Panama, Kumana

SRI LANKA: War-affected forest community gets new lease of life

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Photo: Christine Jayasinghe/IRIN
War-displaced Rammalappu Dhanapala in his shrine in Panama, eastern Sri Lanka. His Padu community was evicted from the Kumana forest by government authorities who feared the area had been infiltrated by Tamil Tiger separatist rebels

PANAMA, 17 February 2008 (IRIN) – Every Friday people crowd into Rammalappu DhanapalaA?a??a??s yard, eager to hear the fortune tellerA?a??a??s prophecies and seek his advice on how to avert imminent disasters. A?a??A?I have supernatural powers given to me by my grandparents and my parents,A?a??A? he said, showing vials of potions that he dispenses to cure various ailments.

Carrying on a long family tradition, Dhanapala who lives in Panama village in Ampara District in eastern Sri Lanka, now offers his counsel in a newly-constructed shrine room filled with the scent of incense. Its brick walls are decorated with colourful pictures of the many gods he invokes.

What is unique about the fortune-tellerA?a??a??s operation is that a local community-based organisation, the Movement of Young Social Workers (MOYS), spent Rs. 60,000 (about US$530) – in funding given it by international non-governmental organisation ActionAid – to build him a bigger shrine room that would accommodate more clients. Since then, his clientele has doubled, bringing him Rs. 5,000-6,000 (about $50-$60) on a busy day.

MOYSA?a??a??s support for Dhanapala is only a small part of its support to the Padu community, traditionally considered as occupying one of the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy of the Sinhalese.


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The community was forcibly uprooted from the nearby Kumana forest 18 years ago by the police, when the government feared that rebels of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had infiltrated the area.

Brought to Panama under duress and left to fend for themselves, the once self-sufficient members of the Padu community found it difficult to adjust to a new way of life, particularly given their low caste. Thirteen families now live in Panama while others have made their home in nearby villages. Besides being displaced victims of the war, they also suffered human and material losses from the December 2004 tsunami.

The Padu community traces its history back to the islandA?a??a??s central Kandyan kingdom when their ancestors served high-caste aristocrats who rebelled against the British colonial rulers in the 19th century. When the noblemen fled a crackdown, they took their domestics with them to eastern Sri Lanka. The servants ended up living as a tightly knit, self-sufficient clan in the Kumana forest.

Supporting traditional livelihoods

In DhanapalaA?a??a??s case, said Nirosion Perera, chairman of MOYS, A?a??A?He has an unusual occupation and one of our aims is to encourage and support the traditional livelihoods of the Padu community. He is also quite successful at what he does, so we felt he deserved help to improve his standing in Panama.A?a??A?

MOYS is supporting others in the Padu community to improve their economic status so that the ensuing recognition will assist in their long-term integration with the largely upper caste Sinhala Buddhists who live in Panama.


DhanapalaA?a??a??s brother, R. Sugathapala, scours the forest to bring honey made by wild bees. The honey is highly prized in the village and beyond for being wholesome and nutritious and his A?a??E?KumanaA?a??a?? brand has now made a name for itself.

A?a??A?This is the first time we have got any help from any organisation,A?a??A? said Sugathapala, who used to barter the honey in exchange for goods his family needed. MOYS is helping Sugathapala acquire skills, including how to manage his business, as well as funding costs to start a small poultry farm that his wife will manage to give the family an additional income source.

MOYS also helps other members of the community by providing funding and technical expertise for livelihood projects such as growing seasonal crops of chillies, aubergines and millet, and for the `chenaA?a??a?? (post-slash and burn) cultivation.

But MOYS does not just assist the community in developing livelihoods and increasing incomes. A relationship has grown up between the agency and the community that enables it to advise residents on issues affecting their lives, including how to save sufficient money for emergencies and ways to ensure their kids get an education. A?a??A?We want to look into their health, improve their living standards, ensure their children go to school and assist their psycho-social development through giving them economic support,A?a??A? said Perera.

Perera pointed out that members of the community knew little of some aspects of modern life such as banking extra income for future investment, and banding together to promote their interests as a group. MOYS has helped them set up a rural bank and is organising them into a group so as to better defend its interests.

Few in school

Few children attend school because they cannot afford to buy books and other necessities, but also because of the social ostracism they face from their peers. A?a??A?People here donA?a??a??t want to have anything to do with the people from Kumana because of the problem of their caste,A?a??A? said Perera. A?a??A?By giving them a voice within the larger community, we want to help them gain acceptance.A?a??A?

While some of those who have been displaced by Sri LankaA?a??a??s protracted conflict may not want to return to their former homes, the Padu community longs to head back, not only to their open air abodes, but also to a simpler lifestyle.

Theme(s): Buy himplasia dosage (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Governance


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