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Government prepares to legitimize Dole Lanka’s illegitimate endeavors company allowed to retain forest land illegally encroached?

By Sajeewa Chamikara - La Via Campesina, January 19, 2018

Movement for Land and Agriculture Reform (Monlar)

The current United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) administration seems to be continuing the support given to Dole Lanka Private Limited, which has illegally cleared protected forests, which acted as catchment areas and destroyed farm lands owned by small holders, given by the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. The Department of Forest Conservation has obtained court orders to remove farm lands operated by Dole Lanka Private Limited, scattered in various lands owned by the department in the Sri Lankan dry zone. However the government has halted the implementation of these court orders and is attempting to hand over the land to the controversial company.

The first step of this legitimization of Dole was the cabinet paper (CP 16/1934/752/023) regularizing the land used for banana cultivation by Dole Lanka Private Limited in Kuda Oya and Demodara in Moneragala district’ on September 15, 2016 by Malik Samarawickrama, Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade. President Maithripala Sirisena, as the minister of Mahaweli and Environment as well as the ministers of Lands and Finance has also noted their observations to the cabinet paper. The note to the cabinet by President Maithripala Sirisena clearly states that Dole Lanka Private Limited has not obtained the permission of the Department of Forest Conservation to establish these banana plantations. The note also states that the Dole Lanka Private Limited has admitted before court that it is using the lands in Kuda Oya and Demodara without permission or approval. However the cabinet memorandum has recommended to seek the advice of the Attorney General to come into an agreement with Dole Lanka Private Limited, so that the company can continue to use the lands. Thus the Attorney General is studying how Dole Lanka Private Limited can keep on using these lands.

However according to the laws of the land, it is not possible to transfer the ownership of land that belong to the Department of Forest Conservation to Dole Lanka Private Limited, or any other private entity. The Commissioner of Lands can release lands for any investment, only if approval is granted by relevant agencies after conducting the necessary feasibility studies. The government can release the land, on long term lease, to a private entity, according to the Section 199 (G) of the land Ordinance, only after that requirement has been completed. For this the approval of the Minister of lands is needed and the land can be released after recommendations by the President.

Although this is the standard procedure when it comes to releasing land for an investment, a number of factors prevent Dole Lanka Private Limited from accessing state owned land. Chief among them is the fact that Dole Lanka Private Limited has encroached the land that belongs to the Department of Forest Conservation and has used these lands for several years illegally and the fact that they have used the land without any feasibility studies prior to the commencement of the project. Moreover the Forest Conservation Department has taken legal action against Dole Lanka Private Limited, for illegally maintaining farm lands in Kuda Oya and Demodara at the Wellawaya Magistrates’ Court (case numbers MC 215 and 216.) Given this context the attempts by the Cabinet to handover these illegally encroached lands to Dole Lanka Private Limited is a bad example.

There is plenty of evidence to prove that Dole Lanka Private Limited is using these lands, at the borer of Lunugamwehera National Park, illegally. The banana cultivations at Kuda Oya and Demodara, adjoining Lunugamwehera National Park, have been established violating section 09 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), no 2 of 1937 amended last by no 22 of 2009. According to section 09, to establish any development activity within a mile of a national park one needs to obtain prior written approval based on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. Lunugamwehera National Park has established these banana cultivations ignoring this.

Moreover Dole Lanka Private Limited has violated section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance, no 06 of 1907 amended by act no 65 of 2009. According to section 20, a person who cuts, saws, removes and transport of trees and timber, build houses or huts, paves roads or established farms or anyone who encourages such acts are guilty. Any person who is found carrying out such activities can be arrested without a warrant and be presented to a magistrates’ court. The magistrate can either fine that person, between Rs 5000 – 50 000, or imprison such a person for a period no more than two years. He can also levy a fine to compensate for the damage caused to the forest. Given this context any attempt to handover these lands to Dole Lanka Private Limited is not only a violation of the FFPO and land Ordinance but also a challenge to the authority of the courts of law. This bad precedent will only encourage such activities in the future.

According to gazette notification no 772/22 of June 24, 1993 published under the national Environment Act, no 47 of 1980, to carry out any development project that requires the clearing of a forest land over one hectare of forest land or over 50 hectares of non-forest land, one must obtain a prior written environmental approval. Dole Lanka Private Limited has also violated that gazette.

