The Law of Land Grabs and Forestry Governance in Sri Lanka

Dec 19, 2019

The British colonisation of Sri Lanka, which ended in 1948, aggressively sought to develop a plantation based economy by legalising the land grabs of the largely rural peasantry. This colonial plantation legacy is inextricably linked to the landlessness currently experienced by rural communities in Sri Lanka. Today, the loss of community lands and environmental destruction in the country is caused by the expansion of plantations for growing new commodities, the development of destructive public and private infrastructure, as well as industrial construction projects such as highways, irrigation systems, airports, harbours, hydropower plants to mining operations. 

Legislative Framework

Due to its colonial and historical context, Sri Lanka does not possess a single main land legislation. Instead, there are more than 40 land related laws operating in the country, of which ten may be considered as key legislation. The legislative framework of Sri Lanka does not have any direct provisions on the rights of its indigenous communities, who now number less than 3,000 in a country of 21 million. It does however contain limited provisions on the administration of the rights of rural agricultural communities. These are recognised as units of villages under the leadership of village councils. Many of these members may not possess any documentary titles to their land but are merely allowed to occupy and utilise state land.

Historically, the British targeted the island for the development of an export-oriented plantation economy, whereby coffee, tea, rubber and cinnamon were the main crops of choice. Colonial land laws were enacted to facilitate the brazen land grabs, by capturing as much land as possible, including undocumented community land. Such land was then proclaimed to be crown land (later state land), before their transfer to foreign controlled plantations. Subsequently, there have been various legislative efforts in the country, especially after Sri Lanka’s independence, to correct this historical injustice. However, these efforts have contributed to the enactment of more land laws, complicating the legislative and administrative systems with various jurisdictional and bureaucratic issues. This has created opportunities for political interference and corruption to take place, all at the expense of rural agricultural communities.

Unequal Access to State Land between the Private Sector and Communities

Today, 80 percent of the total land area in Sri Lanka is classed as state land that is under the authority of its central government. Currently, most of the lands in the possession of private corporations and citizens are held under long term leases from the state or some form of tenurial agreements with the state. The public sector, private corporations and the landowning class continue to have greater access to land. Meanwhile, a significant section of Sri Lanka’s rural and agricultural communities, along with its indigenous communities, continue to grapple with landlessness and the difficulty in accessing agricultural land or attaining land tenure security.

Forestry Governance, Legal Aid and Environmental Awareness

Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) is involved in forestry governance, free legal aid and environmental awareness programmes. These activities are focused on empowering and supporting community participation in environmental, land and forestry governance and the protection of community land rights.

Since 2004, CEJ has filed over a hundred civil actions at the courts under its free legal aid programme. There are currently two legal actions filed against the development of banana and sugar cane plantations. Today, CEJ continues to be heavily involved in providing assistance to farmers affected by the development of oil palm, banana, sugar cane and hybrid corn plantations. The organisation has supported the mobilisation of affected farming communities and facilitated inter-community exchanges between affected communities. CEJ is currently focused on the struggle of the local communities in Rideemaliyadda, Bibile, in the Uva province, who are defending some 25,300 hectares of farmland and forests from being grabbed by a proposed sugarcane plantation.

Sri Lankan Recommendations

The following are the transformative political and legislative measures that can ensure greater protection of community land rights, prevent land grabs and human rights violations, and ensure the sustainable management of natural resources in Sri Lanka:

  1. The state must take active steps to ensure that the private sector and the public, in particular the poor and the landless are treated equally by the governance system,
  2. Amendments must be made to existing land laws to repeal legal provisions that are no longer relevant and only serve to further complicate the land administrative system, to the detriment of communities and their land rights,
  3. Land acquisition and its associated processes such as compensation payments or the provision of alternative land to affected persons must be made more transparent and systematic to ensure that justice is served,
  4. The centrality of good governance in the land administration system must be further promoted. There must be strict measures to ensure the accountability and transparency of policy and law enforcers in order to prevent them from surrendering to political influence or engaging in corruption,
  5. The participation of women in communal leadership and decision making processes must be further encouraged,
  6. The introduction of corrective measures to remedy the traditional practice where women are unable to automatically inherit and own their family lands,
  7. The maintenance of the customary rights to lands and other traditional practices, including protecting common public lands such as reservoir catchments, riverbanks, beaches, forests, wetlands etc. that are not part of any conservation forests or wildlife areas.

Read the full ‘Laws of Land Grabs in Asia Pacific’ report here.

For more information contact:
Emma Harvey
Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific Communications Coordinator