- Sri Lanka
Rathnamali is standing for the rights of land for herself, but also on behalf of her community, her children and her ancestors who passed down land to her.
In 2010, 350 farming families, including Rathnamali’s were evicted by the military to make way for a tourist hotel, in Panama, on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka.
“We had our own lands, it was close to the lagoon so we could easily also have fishing activities. Our chena (a type of yam) and paddy cultivation meant income and food for the consumption of my own family.” But now, Rathnamali and her husband are engaged in paddy cultivation, in hired paddy lands.
This has deeply affected their livelihoods. In addition to having to pay for the lands they cultivate, they also have to spend money to purchase food. “We don’t have land to grow our own food like we did before, because of this we have to spend a significant amount of money from what we earn to buy food from shops. Life got tough after our lands were taken from us.”
Rathnamali and 74 other families attempted to reenter their own lands – only to be intimidated by armed forces who opened fire at them.
“We realized that we couldn’t be speaking to authorities alone. We can’t be fighting for our own lands individually, we have to unite and win this fight to get justice not only for ourselves, but for our children and the generations who passed this land to us.”
Throughout this land rights struggle, women have been particularly active. “We organized ourselves and mobilized as a group. In 2012 we had a protest demanding our lands back. A group of women climbed on to the roof of the village cooperative building near the main road and refused to retreat until the authorities responded to us.” Oxfam supported them in community activism and helped them get media attention. The community successfully raised their grievance with national and international human rights mechanisms as well as in national courts.
Sri Lanka’s government has taken a decision to release land that was taken from people in several places in the country, including the lands in Panama. Despite this, Rathnamali and her fellow villagers are not back on their land yet and the fight to gain possession continues. But their struggle has given hope to other communities facing similar violations and, by joining collective actions, they have helped to create stronger civil society activism on land rights in Sri Lanka.
On March 3rd 2016, Berta Cáceres, an Honduran environmental activist and indigenous leader of the Lenca people, was brutally murdered for having taken a courageous stand to protect the land and natural resources her community depends on. Less than two weeks after Berta Cáceres was murdered, another land activist, Nelson García, was shot and killed for supporting Lenca people .
Join the fight and demand justice now! No more activists should pay with their lives for standing for their people’s rights! Sign the petition to stop the Agua Zarca dam project here: https://act.oxfam.org/international/end-the-violence