Alleged ‘Land Grabbing’ by the Security Forces in Sri Lanka - I


by G. H. Peiris

In view of the significance accorded in recent public debate and discussion on the subject of ‘land grabbing’ in several conflict-ridden countries of the Third World it is necessary to devote attention to a series of facts that are of crucial relevance to a balanced understanding of the related situation in Sri Lanka.

Land Grabbing: Concept and Empirical Application

The phenomenon referred to as ‘land grabbing’ lacks definitional clarity. In many writings of recent times (Keely, 2009; Borras,, 2011; Deininger &Byerlee 2011; Rulli, et. al., 2013; Brimayer & Moon, 2014; to name only a few), especially those sponsored by civil society organisations, this phrase has been used in the specific connotation of large-scale acquisition of land in the poorer countries by foreign governments and private firms that are based in the politically and economically powerful countries. Estimates of the extent of ‘grabbed’ land worldwide vary. The prestigious journal, The Economist (21 May 2009) placed it at 15-20 million ha. According to the World Bank, it is as high as 45 million ha, with an overwhelmingly large proportion of it in the less densely populated areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central America and Southeast Asia. In a major World Bank sponsored study (Deininger & Byerlee, op. cit.) ‘land grabbing’ has been portrayed as a phenomenon of both positive as well as negative impacts which nevertheless requires effective regulation. But more generally, this process is perceived as an exemplification of neo-colonial economic exploitation that has adverse consequences on the local people in the form of violation of fundamental rights, incitement of inter-group conflict, environmental degradation and mass impoverishment. What should be noted here is that in none of the research writings on the subject of ‘land grabbing’ as a global phenomenon do we come across a specific reference to Sri Lanka as a country that has been seriously affected by this phenomenon1.

There has, in addition to the specific meaning of ‘land grabbing’ referred to above, been a tendency among certain researchers to use the phrase as a designation for all forms of acquisition of land through diverse processes ― establishment of ownership rights over land through: the force of arms and/or punitive action against land holders/users; equity-oriented legislative enactments; purchase, lease or foreclosure of mortgages; encroachment; criminal coercion; or any other form of political or economic compulsion. The related Sri Lankan experiences in this interpretation of the phrase could, indeed, be delineated as follows:

Dispossession of the indigenous peasantry associated with several waves of foreign invasion and conquest in pre-modern times. Thereafter, under colonial dominance since the early 19th century, the establishment of government ownership over vast tracts of territory both on the basis of various ordinances promulgated by the British as well as through other agrarian transformations that accompanied processes of commercialisation of the economy.

=Since the termination of colonial rule, the government of Sri Lanka acquired large extents of privately owned land through legislative enactments ―Land Acquisition Act of 1950, Land Reform Law of 1972, and Land Reform (Amendment) Law of 1975― in order to implement its declared policy for which it had an electoral mandate. Since these legislative enactments represented the legitimate will of the people as expressed through the norms of democratic governance, there is no justification whatever for associating such acquisitions with processes of ‘grabbing’.

In the course of Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war (mid-1980s to 2009) which necessitated the mobilisation of state resources for purposes of safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity against the secessionist challenge posed by the ‘Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’ (LTTE/‘Tigers’) ―globally recognised as one of the most powerful and ruthless terrorist groups― it became essential for the government to acquire tracts of privately owned land for the exclusive use of the security forces. While those associated with, or sympathetic towards, the secessionist cause might perceive such acquisitions as ‘grabbing’ of land from the civilian population, that perception is not in harmony with the axiom that safeguarding the constitution and protecting the people are the prime responsibilities of the elected government.

=The LTTE, in turn, imposed its control over large tracts of territory in the northern and eastern parts of the island with scant regard for civilian uses and users, and depriving the inhabitants their livelihood and basic survival needs. Moreover many thousands of civilians (Muslims and Sinhalese) in these areas were forcibly evicted by the LTTE in pursuance of its policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’. This represented an unprecedented form of ‘land grabbing’ based on its military and political objectives.

=Land needed for development projects ―irrigation and settlement development, highways, other social and economic infrastructure, manufacturing ventures, tourism, establishment of ‘nature reserves’― often involves the acquisition of private land by the government. In Sri Lanka, the related procedures have always entailed government-sponsored re-location and/or payment of compensation to the dispossessed, often at rates that are considerably higher than those in the land market. Whether land acquisitions of this type represent a form of ‘grabbing’ depends on the net benefits of such projects from an objective viewpoint of national interests.

=Since the introduction of the policy package of ‘economic liberalisation’ by the government elected to office in 1977 there has been participation of foreign firms in some of the development projects referred to above. This has certainly created a grey area between ‘land grabbing’ (of the type referred to at the beginning of this article), on the one hand, and foreign collaboration in development projects in a ‘mixed economy’ which Sri Lanka’s economy has professed to be throughout the last thirty-nine years, on the other.

=‘Encroachment’ (occupation and use of land without legally valid rights of ownership/use) has all along been an important form of ‘land grabbing’ in both urban as well as rural settings in Sri Lanka. Although certain politically powerful persons and affluent racketeers are known to engage in this malpractice, in terms of the extent of land involved it is the rural poor who should bear the brunt of its responsibility, albeit with obvious extenuating circumstances.

=Changes in ownership and control of agricultural land resulting from the operation of the well-known "vicious circle of poverty" could also be referred to as an exemplification of ‘land grabbing’ at the level of the rural community2. Although it is not possible to quantify the magnitude of this process because credit transactions at community-level are oral and informal, this form of changes in land ownership has been widely reported, especially in the peasant settlement schemes in the drier parts of the island.

The foregoing sketches are intended to highlight the fact that it would be inappropriate to brand certain major changes in the ownership and control of land witnessed in Sri Lanka since about the early 1930s with the pejorative epithet of ‘grabbing’. For instance, government acquisitions of privately owned land in order to cater to national needs in security, development (including poverty alleviation and disaster relief), conservation of physical resources, and environmental protection, cannot be considered as ‘grabbing’ of private property, as long as democratic procedural norms (including the ‘rule of law’) have been followed in the acquisitions. The campaigns of opposition and protests which some of these acquisitions evokediiiwere undoubtedly impelled by disputes of commitments in political ideology, partisan stances in electoral politics or subjective self-interests of adversely affected groups and individuals. It should also be noted that the more general campaigns against alleged ‘land grabbing’ that have emerged in importance in the recent years at an international plane are invariably led by powerful ‘civil society’ organisations that promote the geopolitical interests of some of the major global powers.

(To be continued)

1. Several African countries (such as Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Sudan, Cameroon, Angola, Zambia, South Africa), Brazil, and the larger nation-states of Southeast Asia have received specific mention where extensive victimization of the rural poor has resulted from this form of ‘land grabbing’. The only documented instance of Sri Lanka being mentioned as a venue of ‘land grabbing' of comparable scale is represented by the aborted project reported in sub-section 8.4.2 (a) of the monograph referred to in endnote 1, above.

2. The archetypal components of the ‘vicious circle of poverty’ in the peasant economy could be schematised as follows: Low household income→ (aggravated by random misfortune in the form of crop failures and natural hazards) →indebtedness (borrowing involving mortgage of land and high interest rates) →foreclosure of mortgaged land→landlessness→ further indebtedness.

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