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Aura Lanka gets 100,000 acres in Anuradhapura, displacing farmers

Sajeewa Chamikara

Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform

On the 30th of August 2021, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to handover 6% of the total land area of Anuradhapura to a private company called Aura Lanka Herbal (Pvt.) Ltd. The Cabinet paper jointly presented by Minister of Finance, Basil Rajapaksa and Minister of Lands, S.M. Chandrasena proposed to hand over 104,066 acres (42,115 hectares) of Anuradhapura land to Aura Lanka Herbal (Pvt.) Ltd on a long-term lease (of 30 years.) The Cabinet of Ministers then approved this proposal, and the company is to plant aloe vera as a monocrop.

Although the project was officially approved only a few weeks ago, the company had been illegally using large swathes of land, which were used by farmers of Rajanganaya Yaya 18 village, as well as lands that were under the control of the Forest Department for over three years. These lands had been illegally acquired without the approval of any government institution. Following the Cabinet approval, the company has doubled its tactics of intimidation and has fast tracked the acquisition of land and  preparing the ground to plant aloe vera. In doing so, the company is violating a number of laws of the land.

As mentioned earlier, under the project the company is to plant aloe vera as a monocrop. The 104,066 acres includes 2,000 acres in Rajanganaya and Nochchiyagama divisional secretariat areas, earmarked as a plant nursery, 102,000 areas from several areas of Anuradhapura district for planting aloe vera and another 66 acres to build a factory, a field office and storage units.

These lands are to be handed over on a long-term lease basis of 30 years as per the provisions of the State Lands Ordinance. The 102000 acres, to be used as the aloe vera plantation, consists of cultivated lands belonging to families who had been living on these lands for a long time. These are farmers who had 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 as the initial investment.

The total land area of Anuradhapura is 717,900 hectares. Out of this, 42, 115 hectares have been allocated the aloe vera project, which is 6% of the total land area. This project will make aloe vera the second largest cultivated crop in the district, following paddy.

Anuradhapura farmers losing their land

However, is it correct to allocate such a land area for the cultivation of aloe vera, for export? What is the land use pattern of Anuradhapura? It appears that the Cabinet of Ministers have not considered this.

According to the Land Use Policy Planning Department there are 88, 859 hectares of home gardens in 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).

Thus, the total land used for agriculture in Anuradhapura is 344,615 hectares. Out of this, 12% will now be allocated for an aloe vera plantation. Given the significant land use, the impact of this project on the food production of the country must be estimated. At least the income generated by exporting aloe vera must be compared to the loss incurred by the reduction of food production. Especially given that the price of food is increasing across the world, the impact the project will have on the food sovereignty of the country must not be underestimated. However, the evidence before us shows that the Cabinet had no idea of the strategic pros and cons of this project.

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  catchment areas. 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.

The forests will be impacted even if the aloe vera project is not allocated forest lands. If forest lands are not used, the government will have to acquire land already used by farmers for the project. This in turn will force a section of farmers to clear forest land as land available for  agriculture is 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 work on both Yala and Maha seasons. Thus, this will start a vicious cycle.

As per the Cabinet paper, most of the land earmarked for the project belong to farmers that have been settled under various land grant schemes.  Most of the chena lands are only operational during the Maha season. These lands are left vacant  between June to September. This is usually the dry season and these abandoned chena lands become feeding grounds for wild animals, including elephants. By using such chena lands for aloe vera cultivation, it is inevitable that the human – elephant conflict of the region would increase. This would also endanger more farms. Meanwhile, human – elephant conflict prevails in Puttalam, Kurunegala, Mannar and Polonnaruwa districts, that borders Anuradhapura. Thus, any change for the worse in Anuradhapura would also spill over to these adjoining districts.

Allocating over 100, 000 acres of land in Anuradhapura for an aloe vera project will have disastrous consequences.

Thus, the decision taken by the Cabinet will not benefit the nation in the long term. It is also obvious that the Minister of Finance, Basil Rajapaksa, and Minister of Lands, S.M. Chandrasena have exerted pressure on the Cabinet to approve the project by looking at the documents that they had attached to the Cabinet Paper.

Can the Cabinet approve a project without a feasibility study?

