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Land takeovers


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President Maithripala Sirsena this week announced plans to issue a gazette notification under existing laws to give all private and public lands which are not cultivated to those who are willing to cultivate them. While the Government clearly wants to address concerns about food security the underlying issue of land ownership and control of its uses needs to be carefully considered in policy making.   

During the discussion the President has also said all government’s lands would also be cultivated in relation to this program. Earlier the Prime Minister has announced the need for a land bank and Cabinet had approved the idea. Taken together these polices could redefine how land rights are viewed and applied in Sri Lanka in the future. Even though these points are still at preliminary stage it is important that the Government sticks to certain principles when deciding the use of land as its intrinsically tied to people and how they live.   

Land, whether it is public or private, is a fundamental need and its uses should involve all community members, and recognise that communities are diverse and that different stakeholder groups may have conflicting interests. This means taking over land for cultivation is not the simple step that may appeal at first glance. 

Leaders’ interests may differ from community members’ interests. This means building direct connections with community members – not only leaders – to ensure that continued community support is possible even when leaders act against community interests. This is especially important if releasing land for investment comes into consideration through a land bank or some other measure. Land ownership, especially in Sri Lanka, is essential for financial empowerment, mobility and even independence. If land is held by indigenous people or minorities these considerations become even more sensitive.     

Therefore it is imperative that the Government build on community members’ existing expertise and skills and strengthen the community’s capacity to speak out for themselves for their land and natural resource rights. Community members are generally “experts” on their lands and natural resources, so when formulating an advocacy strategy, make good use of the community’s existing skills, assets, knowledge and resources.

Take advantage of community land protection efforts to strengthen local governance. Drafting and formally adopting community by-laws to help manage the resource and electing a representative, diverse land governing body can significantly strengthen local land and natural resource governance.

Ensure that communities understand the benefits and costs of any proposed investment. To ensure that communities make informed decisions about whether to share their lands with an investor, they need to understand the benefits of conserving their natural resources as compared to the promised financial payoff of selling or leasing their land to investors. 

Top Government officials need to work closely with government representatives to build their understanding and support. Government agencies are not monolithic – advocates can often find ministers and high-level administrators who will support community rights. They must link community land protection efforts to wider networks for support by forming strong networks for equitable development. Taking over unfarmed land in urban areas could drive up land prices artificially or create legal tangles that could take years to sort out, it could hamper labour movement up the value chain and create unsustainable populous moves that would have to be supported by Government subsidies. 

Sri Lankans have a deep and often emotional connection to their land and its reform would have to be managed carefully.  

 


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