Leader of the Panama Pattuwa Land Struggle

We first visited Panama in January 2015. We were conducting fieldwork to understand women’s participation in agriculture. Following a town hall style meeting and general discussion with the women in the community, we invited participants to write their contact details on a piece of paper if they consented to participate in an individual interview. There was hesitation among the group and no one made a move. Then a woman who had been standing outside the building walked in and wordlessly wrote her name and address and left. After that, the hesitation in the bigger group disappeared and others started to sign up. The woman who came in from outside was Kusuma akka. Thus, it was as a leader that we first got to know her.

As our interviews progressed that month, we got to know the significance of land to the women in Panama. Like others, for Kusuma akka and her family, access to land gave her economic security. Before the war, the family had cultivated rice as day laborers. The war interrupted this cultivation as the LTTE occupied parts of the area. Noting that in their community, land was given to daughters not sons (an anomaly in most parts of Sri Lanka), she received residential land from her parents. They cultivated in the uninhabited land near the beach where she planted chili, peanuts, black eyed peas and green gram; this activity provided a sustainable income. With time some received deeds and permits to these lands while others had cultivated for generations.

However, post war, like many others in that area, Kusuma akka lost her land in 2010 due to state intervention and acquisition for the development of the tourism industry. From that day, villagers mobilized and initiated a wide ranging struggle fighting to have their land returned. Kusuma akka and others said that they were descendants of the rebels of the Uva Wellasa rebellion against the British in 1817-1818 who fled Uva Wellasa following their defeat. They evoked this spirit when portraying their resilience in their land struggle against the far reaching power of the state.

From the beginning, women in Panama stepped into leadership roles in the land rights movement as they were directly affected, either because the dispossessed land was inherited by them from their family, and/or it was their cultivation land which women used mainly for subsistence agriculture. The land had more than utilitarian value. Their connection included a sense of pride attached to cultivation as farmers and they had respect for the land as a source of sustenance and income.

When we interviewed in Kusuma akka home in 2015, her cousin joined her. They recalled their childhood, how they played and helped their parents with their cultivation, of the land dispossession and details on their activism, how they never gave in to the intimidation by the state, how the war changed their lives and livelihoods and how they lived through the war. She highlighted the importance of this land to her. It was not just for cultivation; it’s also the sense of belonging, the memories they shared and their connection to the land. She had campaigned for political change in the local council election as a means to find a solution to their land issue. Her engagement with larger women’s rights activism connected through grassroots level organizations.

As we began to wrap up the interview, Kusuma and her cousin proposed that we visited the land that they had lost. We asked how we could do that since the land was cordoned off and guarded by the military. “There is a way we can go in through the other side. It’s our land! We can go whenever we want. We are not scared,” they said. We tried to access the land, with one of us explaining we were tourists looking for a beautiful view but the military guard waved us away. We were struck by Kusuma’s unwavering conviction about her entitlement.

We met her a few times afterwards during visits and we kept in touch via phone calls. Our discussions helped us to better understand the village’s kinship structures and connections and how their activism was also connected to these ties. Kusuma akka, with her seniority in the village and kinship ties, was one crucial person connecting several activists engaged in the struggle.

There have been government promises to return access to the land as well as instances where the government and authorities went back on their pledges. Kusuma akka was one of the first to raise her voice and join the protest with members of the Organization for the Protection of Panama Pattuwa (OPPP), the central organization mobilizing the community to reclaim for their land. She went to the Venice International Tribunal Against Eviction in 2017 along with P. Somasiri, the leader of the OPPP, where they presented their submission to the Tribunal on the land dispossession case, one of the five cases presented at the tribunal.

When we visited Panama in December 2017, Kusuma akka and others had accessed their land in Ragamwela in 2016 and many had started to cultivate it. She was caring for her vegetables, which she had started growing again. She had a big smile as she spoke with us one last time, rejoicing that she was back on her land. This was the last time we saw her.

The struggle is ongoing, as identified by the members of the OPPP working to reclaim the land in Sasthrawela and Ulpassa. The 2019 Easter attacks, the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent economic crisis have adversely impacted the lives and the livelihoods of the Panama villagers. The changes in the government in 2015, 2020 and 2022 and policy implementation and positions on granting land to the people have also played a role in the fluctuating levels of activism.

When more significant issues are at play they overshadow the struggles led by socially subordinate groups such as the peasantry and women as is the case with the Panama land issue, the movements have to re-strategize to brave the circumstances and face new challenges as they arise. In the current scenario, the absence of Kusuma akka is very much felt. To paraphrase her own words, whether it was night or day, she was available to do what was needed to win back their land.