In addition gazette Notification 1152/14 of 4 October, 2000 issued under the Antiquities Ordinance, No. 9of 1940; states that an archaeological impact assessment must be made to determine the impact on archaeological sites prior to the development of land over 2 hectares. However Dole Lanka Private Limited has not carried out an archaeological impact assessment prior to commencing operations.

Thus it is obvious that Dole Lanka Private Limited has violated the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), Forest Conservation Ordinance (FCO), National Environmental Act, Antiquities Ordinance as well as the land Ordinance to establish these two banana farms. Thus neither the Cabinet of Minister nor the Attorney General’s Department can’t take steps to hand over these lands, illegally taken, back to ole Lanka Private Limited. We are also dismayed to see that the ‘good governance’ administration is blatantly violating the rule of law which is an important aspect of good governance.

Moreover in the election manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena, he guarantees that he will protect the environment as well as take action against those destroy our ecologically sensitive forest areas, regardless of their social; position. However it seems that with the assistance given to Dole Lanka Private Limited the President has breached his agreement with the people o this country.

The manifesto adds that the provisions of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) will be implemented thoroughly. However Dole Lanka Private Limited has established the two farms at Kuda Oya and Demodara by blatantly violating the fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO). The company has not obtained permission to use these lands and it is not clear as to how the President will increase the forest cover of the country to 32% of the total land area, when he keeps on allowing companies like Dole Lanka Private Limited to destroy forest areas.

Japan has taken ownership of Dole Company which has destroyed large swaths of forests across the world and destroying livelihoods of millions of small farmers. In 2011 the Dole Company took over 11600 acres of Kandakadu, which is a part of the Somawathi National Park in 2011. Although we were able to intervene and stop this initiative, Dole Lanka Private Company has now taken over 4600 acres near Lunugamwehera National Park to plant Cavendish bananas, which they export. The Mahinda Rajapaksa administration also handed over 1400 acres from Meegaswewa, Nikawewa grama niladari area in Thanamalwila divisional secretariat area to the company. There was also an initiative to hand over 5000 acres in Kotiyagala, Moneragala to Dole Lanka during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration and we fear that the current administration is also considering this proposal.

Moreover several ministers of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration ensured that Dole Lanka receives 1800 acres at Kuda Oya, Wellawaya Divisional Secretariat area, 1600 acres in Demodara, Wandama and 1200 acres in Wekada, Buttala to plant bananas. These land transfers were also conducted illegally ignoring the laws of the land. The former range officer for Moneragala handed over land which was under the control of the forest conservation department to Dole Lanka violating all procedure and the company has expanded its farmlands by illegally procuring land used by small scale farmers who were operating using annual licenses.

During the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, it was the powerful Basil Rajapaksa who was the power behind Dole Lanka at a national level. At the regional level former chief minister for Uva, Shashendra Rajapaksa and former minister Jagath Pushpakumara assisted Dole Lank to procure land illegally and intimidated those who dared to protest these illegal transactions. For their services Dole Lanka made generous campaign contributions. Their legacy is being carried forward by the current Chief Minister of Uva, Chamara Sampath Dasanayake, who is trying his best to delay the eviction of Dole Lanka from the lands they illegally use.

During Prime Minister Ranil Wickreesinghe’s visit to Japan in 2016, the Japanese Prime Minister had requested Wickremesinghe to ensure that Dole Lanka could operate in the country without interference and to ensure that they can keep the land which they hold now. Wickreesinghe has been trying his best to keep the promise he made to his Japanese counterpart and buoyed by this Dole Lanka is spreading its tentacles in the Sri Lankan dry zone, displacing small scale farmers and destroying Sri Lanka’s forests.

