Photo by Ama Koralage

Batticaloa cattle farmers protesting against the encroachment of outsiders into their grazing land have faced physical attacks and threats as tensions escalated. Their cows have been killed and land set on fire.

The dairy farmers claim that crop farmers from other districts have occupied the land they traditionally used for grazing about 500,000 cattle and buffalo. The area falls under the Mahaweli Development Authority.

The farmers’ protests, which have been going on for more than three weeks, have become a platform for them to draw attention to the urgent need for action. Banners and placards bearing slogans advocating for their rights and the welfare of their cattle dot the landscape, creating a powerful visual representation of their struggle.

Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) MPs demonstrated in parliament to draw attention to the difficulties of the farmers. TNA Batticaloa District MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam said encroachers have planted corn, which will grow throughout October and November, and warned of a worsening conflict.

Social media had videos of police brutally kicking dairy farmers and women relatives of the disappeared to the ground as they attempted to approach a venue where President Ranil Wickremesinghe was attending an event last week. The police had obtained a court order to stop protests near the site.

A group led by a Buddhist monk launched a counter protest with the monk, Ambitiya Sumanarathana, wielding a broomstick and calling for Mr. Rasamanickam to be beaten with a broomstick until it broke.

The root cause of the conflict lies in the scarcity of arable land in the region. With increasing pressure on available land resources, tensions have escalated between cattle farmers and those engaged in traditional crop farming. Cattle farmers are seen as impediments to expanding cropland and their resistance to land encroachment is met with hostility.

“We raise our cows in Mailathamadu in the Mahaweli area. Our ancestors also did cattle farming here. But now some people from Dehiaththakandiya have taken our land to cultivate crops. The Mahaveli Authority agreed to return the land two years ago but they failed to deliver on their promise. We will continue to protest until we get our land back,” said dairy farmer Muthupule Siyanthar who is from Siththandi, a small village 16 kilometres from Batticaloa town.

“While I was feeding my cows they forcibly dragged me and tied me up with a rope. They beat me until I lost consciousness. I woke up only after two days. I heard voices saying not to leave any external wounds on my body. I have bad headaches and vision problems. This is all a result of us demanding our lands to continue our livelihood,” said Mr. Siyanthar, who has been speaking out about the issue.

The scale and frequency of these incidents have caused alarm within the cattle farming community. Some believe that influential individuals or groups may be backing those who are encroaching on their land. Because the police refuse to investigate the events, they feel that there were political powers behind the incidents of harassment and violence. The complex web of local politics often influenced land disputes, making it difficult for the farmers to seek justice or protection.

Another cattle farmer, Koneshan Ladshian, owns about 2,000 cattle in Siththandi and provides about 8,000 litres of milk to dairy companies daily. He has given jobs to many young people in the village. He regretted the fact that the government did not support dairy farmers who contributed to the economy.

The farmers’ demands include access to grazing lands and water sources for their cattle, protection from harassment and violence by neighbouring farmers, investigation into the suspected involvement of political powers in land disputes, support for sustainable farming practices and adaptation to climate change.

Community leaders and representatives from various cattle farming households have joined forces, emphasising the importance of their role in the local dairy industry and the need for sustainable practices to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Harassment is not the only issue that the cattle farmers in Siththandi undergo but they are also threatened by climate change. Prolonged droughts and unpredictable rainfall patterns have reduced the availability of fresh pastures and water sources for cattle. As a result, the farmers are finding it increasingly challenging to meet the nutritional needs of their livestock. The shortage of food translates into decreased milk production, leaving cattle farmers struggling to make ends meet.

Rising temperatures have exacerbated the issue, leading to increased stress and heatstroke among the animals. The decline in milk production not only affects the livelihoods of the farmers but also impacts the local dairy industry, which relies on their produce.

There are about 750,000 cattle and buffalo milk cows in Sri Lanka. The cattle farming sector contributes 1% to the country’s GDP. Over 90% of cattle farmers are small scale farmers owning less than 10 animals. Most are located in the dry zone, which is more vulnerable to climate change impacts.

The country is experiencing increasing temperatures, more extreme weather events and changes in rainfall patterns. These changes are having a significant impact on the livestock sector, including cattle farmers.

As temperatures rise due to climate change, cattle are more likely to experience heat stress, which can lead to reduced productivity, illness and death. There is an increasing the risk of diseases as warmer temperatures and more humid conditions can lead to the spread of ticks and other parasites.

Climate change is exacerbating existing inequalities in the cattle farming sector. Small scale farmers are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as they have fewer resources to adapt to change.

The protests by cattle farmers in Siththandi serve as a clear and urgent call for action. The harassment and violence they endure must be addressed promptly with perpetrators held accountable for their actions. The government must recognise the vital role that cattle farming plays in the economy since it is not only a traditional livelihood but also a significant contributor to the agricultural sector. Providing support to these farmers is essential, encompassing access to grazing lands, resources and sustainable farming practices. Failure to do so will only fuel the resolve of the farmers to continue protesting for their rights and the preservation of their generational way of life. It is imperative that their concerns are heard and meaningful steps are taken to secure their future and safeguard the broader agricultural landscape.

Listen to the interview with Mr. Siyanthar here: