The Center for Environmental and Nature Studies (CENS) alleges that illegal constructions and other illegal activities were taking place within the boundaries of Yala National Park and its buffer zone. Authorities though, are adamant that no illegal constructions exist inside the park. The matter though, has now been referred to the President, with court action also being contemplated.
According to environmentalist Ravindra Kariyawasam of CENS several private companies are illegally building hotels inside the boundaries of the Yala National Park. Some of these activities are taking place in Block 4 of Yala National Park. According to Kariyawasam, the lands had been released to these companies in February 2012, by the former government.
Kariyawasam claimed hotels had been built both inside the boundaries of Yala National Park as well as in the park’s buffer zone. The hotels, aimed at promoting eco tourism, are being built as part of the National Physical Plan 2030 which was envisaged under the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he further said.
Meanwhile, former Minister SM Chandrasena is also alleged to have granted permission to some of his close relatives to build ‘eco camps’ in the Pallepoththala area which comes under the park’s buffer zone. According to Kariyawasam, work on these illegal hotels had stopped immediately after the January 8 Presidential Election. However, constructions had recommenced several weeks ago.
“We are puzzled as to how permission was granted for construction to resume on these hotels. This is something that we want the authorities to investigate,” he said.
Kariyawasam further charged that a lot of forest lands had been cut down to build these hotels and claimed those that were now in operation were selling the meat of animals that had been killed by poachers. Access roads that had been built to these hotels had also resulted in habitat destruction and threats to existing wildlife, he further said.
He noted that under Sections 5, 6 and 7 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, entering a national reserve or sanctuary without official permission, hunting and carrying out any form of development work was illegal. Further, it is also prohibited to erect any building, whether permanent or temporary in any intermediate zone of any reserve or sanctuary.
The environmentalist said he was also puzzled that most of those who spoke up against the alleged land encroachments near the Wilpattu National Park and inside the Kalaru forest were largely silent on illegal activities happening around the region of Yala National Park.
When queried if his organization had not complained to authorities if destruction of such a vast scale was happening inside the park and its buffer zone, Kariyawasam said they had first tried to complain to the Ministry Mahaweli Development and Environment. “However, in order to do that, we have to first go through the Central Environmental Authority (CEA). We tried to lodge a complaint with them but they refused to accept it”.
Asked whether the CEA gave a reason for not entertaining the complaint, Kariyawasam said officials had indicated that the matter was ‘too big’ for them to handle. “We have now written to President Maithripala Sirisena in his capacity as Minister of Environment. If a response is not received soon, we are planning to go to court”.
However, when contacted, Deputy Director General of the CEA’s Environment Management and Assessment Division, UKDG Jayasinghe, denied receiving any such complaint. He also said there was no need for anyone to go through the CEA to complain to the ministry. “If there is a complaint, it can always be made to the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. There is no need to go through us.”
The Nation then contacted Secretary to the Ministry of Environment and Mahaweli Development, Nihal Rupasinghe. He pointed out that it was best to inquire from Sri Lanka Tourism since ‘eco tourism’ fell under them.
Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) HD Rathnayake said he was aware of the matter. “We checked on this and I can assure that the structures in question are not being built anywhere inside the Yala National Park. They are outside the park’s boundary.”
Rathnayake admitted some of the structures might be in the buffer zone. “However, these lands had earlier been released to Sri Lanka Tourism. As such, we have nothing to do with them,” he added.
Meanwhile, former Parliamentarian SM Chandrasena, who had served as Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife under the former government, scoffed at claims made by Kariyawasam that he had given permission for his associates to illegally construct hotels in Yala. “I have never distributed any national park lands to anyone. I did a lot to protect wildlife and national parks while I was the subject minister. Go and ask officials from the Department of Wildlife Conservation. They will tell you that I have never interfered in their work and allowed them to function independently,” he said.
Chandrasena also stated if anyone was making an allegation against him then he should be sent a copy of the letter containing that allegation and he can respond accordingly.
As per the suggestion made by the Secretary to the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, The Nation also contacted the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority. However, an email sent to its Director General, Malraj B Kiriella seeking clarification, had not received a response at the time this article went to print.