(Nethmi Rajawasam and MediaLK Team)
Increasingly fenced in Rambaken Oya Milk Farmers hope for indigenous land
The milk farmer settlers of Galwala Yaya in Rambaken Oya, who have been weathering losses in the production of their milk for almost a decade – as the grazing lands of their cows have been progressively demarcated, deforested and leased to companies through the mandate of the Mahaweli Authority – assert that their main livelihoods are now at risk. “I used to milk 35-40 litres of milk, now I can’t even get 10 litres. They [the cows] have to climb mountains now. When they climb mountains, the cows meant for milk do not have milk once they descend,” maintained H.B. Sarath Kumara (35), a milk farmer from the Galwala Yaya area.
“…5500 acres of forestry and pastures deforested by the Authority in early 2020.”
According to the Centre of Environmental Justice (CEJ), a total of 5500 acres of forestry and pastures near the Rambaken Oya catchment had been deforested by the Authority in early 2020 – which has secondarily resulted in the displacement of the milk farmers from the flat pastures they once used as grazing lands.
The CEJ had intervened with legal action as the deforested land primarily belongs to the aadivasi people of Pollebedda, the Uuruwarige Wannila-Aeththo, to whom hunting is an essential way of life and the grounds hold historic value of more than 3000 years. The deforested land was then sectioned off and leased to private investors for the purpose of growing maize and other crops at a commercial scale.
Sarath’s little stable, which sits at the foot of a massive mountain, is a small clearing in the middle of the shrubbery that can only be reached through a seldom used footpath. Demarcated with three barb wires carefully secured onto a few sapling trees, the 15 cows of Sarath’s, both old and small, were found resting after a morning of searching for little patches of grass in the wilderness. On some of their hinds, Thamil letters had been branded onto them as they had been purchased from a Muslim village that neighbors Galwala Yaya.
“The cows don’t eat these…”
“We made a coalition, ‘Bimthanna Paththu Kiri Govi Surakeeme Sanvidanaya’, I am one of their conveners. The Mahaweli then demarcated a land for us, the land looks like this,” he said, pointing to the area around him, “…rocky wilderness we’re standing on. It’s a forest. This is an environment in the Dry Zone. There isn’t much a cow can feed on. You get thorn bushes, eucalyptus, jackal jujube trees, lantana types – the cows don’t eat these. The ones who eat these are elephants and sambar deers (gonnu).”
Moreover, as the development projects in the Rambaken Oya area continue to unfold, it has been apparent that the aadivasi community is highly susceptible to losing its native way of life and trails left by its ancestors to development. The Forests are the link that keeps them on the trails of their ancestors. If the forests, rivers, birds and animals of their native lands are made increasingly defenseless in the face of rapid development, it is undoubted that this indigenous community will go extinct.
“This mountain here,” Sarath gestured to the mountain behind him, “…it’s called the Gorikana Mountain. On the other side there’s thousands of acres of land which the aadivasi have been demanding for, they call it their ‘Kahapalana’ Nijabhoomi (homeland). We spoke with the Forest [Department] and said that we were finding it difficult to scale these rocky areas on this side. The vast glade behind is called the Nuwaragala Thalawa. There’s so much grass on the other side that it could split their bellies open,” he stated while observing his herd of weary and starved cows.
For a decades, the settler farmers and the aadivasi have ostensibly coexisted in the pastures and wilderness that makes up the area adjoining the catchment of Rambaken Oya – which is 129.5 km2 in size, with a capacity of 56,000,000 m3. According to one of the settlers in the area, he had once lived in one of the villages that is completely submerged in the water today – in a village called Kurundu Vinna.
Through ongoing and past government settler colonization schemes of Sinhalese in the East, fears of the L.T.T.E., troubles from the Army’s occupation in their own villages and ever since the Mahaweli Authority’s Rambaken Oya Reservoir had been built; the settlers of Kurundu Vinna, Nelli Adda and Damaniya Gama – which are also partly submerged due to the Reservoir – had all migrated to Galwala Yaya, mostly by foot, which closely borders the aadivasi nijabhoomi in Pollebedda.
Entire Rambaken Oya area under the Mahaweli mandate
According to a Gazette No. 1130/13 dated 04.05.2000, the entire area of Rambaken Oya (150,598 Ha) was declared as coming under the purview of the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka, which, from then onwards had the mandate to implement the Mahaweli Development Program in terms of the Mahaweli Act of Sri Lanka No.23 of 1979. As a result, the administration and development of the area has been carried out by the Mahaweli Authority since the issuing of the Gazette.
The team at MediaLK was able to contact another villager, H.M. Nissanka Jayasena (40), with regards to the Mahaweli Authority’s mandate over the land which the Sinhalese settler village, Galwala Yaya, exists on. “I was the President of the Maha Oya Committee which oversaw the milk production and ground level administration of 25 milk collecting centres in the entire Divisional Secretariat of Maha Oya, to which Galwala Yaya belongs to.”
