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Aloe vera export project set to grab 6% of land in Anuradhapura

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… will spell doom for farmers, forests……

By Rathindra Kuruwita

The Cabinet on 30 August 30 approved a proposal for handing over 6% of the total land area in the Anuradhapura District to a private company to grow aloe vera, and this will have a disastrous impact on the environment, climate and human elephant conflict in the North Central and North Western Provinces, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) says.

The Cabinet had approved a paper jointly presented by Minister of Finance Basil Rajapaksa and Minister of Lands S. M. Chandrasena for the handover of 104,066 acres (42,115 hectares) of Anuradhapura land to a private company on a long-term lease of 30 years, Chamikara said.

“Although the project was officially approved only a few weeks ago, the company had been illegally using large swathes of land, used by farmers of Rajanganaya Track 18 village as well as lands that had been under the control of the Forest Department for over three years. These lands have been illegally acquired without the approval of any state institution,” Chamikara said.

The 104,066 acres earmarked for the project include 2,000 acres in Rajanganaya and Nochchiyagama Divisional Secretariat areas, earmarked as a plant nursery, 102,000 acres from several areas of the Anuradhapura District for planting aloe vera and another 66 acres for a factory, a field office and storage units, Chamikara said.

“These lands are to be handed over on a 30-year lease as well as per the provisions of the State Lands Ordinance. The 102,000 acres, to be used as the aloe vera plantation, consists of cultivated lands belonging to families who had been living in these lands for a long time. These are farmers who have been given state land under various schemes. They hold various land titles. The total investment in this project is US $ 783 million. The Cabinet Paper states that US $ 300 million will come into the country as the initial investment,” he said.

Chamikara added that the total land area of Anuradhapura was 717,900 hectares. Out of this, 42, 115 hectares had been allocated to the aloe vera project. The project would make aloe vera the second largest cultivated crop in the district,after paddy, he said.

“However, is it correct to allocate such a vast land area for the cultivation of aloe vera for export? What is the land use pattern of Anuradhapura? It appears that the Cabinet has not considered this. According to the Land Use Policy Planning Department there are 88, 859 hectares of home gardens in the Anuradhapura District, which is 12% of the total land area. There are 6,494 hectares of permanent crops, banana and coconut cultivations in the district too. This is 1% of the total land area. There are 161,752 hectares of paddy land, 23% of the total land area. There are also 87,510 hectares of yearly crops and chena cultivations as well (12% of the land in the district),” he said.

Chamikara said that the total land used for agriculture in Anuradhapura encompassed 344,615 hectares, and out of this, 12% would now be allocated for the aloe vera plantation. Given the significant land use, the impact of the project on the food production of the country should be estimated, he said, adding that at least the revenue generated by exporting aloe vera must be compared to the loss incurred by the reduction in food production. Given that food prices were increasing across the world, the impact the project would have on the food security of the country must not be underestimated, Chamikara said.

“The water sources spread across the district is the foundation of agriculture in Anuradhapura. These water sources, i.e., tanks, rivers, streams, canals, marshes, etc., amounts to 67,630 hectares, which is 10% of the land area in the district. These water sources depend on surrounding areas that act as catchments. There are 175,627 hectares of thick forests in the district, which is 25% the total land area. There are also 116,889 hectares of shrub and open forests, 16% of the total land area. The remaining 13,139 hectares of the district consist of built areas, rocks and sand mounds. When compared to overall forest lands in the district, it is around 14% of such lands. Most forests are linked to the eastern, southeastern, and southern borders of Wilpattu National Park,” he said.

Chamikara said that if forest lands were not used for the project, the government would have to acquire land already used by farmers for the project. It in turn would force a section of farmers to clear forest land as land available for agriculture was reduced because of the project. The clearing of forests will in turn lead to a water scarcity in the district and many farmers will not be able to cultivate during both Yala and Maha seasons. That would start a vicious cycle, he said.

“As per the Cabinet paper, most of the land earmarked for the project belong to farmers settled under various land grant schemes. Most of the chena lands are cultivated only during the Maha season. These lands are left vacant between June and September. This is usually the dry season and these abandoned chena lands become feeding grounds for wild animals including elephants. When such chena lands are used for aloe vera cultivation, the human – elephant conflict of the region will worsen. This would also endanger more farms.

The human – elephant conflict prevails in Puttalam, Kurunegala, Mannar and Polonnaruwa districts, which borders Anuradhapura. Thus, any change for the worse in Anuradhapura would also spill over to these adjoining districts,” he said.

“While aloe vera is a plant with high medicinal value, planting aloe vera as a monocrop on a large scale would lead to many issues”, Chamikara warned, saying that if the company cleared land to plant aloe vera, there will be soil erosion. The eroded soil would find its way into the tanks, rivers, canals, and other water sources in the area. It would lead to diminished carrying capacity in those water sources, which would in turn have a devastating impact on farmers in the area. Moreover, given the severe soil erosion, the farmland would have to be continuously fertilised, and this would lead to other issues in the future.

“On the other hand, during the dry season there is heavy evaporation of water in the soil in an aloe vera plantation. This, in turn, will have an impact on groundwater leading to a serious lack of water for farming and drinking purposes. Aloe vera will be an excellent plant for mixed cropping in home gardens. However, the results will be less than optimal when one tries to plant them en masse as a monocrop,” he said.

Chamikara said, “During recent years, there has been a significant spike in the human – elephant conflict in the dry zone due to the massive expansion of maize and sugar cane plantations in swathes of cleared forest lands.

“The expansion of these large commercial agro enterprises have displaced elephants from their natural grazing areas and have obstructed their ability to move from one forest area to another. Thus, the elephants are compelled to invade human settlements. Small-scale farmers unable to cope with the increasing threat from elephants were selling their lands to big companies.

“Between 1990 and 2000, on average, 150 elephants and 40 humans died per year due to the human – elephant conflict. However, between 2010 and 2018, elephant deaths have increased to 275 and human deaths to 80 per year. The situation became worse in 2019, when 406 elephants and 122 humans died in conflict. In 2020, 307 elephants and 112 humans died. With this project the human – elephant conflict in Anuradhapura District and adjoining areas will further increase,” he said.

All out attempts to contact the company concerned on the telephone number given on its website failed.



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SC: Anti-Terrorism Bill needs approval at referendum and 2/3 majority to become law

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Certain sections inconsistent with Constitution

By Saman Indrajith

Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapaksa informed Parliament yesterday that the Supreme Court (SC) has determined that some sections of the Anti-Terrorism Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution and, therefore, the Bill had to be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum.

Rajapaksa said that the Supreme Court had determined that the Sections 3, 4, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 72 (2), 75 (3) and 83 (7) of the draft Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution.

The SC has determined that sections 3, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 75 (3) should be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum if they are to become law.

Sections 4 and 72 (2) of the Bill have to be amended as per the SC determination.

Section 83 (7) requires passage by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

However, the SC had stated that it could be passed by a simple majority if the recommended amendments are accommodated, Rajapaksa said.

Opposition MPs say the Anti-Terrorism Bill is being introduced in an election year to repress Opposition parties.They said the proposed law is a threat to democracy itself.

“This Bill is being presented not at a time of terrorism prevailing in the country but during an election period. The Bill has not defined nor analysed what a terrorist is. Anyone can be arrested,” SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said.

The MP said both the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the controversial Online Safety law were meant to quell democracy.

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Harin’s claim that SL is part of India: Govt. says it is his personal opinion

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Manusha accuses Wimal of having taken parts of Fernando’s speech out of context

By Saman Indrajith

Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara told NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa in Parliament to refrain from taking chunks of others’ speeches out of context and misinterpreting them for political mileage.

The Minister said so following concerns raised by Weerawansa over a recent statement by Tourism Minister Harin Fernando on India-Sri Lanka relationships.

Weerawansa said that Minister Fernando had recently stated that Sri Lanka was a part of India. “Was it Minister Fernando’s personal opinion or the government’s official standpoint? Was it the opinion of the Cabinet?”

Chief Government Whip Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said what Minister Fernando had stated was the latter’s personal opinion.

Minister Nanayakkara: “If anyone has read the entire statement made by Minister Fernando this type of question would not have arisen. The Tourism Minister was referring to historical relationships between India and Sri Lanka to ask Indians to visit Sri Lanka.

A distorted version of the speech by Minister Fernando is being circulated on social media. Certain parts have been removed while some words have been introduced to this edited version. Ones should read the statement in its entirety to understand it. We have not discussed this in the Cabinet meeting” Minister Nanayakkara said.

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US backs Lankan journalists vis-a-vis Online Safety law

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Kumar Nadesan, Chairman Board of Directors of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (left) Elizabeth Allen ( Centre) and US Ambassador Chung (pic courtesy US embassy)

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Elizabeth Allen on Monday (19) declared US support for journalists here against the backdrop of enactment of ‘Online Safety Bill’

She spokes about press freedom and related issues at the Sri Lanka Press Institute Press Club.

