11th June 2000

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Echoes of Zimbabwe roar in Negombo

A real life drama filled with political intrigue, land invasions
and plundered property

By Tania Fernando and Faraza Farook

A Zimbabwean style land grabbing case with powerful political backing has led to the cutting down of more than 5000 highly productive coconut trees with squatters moving into state land in the Negombo area.

imageA private plantation company claims to have suffered losses running into millions of rupees because its estates are being destroyed and encroached on by people in the area with alleged political backing.

Wayamba Plantations Ltd., the managing company for the Imbulgaswadiya, Lambrock and Kimbulapitiya estates, covering 295 acres, suffered damage amounting to Rs. 9.5 million, as a result of its coconut trees and premises being destroyed.

The company alleged that 5,743 coconut trees have been cut and removed from the three estates, in addition to damage caused to concrete fence posts and barbed wire. Moreover, a variety of timber, such as, teak, jak, cashew, milla and dawata worth over Rs. 150,000 has been removed.

"We will take at least 10 to 15 years to re-establish these estates, because it takes around eight years for a tree to grow and bear fruit and the government wont pay us to re-establish them again," a spokesman for the company said.

The destruction began on June 2 when around 3,500 people forcibly entered and occupied the estates and demarcated blocks for each person. Though the estates were plundered during the encroachment, the people of the area deny having been involved in the felling of the coconut trees.

When The Sunday Times visited the estates, it was clear that the trees were cut with the use of electric saws tools the people of the area don't have access to. However, allegations were exchanged between political stooges and the people by pointing fingers at each other.

While some claimed that the encroachers had blocked out and sold the trees in their blocks to timber merchants, others said that political supporters were totally responsible for the mess.

imageHowever, investigations revealed that the muddle was a result of political interference. Almost everyone we approached kept a closed mouth about the whole episode. A few, who were initially reluctant to speak did so on condition that we don't quote them.

Additional Government Agent (AGA) for Katana, W. A. D. P. Lakshman said that they wanted to take over the land and distribute it among the landless.

The department had called for applications from the public and had received 7,800 of which 4,000 were eligible to receive land.

The Sunday Times learnt from reliable sources that certain government officials were also backing the plundering of the trees.

One of the officials had allegedly made arrangements to give Kimbulapitiya Estate covering 205 acres to the poor, and Imbulgaswadiya Estate covering 65 acres to the middle class. It is further alleged that 30 people from the AGA's office were on the list of those to whom land was to be given from Imbulgaswadiya Estate.

However, Mr. Lakshman dismissed these claims.

According to a spokesperson of Wayamba Plantations which was responsible for managing the estate, a complaint had been made to the Negombo Police, but no immediate action was taken by them. "Subsequently, they had moved and chased the encroachers away after all the trees were cut ", he said.

"On the afternoon of June 6 the police arrived and made a public announcement asking the squatters to leave the premises immediately", an eyewitness said.

On learning about the impending destruction that was to take place, Wayamba Plantations officials had made an entry with the police on Thursday (June 1), a day prior to the incidents. The Company had made the complaint based on reports that villagers in the neighbourhood were coming to forcibly occupy Kimbulapitiya estate.

The Range Superintendent had also made an entry with the Police on Friday (June 2) that 350 to 400 persons had been blocking out the land using ropes. Another entry was made on Saturday ( June 3) requesting police to remove encroachers who had forcibly entered Imbulgaswadiya estate.

That night the Assistant Superintendent had made an entry on information from the watcher of Imbulgaswadiya estate that about 15 people were cutting down coconut trees.

However, when contacted by 'The Sunday Times', the police claimed they were not notified about the incident, but subsequently when they heard about it, they had visited the place and taken action.

According to police sources they found it difficult to take much action as there was political interference, leaving them helpless.

Meanwhile, people of the area claim that the timber was openly transported and yet the police made no effort to apprehend the culprits. But the police dismissed these allegations saying that they had taken in ten lorries and five tractors.

With a lorry being able to carry only four trees, the Company questions as to what has happened to the remaining trees that had been cut from the estates.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Ministry of Plantation Industries said that a full report on the incident had been called for and investigations ordered into it.

During our visit we were made to understand that this episode had begun due to an election promise allegedly made by Minister of Plan Implementation, Parliamentary Affairs and MP for Negombo District, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. However the Minister denied the allegations.

We seem to be in a similar situation as Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe encouraged war veterans to invade white farmers' lands. In this land grabbing movement which began last February nearly 1000 farms belonging to about 4000 white farmers were forcibly grabbed.

