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Introduction of PA

Written By Joining Hands Network on Wednesday, December 3, 2008 | 8:41 PM




Land is not only a factor of production but also a basic human need to survive in the world as everyone need a free space to live without external disturbances. Therefore, land is becoming scarcer and also the most important burning issue in Sri Lanka. There are several land related conflicts among different groups. Deterioration of quality of agricultural lands, encroaching forests for agriculture and residential requirements, land titles, displacement due to natural hazards and war, wild life vs human settlements, new development projects, soil and water pollution due to agricultural and industrial activities, acquiring lands by MNCs for large scale agricultural activities and several other issues are coming to the list of land related problems. In many cases, there are several groups of people involved in those activities and impacts on different groups are varied. Some groups of people are suffering from these land related problems without making any efforts to avoid or eradicate the problems. There are some groups, although, they have made some efforts to avoid the problems no positive consequences due to unorganized actions.

Degradation of land resources reduces the productivity of the poor, who mostly rely on such resources. It makes poor people even more susceptible to extreme events than the rich, such as drought or floods, economic fluctuations and civil strife. Poverty severely impedes recovery from these events, and weakens social and ecological resistance, especially as the poor are unable or do not have the opportunity to invest in natural resource management.
Poverty is a direct result of land degradation, which leads to low agricultural productivity due to poor soil quality, nutrient depletion, erosion, or polluted terrain. In their quest for food security, the rural poor often have little choice but to use their limited resources extensively, thereby contributing to further resource depletion, deforestation, and land degradation.


It is widely accepted that land degradation is one of the most critical problems affecting the future economic development in Sri Lanka. The demands of a rapidly expanding population have stressed the country’s natural resources and have resulted in a high level of environmental and land degradation, including extensive soil losses, high sediment yields, soil fertility decline and reduction in crop yields, marginalization of agricultural land, salinisation, land slides, and deforestation and forest degradation.

It has been estimated that nearly one third of the land in Sri Lanka is subjected to soil erosion, with severe erosion taking place in the hill country on sloping lands under vegetable, tobacco, poorly managed seedling tea, and chena cultivation. Soil erosion is also considered a threat to agricultural production in the rain-fed farming areas in the Dry Zone, where 1.2 million hectares of land, including at least 30% of the tea growing fields, are considered marginal and of low productivity. The eroded soil is transported by rivers and streams leading to sedimentation of reservoirs and downstream floods. Some recent studies undertaken within the Upper Mahaweli catchment have shown high rates of sediment yield in some rivers. Sedimentation is also taking place in small village tanks in the Dry Zone. In addition, plantation crops over the past several decades have resulted in the loss of valuable topsoil due to erosion.

The natural forest cover in the country, which stood at 80% until the turn of the century, had dwindled to less than 24% by 1992. By 2005, Sri Lanka had one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Setting aside the fact that deforestation destroys biodiversity at an alarming rate and creates a humanitarian crisis in the form of landslides, one other major effect has been soil degradation and erosion, mainly due to overexposure to wind and water.

Seventy percent of the population in Sri Lanka relies on agriculture and, consequently, forests are cut and burned down to yield land for cultivation and for energy needs. The timber trade has cleared a significant portion of forest and has not implemented any policies for replanting the lost resources. Forests have also been cleared by the government for settlement schemes and other development projects, but illegal clearing for shifting cultivation and for agriculture and settlement by encroachers has occurred as well. The quality of forest resources has also been declining, mainly because of shifting cultivation, illicit felling of trees and encroachment. Mangroves are being cut down to make way for tourist infrastructure and large, polluting shrimp farms that are only productive for a few years. With 50% less forest cover today than in 1960, restoring saline tolerant mangrove cover could go a long way toward reducing damage to agricultural lands and improving the resilience of the agricultural sector.

The political turmoil has also been a contributing factor to deforestation and land degradation. Government soldiers followed a policy of forest clearing to force rebel forces out of their refuges. The civil war destroyed homes and forced farmers to move to new areas where they cleared land. More than two decades of conflict resulted in significant mine and unexploded ordnance contamination throughout the North and East of the country. As many as 600 villages have been affected by mines. Landmines not only are a source of contamination, they block access to cultivable land, resettlement, reconstruction and access to water. This, according to the Sri Lanka Millennium Development Goals Report, has additional effects on the environment, as it forces populations to concentrate on “safe” areas and constrains them from using natural resources, such as agricultural and grazing land, in the most environmentally sensible way.

The results of land degradation have proved to be ruinous economically for Sri Lanka. From small scale farmers to the overall country’s crop production, land degradation’s main result has been lower crop yields with decreased nutrients. The long term consequence for Sri Lanka is the overall decrease in exported cultivated produces, such as tea, spices etc. However, the effects are hitting small and large scale farmers now. Lower crop yields have increased the cost of land production. Some farmers try to counterbalance this by investing in agrochemicals, which in turn causes greater environmental damage and directly affects the health of the rural community. Lower crop yields have made farming financially unviable for some farmers and there has been an increase in suicides within the farming community due to debts. Land degradation has also increased sediment loads in rivers resulting in lower water quality. Ultimately, land degradation affects the country’s ability to feed its own people and may well create further humanitarian and political crises.

Land is a scarce natural resource on which the livelihoods of more than 70% of Sri Lanka’s population depend, especially in rural areas. Most rural families, however, lack any access to land or a secure stake in the land they till. As a result, acute poverty, and related problems of hunger, social unrest, and environmental degradation persist.