Minister of Finance, Basil Rajapaksa and Minister of Lands, S.M. Chandrasena have not presented a feasibility study along with their Cabinet paper. Usually, a feasibility study needs to be conducted before commencing a project of this nature. In such a study, how the land can be used for this project, its impact, economic sustainability as well as the productivity of the initiative is examined closely. Based on the report, relevant institutions need to be approached to obtain the necessary approvals. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) too must be conducted. The EIA report must be made available for public comment and final approval is given only after all this is done.

Given this regulatory and legal framework, it is hard to understand under what basis the Cabinet approved releasing land for the project, given that there is neither a feasibility study nor an environmental impact assessment. The Cabinet was not even presented with a preliminary project report. Only a concept paper is available so far for the project and this is a document prepared three years ago. This concept paper is titled ‘planting aloe vera for the rural economic development of the dry zone.’ This paper states that the total investment of the project as USD 370 million. 

Given next are some of the budget lines for the project. USD 15 million to develop the infrastructure for the project, USD 28 million to build an indoor stadium, USD 10 million for urban development, USD 35 million to build a research centre, USD 2 million for environmental protection projects and 3 million for compost manufacture. However, the Cabinet paper presented to the ministers claim that the value of the project is USD 783 million. This is double the amount stated in the concept paper. Thus, it is hard to believe that the Cabinet approved the proposal after considering the concept paper.

Viraj Tabugala – The front

As mentioned earlier the project activities started over three years ago. A number of project activities have been taking place in Yaya 18 village in Thulana grama nildari division in the Rajanganaya Divisional Secretariat area. Given that the project has not been approved by relevant authorities, these activities can be termed illegal. Lives of the people in this village have become severely disrupted due to the destruction of farms, tanks, canals, highways and settlements in the village, for the project. Around three years ago farmlands belonging to 84 farming families have been taken over for the project, on a 10 year lease basis, and the farmers whose lands were taken away now work as laborers for this company.

The head office of the Aura Lanka is located at 949/13, Udawatte Road, Thalangama North, Malabe, and a field office has been established at Kala Oya, Rajanganaya Junction. This company has been registered under the Companies Act No. 7 of 2007 under No. PV 00202472 on 26th July 2018.

Chandika Viraj Tabugala is the Managing Director of the company, and he presents himself as an expert on hela medicine and as a figure with an international reputation. However, it has been reported that Tabugala had earlier worked as a TV and radio repairman in Rajanganaya and had spent time in Negombo and Anuradhapura prisons for his involvement in illegal activities.

Lekha Wickramasekaran – The real investor

Although Viraj Thabugala claims to be the investor of this project, the real investor is Mrs. Lekha Wickramasekaran of Om Jeeva Company in California, USA. Thabugala is a front to fool the people and state officials. US Customs records show that Aura Lanka Pvt. Ltd. had exported medicines to Om Jeeva on two occasions in the last three years.

The affiliation between the two companies is also mentioned in the Aura Lanka website. However, holding a press conference Minister S.M. Chandrasena, a main backer of the project, claimed that Mr. Tabugala is the main investor in the project. The Minister claimed that Thabugala is a business tycoon.

Government servants support the illegal project

Unfortunately, the Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority, Siripala Amarasinghe, and the Commissioner General of Lands, Keerthi Gamage, are actively supporting this project. Amarasinghe assures that this illegal project can be carried forth while Gamage facilitates the illegal land grabbing done by the company. These senior officials  visited Yaya 18 village recently on a field visit as well.

Minister S.M Chandrasena, Chief Minister of the North Central Province, Ranjith Chandrasena, deputy chairman of Rajanganaya Pradesheeya sabha, Saman Nilmini, Rajanganaya Pradesheeya Sabha member, L.P. Nirosha Samanthi are actively supporting this project. Meanwhile, Divisional Secretary of Rajanganaya P.G Sunil Abeykoon, chief clerk of the Divisional Secretariat, K.A Sunil Shantha and the OIC of the Yaya 11 Police Station too are supportive of the project.

It was also disheartening to hear that the Chief Incumbent of Ruwanweliseya, Viharadhikari of Ruwanweli Maha Chaithyaramaya Ven. Pallegama Hemarathana Thero was coordinating this project on behalf of Mr. Thabugala. Meanwhile, Ven. Ududumbara Wajira Thera is coordinating land acquisition from the people of Yaya 18. This Thera also faces accusations of inappropriate behavior with children.

