A month has now passed since several environmental organizations and the National Sangha Council handed over a report to President Maithripala Sirisena on the alleged illegal settlements around the region of Wilpattu National Park. The extensive report, spanning 50 pages, paints a grim picture regarding the situation currently facing the region. It also disputes the assertion that the settlements are being built to resettle displaced persons and stresses that most of the persons being settled aren’t even from the region.
Wilpattu National Park
Wilpattu National Park consists of five sections, the first part of which was declared a national park on February 25, 1938. At present, the entire land area of the national park encompasses 131,693.7 hectares and it is the country’s largest national park.
In addition, Wilpattu National Park also has several other forests that make it a single thriving ecosystem. These include the Kalaru Forest, Wilpattu North Sanctuary and the Thabbowa Sanctuary. Wilpattu also nourishes Kala Oya, Modaraganaru and Malwathu Oya.
The present controversy resolves around a section of the Wilpattu North Sanctuary and the Kalaru (Marichchukkadi / Kaarakkudi) Forest Reserve.
According to estimates given in the report, 3,000 acres of forest lands in total have already been cleared away illegally up to now. Over 1,500 houses have already been constructed illegally on these lands. This is in direct violation of the National Environment Act
According to the report, the threat to Wilpattu National Park and the surrounding region first arose in 2009. This was due to the construction of two illegal roads. The first road was built connecting Eluwankulama to Mollikulama, near the coastline that Prince Wijaya and his entourage is said to have landed. The second road ran through the forest, cutting it in two. The construction of these roads destroyed some 300 acres of forest lands belonging to Wilpattu National Park. Four environmental organizations have already taken legal action against the construction of these roads.
Some politicians and officials which the report claims were behind this illegal settlement process have reasoned that the settlements are not being built on lands belonging to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) or Department of Forest Conservation (DFC). However, the authors of the report note that their field visits and subsequent analysis of maps have clearly revealed that illegal settlements have been built on a small section of forest land belonging to the Department of Wildlife Conservation and on a much larger section belonging to the Department of Forest Conservation. A 50-acre section of forest land that had been destroyed come under the Wilpattu North Sanctuary. This sanctuary was proclaimed on February 25, 1938 under Extraordinary Gazette Notification No. 8356. A total of 1,563 acres was entrusted to this sanctuary by this gazette.
Under Gazette Notification A1979/15, issued on October 10, 2012, 14,943 acres of land was designated as coming under the Marichchukkadi / Karakkudi Forest Reserve. However, under Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance, the DFC was entrusted with the responsibility of administering these lands even before the issuing of the said gazette notification, the report further points out. ‘Before and after’ satellite images included in the report purports to show the extent of the destruction that has taken place in this section of the Wilpattu region.
According to the report, new settlements for the Muslim community have been established by clearing away land from the Kalaru Forest Reserve. This has been done in the guise of settling Muslims who were rendered displaced during the war. Lands for this purpose were designated by the Director of the Presidential Task Force on Resettlement, Development and Security under official letter PTF/NP/1 of November 22, 2012. Accordingly, at a meeting held under the patronage of then Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen on October 15, 2013, a decision was taken to release a section of 250 meters of forest lands on either side of the Marichchukkadi-Silawathura Main Road between the 23rd and 29th kilometer posts. On February 14, 2013, in a letter sent to the Mannar District Secretary, former Conservator General of Forests K.P. Ariyadasa had released 1,080 acres of land for resettlement purposes.
EIA, AIA not conducted
According to estimates given in the report, 3,000 acres of forest lands in total have already been cleared away illegally up to now. Over 1,500 houses have already been constructed illegally on these lands. This is in direct violation of the National Environment Act. Under Extraordinary Gazette Notification No.772/22 of June 24, 1993, issued in accordance with National Environment (Amendment) Act No.47 of 1980, written permission must first be obtained after conducting a mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to clearing more than one hectare of forest land or prior to launching a project that seeks to settle more than 100 families on one occasion.
“However, forest lands have been cleared and settlements put up without conducting any EIA. Therefore, it is clear that this has all been done illegally in direct contravention of the National Environmental Act”.