Not only is the company displacing small scale farmers and destroying Sri Lanka’s forests, it is also exporting Cavendish produced by other planters, under the Dole name. Browns Company, which had illegally bought off a 1000 acre land for a 33 year lease from the army, is exporting the bananas it produces under Dole brand name. The two companies have signed a MoU. Moreover the bananas produced by the EAP Group in Wanathawilluwa, Puttalam are also exported by Dole Lanka. The forests which were cleared by Dole Lanka were the catchment areas for Kirindi Oya and Menik Ganga and those two rivers, which were vital for thousands of farmers, depend on these forests. However these forests are no more and the impact of this un-thoughtful action will be felt by the people in these areas.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that these farmlands operated by Dole consumes large quantities of water and the required water is taken by the rivers and using ground water. The farm in Kuda Oya uses water from Kirindi Oya and the Wandama and Wekada farms takes water from the Menik River. This has ensured that farmers and animals that depend on the water downstream face severe water shortages. Thus a large number of small scale farmers have been forced out of agriculture and most likely they will be recruited as farm hands by Dole Lanka. Moreover the animals living in Lunugamwehera and Yala, including elephants, are now facing a severe water crisis as a large quantity is water is being taken from the Menik and Kirindi Oya.

When the water levels of the two rivers dwindle the company uses the ground water and this will have devastating consequences as a large number of people also depend on wells and farm wells during the dry season. Due to this the government has been compelled to provide water to those affected using water bowsers using tax payers’ money. Thus the people of this country have to pay to address the negative externalities caused by Dole Lanka. Unsatisfied with the water available from Kirindi Oya and Menik Ganga, Dole Lanka is now attempting to take water from Weheragala tank inside Lunugamwehera National Park. For this the Dole Lanka is constructing an elaborate network of pipes to transport water. When the FFPO dictates that one needs to buy a ticket to enter a national park, it is surprising that Dole Lanka is allowed to conduct such actions.

Dole Lanka is also known for their excessive use of agro-chemicals, which is being sprayed after midnight mechanically. Machines that can spray these agro-chemicals for over 75 metres are mounted on water bowsers. This system ensures that large quantities of agro-chemicals are released to the environment affecting the Lunugamwehera national Park and the nearby communities. These agro-chemicals also contaminate the water from Kirindi Oya and Menik Ganga and end up in Lunugamwehera and Weheragala tanks. Those who use water from these tanks will be adversely affected and we have noted an increase of kidney diseases among the people in the area. Moreover a large number of people who work at these farms are affected by a series of diseases.

Moreover Dole Company used chemicals which helps keep the bananas fresh for a long time, around a month, and to ensure that they are not affected by fungus or insects. Those who work in the farms are not provided with protective clothing and are directly exposed to these chemicals.

Moreover a large number of cans in which agro chemicals were stored can be found inside the Weheragala tank as the company has no systematic method of disposing these storage units. As mentioned earlier no one has been provided with special clothing which minimizes the impact of exposure to agro chemicals. These are clear indications that Dole does not care about the environment or the health of its work force.

The company has also established an electric fence cordoning off its farms from elephants and other wild animals. However as these fences disrupt the migratory patterns of elephants, a large number of elephants now maraud nearby villages. We have identified 21 villages that have been adversely affected by the human elephant conflict. Among these are villages like Maha Aragama, Pubudugama, Ulkanda, Aanapallama, Weliara, Dambe Ara, Balaharuwa, Hambegamuwa and Thanamalwila, which had hitherto not been affected by the human elephant conflict. This can also directly attributed to the actions of the company and as small scale farmers are unable to bear the damages caused by wild elephants and the severe water shortages caused by Dole, as they take in increasing amounts of water from the existing water sources in the area, these farmers are slowly moving away from agriculture.

Most of these small scale farmers, who had been forced out of their traditional livelihoods, often have no option but to start working at banana plantations operated by Dole. These farmers have to go through man power agencies, as this relegates any responsibility the company has, and are paid Rs 525 per day. They have to work from 3 am to 4 pm continuously and are exposed to toxic agro chemicals for extended periods. Since these workers are contracted by Man power agencies, they are not entitled to any labour rights.

Dole violates the labour laws set by the International Labour Organization – ILO and none of the workers that work with harmful agro chemicals have been given any protective clothing and often workers are employed only for a few years as they often fall sick after being exposed to the agro chemicals. Workers who contract chronic diseases receive no compensation and neither do they receive EPF or ETF payments.