The destruction caused to Yaya 18 village

The company started taking over farmers’ lands three years ago. At that time, as mentioned earlier, the company was saying that this was a USD 370 million (Rs 74 billion) investment. A canal was built, damming Kala Oya at the Southeastern border of Wilpattu National Park, to provide water for the project. For this, forests adjoining the Wilpattu National Park were cleared without any approval. The Forest Conservation Department had taken legal action against this.

The Kahambiliyapitiya Tank, constructed by the Department of Agrarian Services for the farmers of Yaya 18, too has been destroyed as a part of the project. The tank has been deepened and the surrounding area has been paved with stone and concrete. Thus, farmers are unable to get water to their crops. 87 families benefitted from the Kahambiliyapitiya Tank and 130 acres were farmed with the water from the tank. However, no governmental institute investigated the destruction of this state property. The company also plans to dam the Panikkani canal, which is an estuary of the Kala Oya, to fill the deepened Kahambiliyapitiya Tank. On the other hand, such a move would cause periodical floods in some areas.

Moreover, about 15 acres of forest land near Yaya 18 and this area has been paved with concrete. The paddy fields in the area have been filled up using heavy machinery. All trees along the main road of Yaya 18 have been cleared and a canal has been built where the main road was. However, even after three years the company has not planted aloe vera.

The company has also destroyed the irrigation project for Yaya 18 through the Yali Pubudamu Project. This was a Rs. 16.9 million project. However, the government officials have not acted against the destruction of state property. The company is acting brazenly because it’s backed by regional politicians and officials.

The adverse impacts on the aloe vera project on farming

Aloe vera is a plant with high medicinal value. However, planting aloe vera as a monocrop in a large scale would lead to many issues. One needs to clear land to plant aloe vera and given the geographical conditions, it is quite likely that these lands will be subjected to severe soil erosion. The eroded soil will be deposited as sediment in tanks, rivers, canals, and other water sources. This will lead to diminished carrying capacity in these water sources, which will have a devastating impact on farmers in the area. Moreover, given the severe soil erosion, the farmland has to be continuously fertilized. This in turn will 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 ground water 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.

As mentioned earlier, land taken over for the project were farmlands. Paddy, cowpea, mung, undu, thala, corn and vegetables were grown in these lands. Now the small holders who operated in these lands are without a livelihood and are compelled to buy food from the market. The reduction in the supply of food items needed by a large number of Sri Lankans will also have an impact on the food sovereignty of the country. However, these devastating impacts are hidden from officials and the people.

Human – elephant conflict will increase

In recent years there has been a significant spike in the human – elephant conflict in the dry zone. This is mainly due to the massive expansion of maize and sugar cane plantations in these areas. These are usually 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 maraud human settlements, which has lead to many human and elephant deaths. The people affected by the human – elephant conflict are often those who have no connection to the destruction of elephant havens. On the other hand, small scale farmers unable to cope with the increasing threat from elephants are selling their lands to large 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 have increased to 80 per year. The situation became worse in 2019, when 406 elephants and 122 humans died due to the human – elephant 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.

Violating promises made in Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor

In his 2019, election manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor’ President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that  a chapter has been  dedicated to a ‘Sustainable Environmental Policy.’ The chapter states that “most human activities that take place today cause massive damage to the natural environment. We have the responsibility to protect the right of future generations to live in a safe environment.” The President goes on to say, “land should be used solely for the benefit of the people in Sri Lanka” and that the government must act as a guardian to protect the right to the land. He also says that “it is our pledge to ensure that the environment is protected in all our development plans. This will ensure that future generations are handed over a country that is not polluted. We shall bring about amendments to existing laws, and if necessary new legislation will be introduced in order to strengthen and protect our forest cover, rivers, streams and wildlife.” The manifesto also says that “the sustainability of land and water resource management will be ensured while taking proactive measures to increase national forest cover by 30%. Appropriate and definitive measures will be taken to identify suitable areas for reforestation purposes.” However, the cabinet approval to carry out this project has violated all the above statements.

Challenging sustainable development goals

The concept paper for the project claims that five sustainable development goals, formulated in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly to be achieved by the year 2030, will be achieved through the project. These are ending poverty, ending hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, promote sustainable agriculture, ensuring healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all and strengthening the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

However, all the above-mentioned sustainable development goals have been violated by Aura Lanka in the past three years. Instead of ending poverty, the project has increased poverty in Rajanganaya by displacing many families and stripping them of their livelihood. To claim that food security and improved nutrition can be achieved by planting aloe vera is blatant lie and is a clear attempt to mislead the local and international communities. Instead of ensuring healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, the project has endangered the health of those who lived in Yaya 18 village. The people of the area can no longer access water due to the project. Moreover, dust clouds are a common sight in the area because clearing trees, excavating soil, transportation and construction activities are not done in a safe manner. These dust clouds have led to an increase of respiratory diseases among the people.