As such, environmentalists insist that the former Conservator General’s decision to release these 1,080 acres was illegal as no EIA had ever been commissioned prior to the lands being released.
However, the report notes that illegal clearing of these lands actually began in 2010 and that much of the forest had already been cleared by 2012. The lands were being administered by the DFC under Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance. “It is abundantly clear that clearing of these forest lands for building new human settlements is illegal under the Forest Conservation Ordinance,” the report adds.
Under Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance, clearing of State forest lands as well as building roads, permanent or temporary settlements, growing crops and cutting down trees on such lands is illegal. However, despite all these activities being carried out, the DFC, Police, the Divisional or District Secretaries have all failed to enforce the law on this matter.
It has also come to light that the settlement process may be in violation of the Antiquities Ordinance as according to Extraordinary Gazette Notification No.1152/14 of October 4, 2000, written permission has to be obtained after conducting an Archaeological Impact Assessment (AIA) prior to going ahead with a settlement project. However, no such AIA has been obtained prior to building settlements after clearing forest land from the Kalaaru Forest Reserve.
According to the report, 605 plant species belonging to 118 families, 30 species of freshwater fish from 13 families, 17 species of amphibians from five families, 57 species of reptiles from 17 families, 149 species of birds belonging to 53 families 41 species of mammals from 21 families and 86 species of butterfly belonging to five families, can all be found in this region of Wilpattu that is now ravaged by forest destruction and the construction of illegal settlements.
The next step
So, what has been done since this report was handed over to President Sirisena on June 5? The Nation spoke to several individuals who contributed to the report to find out.
Director of the Environment Conservation Trust (ECT) Sajeewa Chamikara said, currently, the supply of electricity and other infrastructure facilities such as water have ceased for any new settlements. “All illegal settlement activities in the region have now stopped, at least temporarily,” he said. However, Chamikara stated they were continuously pressuring authorities to take action against illegal settlements that were already in place. He also alleged that some of these settlements had been built utilizing aid from the European Union, Australian Aid and the Government of Switzerland and that it was implemented by the UN-Habitat Organization. “We would like to see these agencies and foreign governments conduct a review as to how their funds were utilized to construct illegal settlements in violation of Sri Lanka’s laws,” he added.
General Secretary of the National Sangha Council, Ven. Pahiyangala Anandasagara Thera said he was encouraged by the actions taken since they handed over the report to the President. However, he charged that Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, who is accused of being behind the forest clearing and construction of illegal settlements, was now trying to align himself with the United National Party (UNP) with the aim of ‘winning Wilpattu for himself’ by contributing to a UNP victory at the next general election. “We know that these settlements are his (Bathiudeen’s) tactic of gaining preferential votes at a general election.
That is why he is settling those from outside the region in these parts,” he claimed.
While actions taken thus far are encouraging, environmentalists were hoping that a permanent solution to the crisis could be found after further discussions between them and government officials, said Convener of the Pivithuru Hetak Organization, Palitha Wickramarathne. “President Sirisena appointed a Cabinet sub-committee to study this matter and we are waiting until the committee hands in its own report for further discussions to begin,” he said.
The Center for Environment Justice meanwhile, is due to file legal action next week against the Department of Forest Conservation’s decision to release of lands for resettlement purposes. Hemantha Withanage from the organization, said while they did not contribute to the report compiled by the environmentalists, they have taken on the task of initiating legal proceedings against the decision taken by the former conservator general of forests to release its lands. “Our argument will be that proper procedures were not followed in the release of these lands,” he told The Nation.
Secretary to the Ministry of Environment and Mahaweli Development, Nihal Rupasinghe meanwhile, said that the DFC has now finished marking boundary lines close to Wilpattu National Park to confirm whether any encroachment activities had in fact take place. He also said the wildlife officers had used GPS technology for mapping purposes. “The DFC has submitted a report on this project to the ministry and we will be analyzing it during the next few days to determine our next step,” he said.
The Nation also made repeated attempts to contact Minister Rishad Bathiudeen to obtain his side of the story regarding this report. However, he was unavailable for comment.