema and Arjuna Mahendran, share neo liberal ideals. So they can’t see beyond the current paradigm. The second reason is indeed the pressure from international financial institutions; especially from the World Bank and the IMF. Sri Lanka is also in a debt trap and these institutions say that they will help us keep afloat and for that they want us to take certain steps, to make certain adjustments. The agenda of the World Bank and the IMF is to ensure that multinationals have access to markets and farmers’ cooperatives are a huge obstacle for them to have a global hegemony. So, they will do whatever is needed to prevent farmers from uniting and change the methods of production.

Q: When we think of land rights we often think of rural farmers, estate sector communities and those who were displaced in the North. But the marginalized communities of the urban centres have also been driven away from where they have been living?

A: The value of land can be assessed in many ways, for example how important is land for people’s livelihoods, how linked are they to culture, and so on. But successive Sri Lankan Governments have assessed the value of land based on its commercial value, for them it is the only criteria. They look at a plot of land which is currently the home of marginalized groups in Slave Island and think, what is the cost of a perch of land in Slave Island? And for the government the existence of these people on such ‘commercial’ lands is a nuisance. So the spatial politics of the government is to remove these people from these areas.

That way the objective of the beautification project of Colombo under Gotabaya and the Megapolis Project under this government is the same- removal of the poor from Colombo. Government is also attempting to remove small farmers and fishermen from their lands. So we are creating a whole set of people who are deprived of their rights and livelihoods and we might have to face serious social consequences because at some point in time these deprived people will get angry and turn violent.

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