Dole is a company that has a notorious reputation throughout the world and has been the subject to numourous contraversies. The company produces around 300 fruits and vegetables in 90 countries. In 2006 the US Drug Administration (FDA) announced that a nationwide E. coli outbreak had been associated with the consumption of bagged baby spinach by Dole Company. The FDA reported that due to this outbreak thirty-one cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome, 104 hospitalizations, and four deaths were reported. Victims of the E. coli outbreak were identified in 26 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

In addition in 2011 Dole agreed to settle 38 lawsuits from farm workers in Latin America who alleged injury from exposure to the pesticide dibromochloropropane (DBCP ). The farmers allege that they were exposed to dibromochloropropane (DBCP) on the job and were not given any protection. DBCP is banned in the United States for causing cancer and sterility. Most domestic uses of DBCP were banned in 1977, but despite strong warnings about its health impact, Dole continued to use the chemical. Dole even threatened to sue Dow Chemical if it stopped sending shipments of DBCP to its banana plantations in Latin America. In 1983, six of the Occidental plant workers won a $4.9 million judgment against Dow, which paved the way for the EPA to ban all uses of the substance in the United States. However the company has been attempting to sidestep many similar allegations.

They have also attempted to prevent justice from being served by targeting the attorneys who have tried to seek justice for the affected workers. In 2009 Attorney Juan Dominguez who represented six Nicaraguan plaintiffs who had alleged that they were exposed to DBCP, which was used in Nicaraguan banana plantation after it was banned in the US, had to face criminal investigations after Dole managed to convince a US judge that fraudulent efforts were made by American and Nicaraguan attorneys to recruit bogus plantation workers to serve as plaintiffs. Dominguez was also investigated by the State Bar of California, however no criminal charges were filed against Dominguez, and according to media ‘on March 1, 2011, the State Bar of California wrote to him, stating that the “allegations of professional misconduct” do not “warrant further action.

Not only that, but the organization has attempted to silence documentaries and reporting on such issues. For example they have attempted to prevent the screening of Fredrik Gertten’s documentary on the legal fight between Dole and Nicaraguan banana plantation workers called Bananas!. After a screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2009, Gertten was sued for defamation by Dole and the lawsuit was preceded by threats of legal action from Dole aimed against the LA Film Festival, which resulted in sponsors pulling support and the film being removed from competition. Dole dropped their lawsuit against Fredrik Gertten and Bananas!* on 15 October 2009 and in late 2010 a court in Los Angeles decided in favor of the movie crew, making it possible to release the film in the USA. A judge awarded the filmmakers nearly $200,000 in fees and costs.

There are many other horror stories about Dole from across the world and we are disheartened to see that such an infamous company has been invited to Sri Lanka and to see successive governments bending over backwards to satisfy their demands. During the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration minister Jagath Pushpakumara, chief minister of Uva Province, Shashindra Rajapaksa, a number of provincial and local councilors and several regional businessmen assisted Dole to acquire land and exploit workers. They assisted Dole to take over land in Moneragala which belonged to the state, commence projects violating environmental laws, building electric fences leading to human elephant conflict and diverting water for their banana plantations.

For their efforts, these men received significant kickbacks. It is reported that some ministers of the Rajapaksa administration received a sum for each kilo of bananas exported by Dole. Others received contracts to transport the bananas and to supply workers.

Moreover Rajapaksa received significant donations from Dole Company during the 2014 Uva Provincial Council elections and even allowed him to use the Dole office at Moneragala as a campaign office. This indicates that Dole has been able to blatantly violate Sri Lankan laws because it has been able to buy off powerful politicians. Several ministers of the current administration is now attempting to court Dole expecting similar kickbacks.

These politicians that represent the people of Uva, don’t care about various inconveniences faced by the people due to the activities of Dole. These politicians only care about the kickbacks from large multinationals. The people must understand this truth and must rise against these injustices.

The people must unite and pressure the government to reclaim the land which Dole uses and redistribute them among the rightful owners. However we have seen the government attempting to liberalize several laws that deal with land in a bid to make it easy for the multinationals to procure land in the country.

If the government is successful not only will small farmers lose their land rights but also it will have an impact on the way we cultivate. The end result will be the dispossession of small scale farmers and the establishment of export oriented farms which will abuse agro chemicals. The dispossessed small scale farmers will have no alternative to become slaves of these companies.

All these will ensure that we will lose our food sovereignty and the only way out of this is for people to unite and prevent the government from implementing disastrous policies.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.