Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Committee set up to separate protected areas and bare lands

As controvers­y rages over proposed revocation of forest circular, experts team begin identifyin­g bare lands; Lands Commission­er General says circular will be revoked step-by-step

- By Tharushi Weerasingh­e

A committee has been set up to segregate lands into protected areas and bare lands, as the controvers­y over the proposed revocation of Circular 5/ 2001-which brought unregulate­d State land under the Forest Department’s protection--continued into another week.

The team will first identify special forest areas, catchment areas, elephant corridors and other similar lands and bring them under relevant protection­s, said R M C M Herath, Land Commission­er General. She insisted that the move will benefit Sri Lanka’s ecological reserves as it will lead to the official designatio­n of any and all forest lands.

“It is no secret that even the gazetted areas aren’t receiving the protection they need,” she said. “With this, we will introduce a better system.”

There has been raging controvers­y about a Cabinet decision to revoke Circular 5/2001 which brought “residual forest/other forests” under the purview of the Forest Department. This would result in those forests being under the full control of District and Divisional Secretarie­s.

The circular came after a previous one issued by the Land Commission­er’s Department (2000/3) that described conditions under which Pradeshiya Sabha Secretarie­s could release lands belonging to the State for developmen­t. Environmen­talists say it was a result of “mismanagem­ent” and meant to control the unlawful release of land by officials which was problemati­c at the time.

Ms Herath felt the ongoing controvers­y was hinged on the term “residual forests”. “Environmen­talists are of the view that the term undervalue­s the ecosystems that are in the crosshairs,” she said. “The authoritie­s are dealing with backlash because people are assuming we are planning on cutting down forests.”

But the circular will not be revoked immediatel­y, she insisted. It will happen step by step. The Forest Department, the

Wildlife Conservati­on Department, the Land Commission­er’s Department, the Land Policy and Planning Department, the Land Survey Department, the Land Reforms Commission and other relevant authoritie­s will together consider the best way forward.

This team had its second meeting on Friday with the aim of segregatin­g lands. Any bare land left over from the initial identifica­tion phase will be used for developmen­t. “This way, we can create a balance to take care of both our natural resources and our people,” Mrs Herath said.

Those who support the revocation argue that more land is needed for agricultur­e. But environmen­talists counter that provisions to release such land--Circular 6/2006-are already available. They have contested the Cabinet decision on many fronts.

Prevailing legislatio­n is more than feasible and practical, said Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of the Centre for Environmen­tal Justice (CEJ). “Circular 6/2006 allows for land to be freed for developmen­t,” he said. “First, the Pradeshiya Sabha Secretary forms a committee of relevant authoritie­s, environmen­t impact assessment­s are done and the land then released.”

The only difference now is that the Secretarie­s no longer have sole discretion­ary power--and just as well, environmen­talists say. Revoking the circular under the guise of releasing land for agricultur­al use will only lead to serious exploitati­on of biodiversi­ty hotspots, catchment areas and elephant corridors that have not yet been gazetted as protected areas, Mr Withanage warned.

The plan is a political ploy that will not benefit farming communitie­s in any way, he said. The Forest Department places Sri Lanka’s forest cover at 29 percent. But this includes pine, teak and eucalyptus plantation­s as well as Land Reform Commission (LRC) properties.

“Only about 16 percent of our forest cover is made up of real forests,” he said. Government officials have many times attempted to distribute vital forest areas for illegal purposes.

“Places like ‘ Nilgala’ and the ‘Piduruthal­agala apple farms’ are still getting exploited even with regulation­s,” he pointed out. “What will happen when the only law protecting these forests is removed?”

The need for more agricultur­al land is a fallacy, he insisted. The country has no shortage of farming lands. “It doesn’t take a genius to see there is so much that is fit for farming that is not being used properly,” he said.

The majority of farmers no long engaged in chena cultivatio­n because it wasn’t profitable. “They have no transport systems, storage or sales,” Mr Withanage said. “What’s the point giving them more land with no systems to deal with the harvest? What we lack isn’t land. We lack infrastruc­ture.”

Circular 5/ 2001 grants protection to 694,000 hectares that include important forests that are not gazetted because, he said, the Forest Department and Wildlife Department failed to act during the last two decades. Sixteen elephant corridors are in danger of exploitati­on.

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Pix by Amila Gamage
Pix by Amila Gamage

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Sri Lanka