Two fasting farmers in Hambantota hospitalised; protest campaign continues

FENCED OFF: Two wild elephants behind an electric fence in a forest reserve in Sri Lanka.

ECONOMYNEXT – Two out of three farmers engaged in a fast-unto-death in Hambantota were admitted to hospital today (22) due to low blood sugar levels, Surakimu Sri Lanka Secretary Palitha Wickremaratne said.

The fast is taking place for the third consecutive day as part of a protest campaign that began on Monday (18) demanding a solution to the human-elephant conflict in the area. The protestors are specifically demanding that the government issue a gazette notification regarding a proposed wild elephant reserve in Hambantota.

The protest was launched by seven farmers representing 86 farmers’ organisations in the area. When the government failed to respond, three of the farmers decided to fast unto death until their demands were met.

Wickremeratne told EconomyNext that the farmers want the government to issue a gazette for the proposed elephant management reserve declaring it as part of the forest area that covers Bibile, Udawalawe and Bundala as a single forest reserve.

“They want the elephant corridor opened and all those forests added so that the elephants may roam freely within it,” he said.

According to Wickremeratne, the Elephant Management Reserve was originally proposed in the 1990s. There are some 450 elephants roaming in these forests. The activist believes that if a separate reserve is given to the elephants, with a fence built around it, the elephants would not invade the neighbouring villages.

“It is a fair request, but the government won’t consider it because they already have plans to distribute lands to several people within the forest reserve for the purpose of growing commercial crops,” Wickremeratne said.

Once the gazette is out, he said, the government will not be able to do that.

“If those lands are distributed for crops, the elephants will lose their territory and invade the villages in search of food,” he added.

One of the protestors fasting unto death told reporters yesterday that they question how the government can provide a solution to the human-elephant conflict elsewhere in the country when they can’t seem to do that in their own home district.

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Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa said in Anuradhapura yesterday that regulations need to be formulated to issue a gazette and if a gazette is issued without regulations in place, those making demands won’t be able to enter these forests even to fetch wood. Farmers engaged in chena cultivation would then have to protest again demanding land for chena cultivation, he said.

“We have looked into all of that and came up with the elephant management measures,” he added.

The Director General of the Mahaweli Authority through a representative promised the protesting farmers yesterday that the gazette for the Elephant Management Reserve will be issued in a month, to which the farmers said they will continue the fast until such time.

Meanwhile, former Wildlife Deputy Minister Palitha Theverapperuma who visited the protesting farmers yesterday said the Yahapalana government stalling and dragging the issue when he as deputy minister asked then Minister Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and the then Director General of Wildlife to issue the same gazette. He claimed that Fonseka declined a request from the farmers at the time to post 10 to 15 wildlife officers to guard the elephant fence there.

“This has become a national issue, but there is no leader who feels the issue in their bones,” he said.

Thewarapperuma added that the president, prime minister, “president in waiting”, the environment minister and opposition leader are all from Hambantota but none of them care about either the elephants or the farmers in the district. (Colombo/Jan22/2021)

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