In Sri Lanka, the poor depend more on land and land related activities to secure their livelihoods than on any other form of natural resource. Insecure land tenure affects the poor disproportionately because they cannot afford access to litigation and other costs involved in resolving ownership or boundary disputes. As a result of this insecurity and of government restrictions on land use, the poor are not empowered to make choices in land use and land allocation, and hence cannot use their lands to their most productive potential. Another aspect of land tenure and administration which effects the poor is the fact that land records are incomplete, not fully transparent or readily accessible, and, as a result, vested interests use their favoured access to take advantage of the most vulnerable groups. Land fragmentation has been a thorny issue in peasant agriculture with kinship arrangements, tenure practices and family preferences aggravating the speed of the land fragmentation process in the country. The fragmentation of land into miniscule plots is becoming increasingly evident in villages marooned in plantations.

Secure land entitlements are a precondition for the resilience of livelihoods, and their absence allows scarcity and competition to lead to conflict. One of the foremost areas where such conflict takes place in Sri Lanka is the estate sector, where estate land left as reserves or allocated to estate workers is encroached on and used for vegetable cultivation. The income the encroachers receive from their illegal cultivation is higher than that received by estate workers, and thus a direct income-based competition takes place.

Internal displacement induced by the long-running civil war in Sri Lanka has occurred on a massive scale. The situation was further aggravated by the tsunami of December 2004 that forced a million inhabitants from their homes and added a new displacement crisis. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are involved in a two-fold competition for land resources. One aspect of this competition comes from IDPs that return to their original homes to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Very few returning IDPs have legal documents which prove their claims to their land. Boundaries have been destroyed and much illegal seizure and occupation of land has taken place. Returning IDPs must thus compete with others who may dispute their right to resettle. Disputes over boundaries and ownership of land are more severe for those whose livelihoods largely depended on it, such as farmers. IDPs who choose to settle in areas to which they have been displaced also compete for land and natural resources with the original inhabitants of these areas, as people in the host communities feel the new settlers will threaten their livelihoods.

The lack of secure tenure and clear private property rights to land are the principal factors inhibiting the development of rural areas and leading to rural urban migration. Many farmers operate land parcels for which they do not have a clear title. Not having any formal type of land title is a problem because it restricts access to government services and aid, such as cultivation loans and subsidies, and reduces the credit worthiness of agricultural operations. However, there are several informal ways to obtain access to cultivable land. These range from merchants leasing out land for one cultivation whereby the type of crop and the share are fixed and the inputs are often provided by the merchant, to cultivators leasing land for one season bearing all the costs and risks themselves, to long-term sharecropping arrangements, to rotating cultivation rights derived from tattumaru, a traditional cooperative farming technique. The uncertainty and insecurity in land tenure certainly prevents farmers from long-term oriented investment on land resources and from environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. Farming practices are more oriented towards risk minimisation and high return in the short-term, and sustainable land management is neglected.

Land tenure is also important in urban settings. Obtaining secure land tenure for housing is one of the biggest challenges facing the urban poor, since the acquisition or rental of property through formal channels is beyond their means. Tenure insecurity brings with it many problems including the lack of provision for water, sanitation, drainage, health care, schools and other forms of infrastructure and services. This results in significant health burdens, high levels of infant and child mortality, insecurity, and inability to exercise citizen rights and access government programmes for the poor. Furthermore, a lack of secure land tenure deters investment in home based activities, which play a major role in poverty alleviation.

Competition for land, which accompanies tenure insecurity, is magnified in urban slums and shanty settlements with associated environmental and social problems. Families living in urban slums are trapped in a cycle of ill-health and poverty. Children are always the first to suffer from the burden of disease caused by dirty water and poor hygiene, while the wider impact of unhygienic environments drags back economic progress and erodes good governance.

In Sri Lanka, there are currently about 100 such settlements within the municipal limits of Colombo, where approximately 50% of Colombo’s population lives. These settlements have a concentration of residential units built on state or private land and not owned by the residents. They are characterized by a very high population density, congested housing, and the lack of services and infrastructure. Domestic water supply, drainage of waste and surface water, toilets, electricity and roads are necessities for the residents. The dependence on public services is often higher in poorer settlements, and the acute shortage that is created leads to inappropriate and often illegal construction. This is seen most often in the construction of private toilets, which is associated with a range of problems, including pipe blockage, sewage overflow, and the diversion of sewerage systems into canals, resulting in public health hazards. Drainage issues come to the forefront because many of these settlements are situated on marginal land, such as marshes and canal reservations, that are prone to flooding. The condition of roads leading to the settlements are often in poor condition and this hinders access to and within the settlement.

What emerges from a review of such experiences is the fact that, whilst secure tenure is an important component of development, other issues have to be addressed too. It is difficult for low-income households to obtain secure tenure of land and housing without more secure livelihoods. A poverty analysis conducted by the city of Colombo found that a lack of stable income is the critical factor preventing the urban poor from improving their livelihoods. The lack of space in the shanty settlements restricts privacy, inhibits recreation and movement, exacerbates the spread of disease, and limits the undertaking of home-based income-generation activities, further aggravating the situation since for many poor urban families the home is also a workplace.

In some cases there is the hope that, once land tenure is secure, households will find the funds to make basic improvements in their living conditions. Community-driven initiatives can help to upgrade slums and squatter settlements, to develop new housing that low-income households can afford, and to improve provision for infrastructure and services, including water, sanitation, and drainage. They can also help the development of more stable livelihoods, through measures that guarantee the increase of income levels, the improvement of working conditions, security in employment, personal incentives to work, access to credit, and education, and training in the use of modern technologies and methods.
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