Consent to write this article was obtained from Gnanamuttu Kusumawathi’s parents and siblings

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    Villagers Fight to Regain Their Land in Panama

    Ruki Fernando

    Jan 20

    Photo courtesy Ruki Fernando

    Panama is a remote village at the southern end of the eastern province in the Ampara district. The slogan often used in land struggles, land is life, is true for most people in Panama as it is for many agricultural and fishing villagers. Land is central to their livelihoods; social, cultural and religious life and cannot be valued purely in monetary terms. Panama is rich with natural resources, especially for agriculture and fishing, and also a scenic location with sea, lagoon, paddy fields and forests attracting local and foreign tourists.

    Panama residents are not against tourism but they would like to take leadership in tourism initiatives in their area rather than be labourers on their own lands and village for external people, the military and companies. External parties usually pocket a major part of profits and exploit and destroy environment and social-cultural life in which they have no interest other than as means of earning profits. The residents insist that tourism must be done on a small scale without sudden mega developments (concrete jungles) in a manner that will protect the environment, which is essential for them to live well and engage in traditional livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing. It is their contention that considering the rains and the sea, they can cultivate around half of the year and focus more on tourism during the other part of the year.

    Displacement and challenges of resettling

    Many Panama residents were displaced during the war. When they tried to return to their lands after the end of war, they were prevented from doing so due to lands being occupied by the military (including for a Navy run resort) and claimed by the Forest Department. After determined struggles for many years involving street protests, media, right to information requests, court cases, national and international campaigns and finally a non-violent direct action of physically occupying their lands, some were able to reclaim and resettle in their lands. But despite cabinet and court decisions, many still remain displaced.

    Most recently, residents in Sasthrawela in Panama say that intruders, including relatives of politicians and government officials, have been allowed to occupy lands while they, the traditional historical inhabitants, have been denied access to their lands. Villagers also pointed out unauthorized structures after clearing of forests near scenic location of elephant rock.

    New protests

    It is in this context that the villagers started new day and night continuous protests in two locations. The first one had started on December 27, 2022 next to emerging unauthorized structures after clearing the forest and very close to where they used to live until the 1990s war time displacement. This is close to the beach, beside the popular tourist point elephant rock and is a remote location with access being through gravel roads adjoining forests, a police Special Task Force camp and an Air Force camp. One woman protester said, “We are very sad and angry to see outsiders occupying our lands while we are forced to be landless, homeless and protesting day and night”. The protest site was beautiful, especially in the night under the stars with a fire, with forest on one side, beach behind and a small lake in front. But it also appeared dangerous –a leopard was sighted on the second day of the protest about 100 meters away, and snakes and elephants were lurking around.

    The protesters have to contend with hostile intruders, government officials and police, who have been asking them to stop the protest and vacate the area. Lamps supported by batteries provided some light during the night and a fire gave warmth in the cold night. A slight drizzle didn’t disturb us much when I was there but some days earlier, there had been heavy rain with water flowing through the temporary hut, causing much discomfort to the protesters.

    On January 7, 2023, another protest had started in Sasthrawela along the main Pottuvil-Panama road where several families, including those holding land permits, have been denied access to their lands since the end of the war. Many had several acres of land and they had lived there for decades in basic houses and cultivating multiple crops before being displaced during the war. When they tried to return, the Forest Department had claimed ownership of the lands. When I was at this roadside protest site one evening, there was some panic as we spotted an elephant nearby but thankfully it passed us without causing any trouble. The day after next there was a snake. In between, government officials and police visited the site and asked people to stop the protest and remove the temporary hut they had put up.

    Many involved in the protests said they have land permits while others say they have other state issued documents to prove their connection to the lands dating back several decades.

    Next to the second protest site on the main road are lands that 32 families were promised, together with housing, by the previous government. They were asked to start building houses and some showed me work on foundations they had started on. But they had to stop as they didn’t receive land and support to build houses as promised.

    Challenges and uncertainties

    Those I met at the protests didn’t have much faith in government officials or politicians but expressed willingness to talk to government officials. They seemed to have some faith in judiciary and were considering judicial interventions although this will entail a lot of work and results may take a long time and are uncertain. The protesters struggle to engage in livelihoods and attend to family duties while protesting. Despite the many challenges and risks, people at the protests said they are determined to continue until they were allowed to resettle in their lands. They take turns, with some being there in the night and others during day time. They expect all Sri Lankans, especially the media, to learn and make known their demands and struggles and support them to live a dignified life on their traditional lands.

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