Once the company fully implements this project, on over 100, 000 acres of land, Anuradhapura and adjoining districts will be adversely affected. Serious water shortages, degradation of bio diversity, large swathes of land becoming uninhabitable, and adverse affects on food sovereignty will be the result of this project,

In fact this project will have an adverse effect on Sri Lanka’s attempts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals which was legitimized through the Sri Lanka Sustainable Development Act, No. 19 of  2017.

Carrying out the project violating laws and regulations

The entire project is being caried out violating several laws and regulations. The development activities are taking place on the border of the Wilpattu National Park violating the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO), Act no 02 of 1937, amended by Act no 22 of 2009. According to sub section 9 a (01) of the Act, one needs permission from the Director General of the Wildlife Conservation Department to carry out any developmental activity within a mile of the border of any national park (“No person or organisation, whether private or State shall within a distance of one mile of the boundary of any National Reserve declared by Order made under section 2, carry out any development activity of any description whatsoever, without obtaining the prior written approval of the Director”).  According to sub section 9 a (02) of the Act says that to obtain permission from the Director General of the Wildlife Conservation Department, one needs to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment based on National Environmental Act, no 47 of 1980. Sub section 10 (c) of the Act states a person or an organization that carries out any development activity of any description within a mile of  the border of any national park “shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine of not less than fifteen thousand rupees and not exceeding fifty thousand rupees or to imprisonment of either description for a term not less than two years and not more than five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.”

Aura Lanka company is clearing over large swathes of forests and taking over the land of poor farmers by violating the National Environmental Act, no 47 of 1980. Prior written approval is needed to clear a forest area over one hectare or carryout any developmental activity within 100 meters from a forest reserve (according to gazette no 772/22 of June 24, 1993, issued under National Environmental Act, no 47 of 1980). Moreover, prior written approval is also needed to clear any area over 50 hectares. However, such prior written approvals have not been obtained before carrying out the project.

The company has also tinkered with the Kahambiliyapitiya Tank without approval. Gazette no 859/14 issued under Section 23 Y of the National Environmental Act, No. 47 OF 1980 states that approval should be taken, subjected to an EIA, if any development activity is taking place “within 100 meters from the high flood level contour of, or within, a public lake as defined in the Crown Lands Ordinance (Chapter 454) including those declared under section 71 of the said ordinance.”

Article 31 of the National Environmental Act states that “every person who contravenes or fails to comply with any provision of this Act or of any regulation made thereunder shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction before a Magistrate be liable to imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine not exceeding one thousand five hundred rupees or to both such imprisonment and fine.” Thus, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) has the power to take action against the company for violating the National Environmental Act.

The company has also violated the Antiquities (Amendment) Act No. 24 of 1998. An Archaeological Impact Assessment needs to be obtained if one is constructing and reconstructing tanks, carrying out agricultural projects, clearing areas over two acres, and carrying out combined multipurpose development activities including housing, industries and infrastructure facilities of areas exceeding one hectare in extent. This is noted in gazette No. 1152/14 dated 04.10.2000 published under Section 47, read with Section 43(b), of the Antiquities (Amendment) Act.

It is surprising that a number of government agencies remain silent when Yaya 18 is being destroyed violating the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, the National Environmental Act and Antiquities (Amendment) Act.

Moreover, this project is being carried out violating the chapter on fundamental rights enshrined in our constitution. Article 12 (1) says that the law must be equal for all. However, officials remain silent when villagers of Yaya 18 have been stripped of their fundamental rights. This is a gross violation of the constitution.

Article 14 (01) (g) and (h) of the Sri Lankan Constitution say that Sri Lankan citizens have “the freedom to engage by himself or in association with others in any lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise” and “the freedom of movement and of choosing his residence within Sri Lanka.” Aura Lanka has deprived residents of Yaya 18 both of these rights.

It is now up to the public to compel the Central Environmental Authority and other agencies to act. Unless we act now, most of our agricultural lands will be encroached by a few powerful people.