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.
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.