WANATHAWIL­LUWA FOR­EST CLEAR­ANCE: WHO­DUNIT?

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - NEWS FEATURES - By Ka­man­thi Wick­ra­mas­inghe Sev­eral at­tempts to con­tact the Put­ta­lam Ce­ment Plant proved fu­tile. Pics cour­tesy : Ajith Gi­han

Days af­ter the Anaw­ilun­dawa Ram­sar Wet­land, si­t­u­ated in Put­ta­lam District, made head­lines over an il­le­gal clear­ance, nearly 100 acres of for­est area was re­port­edly de­stroyed in Ku­ratiyamo­hotte area in Eluwanku­lama, Wanathawil­luwa, also in the Put­ta­lam District. With the ab­sence of a re­spon­si­ble party who claims to have done the de­struc­tion it makes Sri Lanka’s rich bio­di­ver­sity more vul­ner­a­ble to dam­age. In fact Sri Lanka’s dry zone oc­cu­pies three-quar­ters of the is­land. There­fore en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists claim that pro­tect­ing dry zone forests is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant. But with ad hoc mech­a­nisms to clear for­est lands such as the re­vok­ing of the 5/2001 cir­cu­lar, Sri Lanka will have to bear the risk in los­ing many of her en­demic Flora and fauna.

As such the Daily Mir­ror takes a look at the Wanathawil­luwa in­ci­dent, who is re­spon­si­ble and who needs to take ac­tion and why dry zone forests need to be pro­tected.

WHO’S RE­SPON­SI­BLE ?

Speak­ing to the Daily Mir­ror, Ajith Gi­han of Wayamba Voice – an en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion in the area said that they were in­formed about this in­ci­dent on Septem­ber 5. “When we reached there around 4.00am a vast area of land was de­stroyed. Trees were felled and burned and another part is yet to be de­stroyed in a sim­i­lar man­ner. The en­tire land area is around 6000 acres and they have a rail­way track to col­lect lime­stone from a quarry near the Aruwakkalu land­fill site. This track also is in close prox­im­ity to the area that has been de­stroyed. How­ever it is wrong that they have burned the trees and they should ideally be pro­tect­ing the land they own.” said Gi­han.

“It is also sur­pris­ing that de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cers and other of­fi­cials in Man­gala­pura and Herathkuli­ya have also turned a blind eye on this in­ci­dent,” he added. “This fur­ther raises doubts whether of­fi­cials were also aware of this in­ci­dent be­fore­hand.” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to Gi­han mass en­croach­ment prac­tices take place in the Put­ta­lam District where most lands com­ing un­der the purview of Land Re­form Com­mis­sion are bought and sold out to third par­ties.

How­ever the Daily Mir­ror learned that the Put­ta­lam District as a whole is vul­ner­a­ble to many en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters. Wil­pattu was be­ing cleared from one end, an aloe Vera project be­gan at the other end, the Anaw­ilun­dawa Ram­sar Wet­land was il­le­gally bull­dozed fol­lowed by the re­cent in­ci­dent. Apart from that mass en­croach­ment prac­tices are also tak­ing place in this area and it is ru­mored that this at­tempt could pos­si­bly be one of that.

WHO WILL TAKE AC­TION?

Since it was a land owned by the Ce­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, au­thor­i­ties are of the view that they can­not take ac­tion. “This is nei­ther a state land nor a for­est land. There­fore it doesn’t come un­der our purview,” said Wanathawil­luwa Di­vi­sional Sec­re­tary Chathu­raka Jayas­inghe.

Echo­ing sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments, Put­ta­lam District Sec­re­tary Chandrasir­i Bandara said that peo­ple are con­tin­u­ing to fell trees and en­croach to lands in these ar­eas. “But since this par­tic­u­lar in­ci­dent hap­pened in a pri­vate land we can­not take any ac­tion. We have to check if a third party has done it and in­ves­ti­ga­tions are on the way.” said Bandara.

When con­tacted, For­est Depart­ment Con­ser­va­tor Gen­eral W. A. C Wer­agoda said that since the land doesn’t come un­der the Depart­ment they can­not take any ac­tion. “The Land was given to the Ce­ment Cor­po­ra­tion in 1970s and was gazetted. Ideally peo­ple can­not de­stroy a land area more than one hectare and if they are do­ing that they should do an EIA first. But in­ves­ti­ga­tions are cur­rently un­der­way.” said Wer­agoda.

THE LE­GAL BACK­GROUND

Ac­cord­ing to a 2018 Au­dit Re­port the Aruwakkalu Lime­stone De­posit span­ning 5,423 acres, 2 roods and 36 perches in ex­tent lo­cates in the Put­ta­lam District vested with the Ce­ment Cor­po­ra­tion by Gazette No­ti­fi­ca­tion No. 283/2 of Septem­ber 20, 1977 has been recorded as 5,352 acress in ex­tent. It fur­ther states that this land had been leased out to Hol­cim Lanka Ltd. (at present Siam City Ce­ment (Lanka)) for a pe­riod of 50 years.

