According to environmental groups, 500 acres have been cleared in the Kal Aru forest, adjoining Wilpattu, reportedly for the personal use of Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen.

The Environment Conservation Trust, Pivithuru Hetak National Movement, Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya and Wilpattu Surakimu organizations were able to make this revelation during an observation tour, based on a tip off by a group of locals.

Representatives of media organizations, environmental groups and a group of Buddhist monks took part in this tour, during which drones were used to take aerial footage of the newly cleared plot.

“True these settlements are not within the Wilpattu National Park,” said Dineth Mallawarachchi of Wilpattu Surakimu Organization. “But no developmental activity can be conducted within one mile of a Protected Area without an Environmental Impact Assessment. On our visit we saw many structures within the said area and to our knowledge no EIA has been conducted.”

Steps have been taken to provide electricity to the area, a project that has involved erecting of lampposts and drawing many kilometers of cable. This poses a potential threat to monkeys, birds, bats and other avifauna and arboreal animals that can get easily electrocuted. Moreover Environment Conservation Trust Director Sajeewa Chamikara warns that clearing land forest land can drive elephants into adjoining villages.

The Wilpattu National Park and Wilpattu North Sanctuary is divided by the Modara Gang Aru Oya. The Kal Aru Forest begins at the end of the Wilpattu North Sanctuary. Approximately another 50 acres have been cleared, in this area, for resettlement purposes. Around 1,500 people have been settled illegally in the Kal Aru Forest and approximately 2,500 acres have been cleared to make way for infrastructure. “A total of 3,000 acres have been cleared in Kal Aru forest,” said Chamikara. According to Chamikara there are around 1,000 permanent structures and another 500 temporary structures such as tents and makeshift houses. Chamikara explained that the clearings are made in patches over a large extent. “This is in violation of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, Forest Conservation Ordinance, National Conservation Act and Antiquity Ordinance,” said Chamikara.

“This is not a new issue,” said Chamikara. “The resettlement in the Kal Aru Forest started in 2011 and 2012 under Uthuru Wasanthaya, under Economic Development Ministry. Minister Bathiudeeen was responsible for the resettlement of the people in Wilpattu and surrounding forest areas since 2011.

A report based on Wilpattu investigation was recently handed over to the President by Mahaweli Development and Environment Ministry Secretary, Nihal Rupasinghe. When contacted, Rupasinghe said that report findings will be released to media in two weeks. Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen was not available for comment.