“The area where I had set up a stable is what had been demarcated by the [Mahaweli] Authority and had been sold to a company that started a coconut cultivation. I sold my animals and started this small shop, that’s all I have now. I don’t have my animals anymore. They took over the area my stable was in, in 2018.” When asked about the Mahaweli’s negotiations with the milk farmers, he conferred, “When the people of the Authority came, they inspected the land, said that they were looking to give the lands to their associates for the cultivation of maize, from which the farmers would receive plots too.”
“We gave 65 of our names to the Mahaweli Authority, they didn’t give us an acre to date. They had a notice pasted on the front of their office stating that each farmer would receive 2 acres of land for the cultivation of maize. They chased us away and gave none of us land. We asked them to give us land on the basis of lease – they didn’t give us that either. The land in which my small stable sat on, which was demarcated and deforested, now has a coconut cultivation of 150 acres.”
Deforestation before Cabinet decision
As the area that had been declared as coming under the mandate of the Mahaweli Authoity from 2000.05.04 belongs to the Divisional Secretariat of Maha Oya – the Mahaweli Authority alongside the help of other relevant authorities and the Moratuwa University had outlined a plan for the area called “Mahaweli-Padiyathalawa Mahaweli Development Plan’ in 2011.
According to what was stated in the plan, the relevant authorities had set their sights on developing the agriculture and livestock industries; the infrastructure and environmental facilities relevant to it, and carrying out employment schemes for the settlers in order to revive the local economy.
However, by 2020, the land was encroached for other reasons. On the 29th of September in 2020, at the Sri Lanka Mahaweli Authority’s head office, the Minister of Irrigation Chamal Rajapaksa had been in talks of starting a commercial scale cultivation of maize in the Rambaken Oya area. At another meeting at the zonal office on the 8th of November, the plans for the lands had changed even further than what was outlined in 2011 – however much similar they are, in retrospect.
By January 2020, it was evident that a cultivation of maize in an area of 350 acres had started during the Maha kannaya season. The team at MediaLK was able to witness the deforestation that took place in the area in December 2020. By 2021, a majority of the land had been deforested and cultivated upon, including the 2,750 acres upon which a commercial scale maize cultivation had been proposed to take place in Rambaken Oya – the Cabinet approval for the leasing off of land and cultivation was issued on the 1st of February in 2021.
According to the Government Information Department’s press statement on behalf of the Cabinet decision, the Department maintained: “In this context, it has been planned to provide the underutilized 2,750 acres of Rambukkanoya area managed by the Sri Lanka Mahaweli Authority not belonging to the identified reservations, to the local agricultural investors on lease basis in view of encouraging them to produce maize in large scale domestically. Accordingly, the proposal made by the Minister of Irrigation to allocate the relevant blocks of land to the recognized local investors on lease basis for a period of one (01) year and to grant the relevant land blocks to the same investors on long-term lease basis as per the provisions of the State Land Ordinance upon the success of the cultivation in future, was approved by the Cabinet.”
Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour
As the main issue here is not restricted to just the milk farmers not being able to sustain their only livelihoods – as the issue here is far more complex and lies in the State mandated settlement schemes and commercialization of the land which has bought in Sinhalese settlers and companies closer towards appropriating indigenous land – it is still worth reiterating a promise President Gotabhaya pledged to the milk farmers during his election campaign, with the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor’ election manifesto.
On page 43, under the Chapter titled “People-centric Economy”, The President had promised that “land and investment facilities, [which are] needed to build up medium and large scale cattle farmers, will be developed.” Ideally the farmers of Rambaken Oya may be alleviated from their loss which the companies alongside the Mahaweli Authority have caused, and would however not be relieved at the cost of the aadivasi losing the lands they consider their homeland.
An increase in imports of milk products
According to the statistics published by the Department of Animal Production and Health, the total value of Milk Products imports in rupees has increased by 10.1% in Sri Lanka, between 2019 and 2020. These statistics come at a time when the Sri Lankan economy is braving the economic effects of the pandemic and soaring inflation.
The Mahaweli seemingly does not owe us an answer
The spokesperson of the Forest Department, Forest Conservator Nishantha Edirisinghe, had maintained that the Forest Conservation Department indeed does not have any land that comes under its mandate in the Rambaken Oya area, as it is currently identifying land which it seeks to claim through a Gazette in the future. Subsequently, the Department also maintains that it has no mandate over the area to speak on behalf of the actions taken by the Mahaweli Authority.
The team at MediaLK had repeatedly attempted to contact relevant representatives of the Mahaweli Authority with regards to the plight faced by the settler farmers, as a result of the deforestation and commercialization of the aadivasi land. The Mahaweli Authority’s Director General had been contacted 3 times over. On the third attempt the team was notified through his Secretary that he was aware of the questions presented to him, however he failed to respond to our query.