Ac­cord­ing to se­nior en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyer Ja­gath Gu­nawar­dena if it’s a state land then it comes un­der the purview of the For­est Con­ser­va­tion Or­di­nance and the For­est Depart­ment has the au­thor­ity to ap­pre­hend culprits un­der Sec­tion 20. “Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional En­vi­ron­ment Act (NEA) ac­cord­ing to Sec­tion 23 AA to­gether with Gazette Ex­tra­or­di­nary No. 772/22 of 24 June 1993, if an area of more than one hectare is be­ing cleared it is a pre­scribed project that needs to be ap­proved by con­duct­ing an EIA be­fore the project is done. This is re­gard­less of any other pro­vi­sion of any other en­act­ment.” said Gu­nawar­dena.

But Gu­nawar­dena pointed out a small hitch. “The Put­ta­lam District is in the North West­ern Prov­ince and there is what is called the North West­ern Pro­vin­cial En­vi­ron­men­tal Statute. Ac­cord­ing to this statute the North West­ern Pro­vin­cial En­vi­ron­men­tal Au­thor­ity was es­tab­lished and it should have con­cur­rent pow­ers as the Cen­tral En­vi­ron­men­tal Au­thor­ity. If they claim that they have sole au­thor­ity over en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues hap­pen­ing in their area then they have to ex­e­cute it. Ac­cord­ing to Sec­tion 51 of this statute if there’s a project that is threat­en­ing the en­vi­ron­ment they can get a court or­der from the near­est mag­is­trate court and put an in­junc­tion to stop the project.” said Gu­nawar­dena.

He fur­ther said that since this Au­thor­ity is al­ready in the prov­ince and be­cause they have a spe­cific role to look into en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues and be­cause they claim they have sole au­thor­ity over these is­sues they can ex­er­cise their pow­ers.

When asked about burn­ing of trees Gu­nawar­dena said that who ever who is re­spon­si­ble could be sued for dam­age. “Un­der Sec­tion 24 B of the NEA a di­rec­tive could be is­sued to sue the party re­spon­si­ble. This is in­cluded in Sec­tion 51 of the Statute as well.” added Gu­nawar­dena.

PEND­ING LE­GAL AC­TION

How­ever, when in­quired NWPEA Di­rec­tor Sa­man Ku­mara Le­naduwa said that only around 15-20 acres of land was cleared. “We spoke to the Po­lice and they have ar­rested sev­eral peo­ple. But we will file le­gal ac­tion for the dam­age done.” said Le­naduwa.

Mak­ing things even more com­pli­cated, the Po­lice me­dia spokesper­son’s di­vi­sion con­firmed that no ar­rests have been made as yet in re­la­tion to this in­ci­dent.

WHY PRO­TECT DRY ZONE FORESTS?

Ac­cord­ing to Raveen­dra Kariyawasa­m, Na­tional Co­or­di­na­tor, Cen­tre for En­vi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies, this par­tic­u­lar area is a dry zone for­est cover and in­cludes trees such as Palu, Weera, Nuga and other im­por­tant species. “This area is an ele­phant cor­ri­dor since ele­phants move from Wil­pattu to­wards Thab­bowa and from there to Karuwala­gaswewa. This is a spe­cific dry zone for­est area be­cause you can’t find many old trees. These trees were pro­tected be­cause of the war but pro­vin­cial politi­cians were al­legedly in­volved in a mega scale tim­ber racket as they would send this tim­ber to Mo­ratuwa. Ini­tially they felled Kum­buk trees grow­ing near tanks and canals and now they are felling acres of land and burn­ing them.” said Kariyawasa­m.

He fur­ther said that this in­ci­dent could have a pos­si­ble con­nec­tion to the 5/2001 cir­cu­lar which was go­ing to be re­voked. “Al­though dis­cus­sions are still un­der­way there’s a chance that peo­ple are clear­ing for­est lands to be given away for cul­ti­va­tion pur­poses. Usu­ally if you’re clear­ing an area of more than two acres peo­ple should con­duct an EIA ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional En­vi­ron­ment Act. But this area is done with­out any such ap­provals. Felling trees and burn­ing them in a 100 acre area can­not be done in a se­cre­tive man­ner. Sri Lanka’s dry zone is more vast than the wet zone but the bio­di­ver­sity is rel­a­tively less. Peo­ple in the Put­ta­lam District ex­pe­ri­ence tem­per­a­tures as high as 36-380C. Then the tanks dry out. There’s a cas­cade just above Thab­bowa tank and these dry zone forests act as catch­ment ar­eas for the cas­cade. Sri Lanka is been ranked as a bio­di­ver­sity hotspot, but the for­est cover has re­duced from 82% back in 1882 to 16% by 2016. Within this year Sin­haraja, Anav­ilun­dawa, Wanathawil­luwa are al­ready threat­ened. So we have been given a red alert that in or­der to main­tain Sri Lanka’s bio­di­ver­sity the dry zone forests need to be pro­tected. But since the war has ended what­ever the trees that were pro­tected are now be­ing de­stroyed.” said Kariyawasa­m.

NWPEA to file le­gal ac­tion En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists claim that of­fi­cials have turned a blind eye No­body ar­rested yet Enough le­gal pro­vi­sions in place to sue the re­spon­si­ble party

Stand­ing tall against all odds

Another area of the same land where trees were felled for burn­ing

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