A letter sent by the Katana AGA to the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands states that there are 6800 homeless people in the Katana Divisional Secretariat, which included Katunayake, Seeduwa, Raddoluwa, Liyanagemulla etc. It further states that Minister Fernandopulle had instructed the AGA in February 1999 to distribute these lands to reduce the number of homeless people in the area.

However, since an injunction was issued in February, the AGA had no authority to carry out Minister Fernandopulle's orders. The AGA in his letter had requested the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands to expedite and release a gazette notification to the effect that these estates will be re-possessed by the government.

The government through a gazette notification had notified the company that it intended taking over these estates to distribute among the poor.

However, the company, objecting to this move by the government, had filed a case against Minister of Agriculture and Lands D M Jayaratne, the AGA of Katana, Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Chilaw Plantations. Accordingly, the court had issued an injunction order and presently the case (No. 167/99) is pending in the Colombo Appeal Court.

One of the reasons for the Company to object is that after it took over the estates in 1992, the profit from the three estates had escalated to Rs. 80 million per annum from the Rs. one to two million profits per annum that were made when the government ran the estates.

These estates were initially handed to Chilaw Plantations Ltd., which in turn handed the management of these to Wayamba Plantations Ltd., which only gets a management fee. The profits from these estates go to the Treasury through Chilaw Plantations Ltd. The estates have been taken over on a five year renewable contract.

While each government authority is pretending ignorance about this destruction, the sight before us was very pathetic. Coconut exports are one of our main foreign exchange earners, but with episodes of this nature taking place, we are destroying our own economy.

Sequence of events in the coconut estate grab

Late 1970's The Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation and the Janatha Estates Development Board took over the estates for management.

1990s The cluster system was introduced by the UNP government and 24 plantations companies were established. Chilaw Plantations is one of them.

1992 The Government then called for bids on a five year renewable lease on a contract basis. Wayamba Plantations Ltd., a private company, took over Chilaw Plantations Ltd. for management on June 11, 1992 for 5 years.

1997 On completion of the five-year contract in 1997, Wayamba Plantations wanted to renew the agreement. The Government turned down the request. On a petition filed against the Government to extend the contract, Wayamba Plantations won the case. Encroachment into the estates managed by Wayamba Plantations have been occurring since then. State interference to take over the land was present.

February 1999 Wayamba Plantations filed a petition against Ministers D.M. Jayaratne, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Chilaw Plantations Ltd., Divisional secretary W.A.D.P. Lakshman and the Attorney General. An injunction order was issued.

June 1, 2000 Entry made to the Police by the Range Superintendent based on reports that some persons are trying to occupy the coconut estates forcibly.

June 2, 2000 Forcible entry of people into the estates.

June 3, 2000 Blocking of land and felling of approximately 5000 trees in all three estates.

June 6, 2000 Police makes a public announcement asking the people to vacate the estate immediately.

Fernandopulle responds to queries and charges

Plan Implementation Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle confirmed that he had made an election promise to give land to 6800 homeless people in the area, but denied that he backed those persons who grabbed the land and felled the coconut trees.

"These estates were given by the previous government to Wayamba Plantations for a period of five years. This lease expired in 1997. The government had decided to use the Kimbulapitiya Estate for industrial development. The Plantation company objected to this, but I made a promise during the elections to give this land to the homeless.

The government decided since the plantation company was not willing to budge, to acquire the land and pay the Land Reforms Commission a compensation, as the land belongs to them.

However, some authorities had been paid by the Plantations company and therefore these authorities did not issue the land to the poor, he claimed.

Wayamba Plantations had also negotiated with a Japanese firm to commence a green farm on 100 acres.

They said that if the government gives them permission to go ahead with this, they would give the other 100 acres to the government to distribute to the poor. But 40 acres of this 100 acres is a paddy field, therefore I cannot give it to these people to build houses.

We were planning on selling the 2500 perches near the AGA's office in ten perchs blocks at the cost of Rs. 2500 a perch to government servants. We are planning on distributing another 44 acres among 500 families. Two private catholic girls schools and a boys school which are badly needed in the area were also to be built on 10 acres of land".

When questioned as to who would be behind the cutting of the palms, he said that it could be some "hooligans" and it does not necessarily have to be the same people who encroached. He also said that people from as far off as Wattala had encroached the property.

Minister Fernandopulle denied that it was possible to make a profit of Rs. 80 million from this "infertile land". He claimed that only around 1500 trees were cut, because while these hooligans were felling the trees, the police moved in and prevented further damage to the trees.

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