A statement issued by the US Embassy quoted Allen as having said the U.S. Embassy is all in on supporting your incredible work. Sure, we might bump heads over a story now and then, but above all, we’re your biggest fans. We’re all in on programmes that hone your skills because we believe in your right to pursue journalism freely and fearlessly.

I want to thank you for protecting the rights and freedoms of journalists here in Sri Lanka and around the world, ensuring all citizens enjoy the right to express their ideas and opinions openly and freely. Even in difficult times, you continue to press forward and ask difficult questions. Your commitment to seeking out the truth and shouting it from the rooftops remains a democratic staple, and I truly appreciate what you do.

It’s only fitting that I begin my remarks this afternoon by telling a story that I think is relevant in light of today’s topic about the media’s role in a democracy.

Over a century ago, American media coined the term “muckraker” for journalists who delved into societal issues, exposing corruption.

Although the term carried a somewhat negative connotation, labeling these journalists as mere “gossip mongers,” today, we honor them as the pioneers of investigative journalism.

These muckrakers played a pivotal role in ushering in the Progressive Era, a time of significant social and political reform in American history.

Even President Theodore Roosevelt referred to them as “muckrakers,” criticizing their focus on society’s flaws through figures like Lincoln Steffens, whose work shed light on corruption and spurred a nationwide call for accountability and reform.

Steffens’ book ‘The Shame of the Cities,’ published in 1904, made him renowned for uncovering corruption within American cities, highlighting the nefarious links between political leaders, businesses, and organized crime.

His fearless journalism raised critical awareness about the urgent need for governmental and corporate accountability. Steffens wasn’t acting as a public relations officer for the government; his role was to uncover the truth; however unpleasant it might be.

Faced with the stark realities Steffens presented, American officials and the public were compelled to confront a pivotal question: ‘Is this the kind of country we aspire to be?’ The resounding answer was no.

Steffens’ work didn’t just expose wrongdoing; it sparked a nationwide demand for reform and played a crucial role in fostering a dialogue about the essential role of investigative journalism in ensuring power remains accountable.

This story showcases how freedom of the press and freedom of expression are not just fundamental human rights, they are also vital contributors to a country’s development and growth.

This brings me to my main point: how the global media space supports democracy and fosters peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

In my mind, the correlation is obvious: When a government constricts the rights and freedoms of its citizens, the future and the development of the country will naturally suffer.

Globally, we’re witnessing serious and escalating challenges to media freedom. The United States stands firmly for the freedom of expression, advocating for press freedom both online and offline, and ensuring the safety of journalists and media workers worldwide. Unfortunately, these essential freedoms are under threat globally, including concerns raised here in Sri Lanka.

When governments intensify efforts to withhold information from the public by restricting internet access and censoring content, we must speak up. Notably, when Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed the Online Safety Bill in January, the United States voiced concerns over its potential effects on freedom of expression, innovation, and privacy.

It’s common to hear arguments against unfettered freedom of expression. Critics claim the media is biased, aiming to embarrass governments and undermine public trust. Others worry that without checks, freedom of expression may fuel the spread of misinformation. Some argue that an unchecked press can incite tension and compromise security. And there’s concern that continuous reports on corruption, violence, and political strife can tarnish a nation’s image, deterring investment and hampering development.

However, the media’s bias should lean towards the public’s interest, acting as a guardian to ensure that leaders fulfill their duties. This principle holds in Sri Lanka, the United States, and globally.

The challenge of negative press, often labeled as “fake news” or “biased journalism,” is not new. For generations, governments and the media have navigated a complex, sometimes adversarial relationship. This dynamic isn’t unique to any one nation; in the United States, for instance, presidents from both major political parties have experienced their share of friction with the press. This tension, a hallmark of democratic societies, plays a crucial role in fostering transparency and encouraging effective governance. It’s a familiar scene: politicians and journalists engage in heated exchanges, especially when leaders feel their actions are misrepresented, leading to accusations of inaccuracies and biased reporting.

The press’s duty is to deliver facts as they stand, shedding light on the government’s achievements as well as spotlighting areas where policies or programs fall short. This transparency not only informs the public but also strengthens the nation as it encourages constructive action and improvement.

And suppressing voices only complicates matters further. Attempting to conceal issues rather than addressing them is akin to hiding a broken tool rather than fixing it. True progress comes from collaborative dialogue, even if it means embracing the messiness of public discourse.”

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