Echoes of Zimbabwe roar in Negombo
A real life drama filled with political intrigue, land
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
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
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.
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 ",
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.