By Gagani Weerakoon
‘Protect Wilpattu’ has been the most sought-after slogan of many so-called environment lovers, activists and dedicated ‘keyboard worriers’ in the recent years. Though their intentions may have erupted out of pure love and genuine concerns towards protecting the environment and wildlife in Sri Lanka, a majority of these worriers who joined the bandwagon are not without hidden agendas.
Wilpattu, apart from being known as the largest of National Parks in the country, could also boast about being the most politicized forest as well. A struggle launched by a small group of genuine environment activists, organizations and citizens back in 2009 – in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist war that went on for over two and half decades – was later hijacked and derailed by several groups with hidden political or economic agendas. A genuine environmental struggle that was launched by taking issue by issue after carefully done investigations and studies was derailed by cat’s paws of extremist groups and organizations, who mostly earn their bread and butter through foreign funding by getting Wilpattu National Park into the picture. This, paved the way for influential politician, who is alleged to have been the main person responsible for deforestation by way of resettling landless people, to dilute the struggle, by stating no resettlements or felling trees took place within the Wilpattu National Park – a fact! The threatened area falls within the Wilpattu Forest Complex which consists of nine protected forest reserves namely, Maraichukaddi/Karadikkuli (Kallaru) Forest Reserve, Periyakuriyatti Kulam Forest Reserve, Vilanththimulam Forest Reserve, Wilpattu North Sanctuary, Thabbova Sanctuary, Veppal Forest Reserve, Mavillu Forest Reserve, Periyamarippu Forest Reserve, Veerakkuli Cholai – Eluwankulam Forest Reserve.
The first salvo against this deforestation move, in the name of development and resettlement, was fired by the Young Zoologists Association, Environment Conservation Trust, Environment Foundation Limited (EFL) and a few other independent groups and activists including senior environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardena. This collective came before media earlier in 2010 to reveal the attempt by the Government and Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who at the time was responsible for resettlement and development in the war-torn Northern Province, to construct a road across the Wilpattu Forest Reserve.
Forest land was cleared with the purpose of establishing housing schemes for internally displaced persons in the wake of the war, and the subsequent encroachment of settlements into Forest Reserves was enabled by the construction of the B379 road through Wilpattu National Park.
Following their site visit, EFL has observed that most of the forest destruction is taking place in the Karadikkuli and Vilaththakulam Forest Reserves (FR). The deforestation commenced in Karadikkuli during the 2011/2012 period and thereafter gradually expanded to the other adjacent Forest Reserves. FR boundaries/Department of Forests (FD) posts are present and settlements to either side of the main road leading to Mannar are visible.
“Most of these settlements do not expand to more than 200m on either side, and most of them are permanent structures. It is important to note that these houses are hardly inhabited and people were seldom seen. Some houses are still under construction. All the areas have been supplied with electricity and the distribution of water lines are underway in some areas. Other subsequent facilities like healthcare and schools have been provided. On-going deforestation was seen in Vilaththakulam Forest Reserve (in Potkery, near Silavathurai), with an area identified as 700 acres. (http://efl.lk/v2/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/wilpattu-site-visit-report-final.pdf)”
“The original road through Wilpattu has been a cart track since time immemorial and was later classified as a jeep track and termed the old Mannar road and was given the road prefix of B379 during the days gone by. This road was used especially by double bullock carts that brought in many a product from Mannar to Puttalam for barter and vice versa even during the earlier 80′s and for driving herds of cattle from Mannar District to the Eluwankulam/Puttlam cattle market. The road B379 was mostly a sand track and was passable only during the dry seasons when the Kala Oya, Modaragam and Aruvi Ara were not in spate. Having traversed this road and park area several times over, entering via entry points from the south to the east, prior to the terrorist problem, during the height of the problem, during the peace talks and after the problem and I am in a position to comment on the chain of events that have led to this road coming into being, the concern of all lovers of the wild and the factual reality…
“There is no doubt that any wildlife lover, including myself, would wish and hope that this road and the new proposed road along the coast up to Pookulam be abandoned and the Navy totally withdrawn. This also would then open the door for all the illicit operations within the park as in the past within its vast and isolated areas which would be of greater harm to the park on the contrary. Taking into consideration what has been stated by me above, it could be very prudent for the Sri Lankan Government, the Sri Lanka Navy, Department of Wild Life and all other genuine associations and lovers of wild life to get together and find the best solution to the existing situation, taking into consideration the long term interests of the park. The presence of the navy in that region is critically important for national interests and could also serve in the better interests of the park, especially due to the fact that the Department of Wild Life with their poor resources and past record could in no way police the park to the extent the navy is capable of,” wrote Kiyaz Deen, convener of the Great and Little Basses Reef Marine Conservation Project, in one of his articles (2010) suggesting that the road development was considered important as it had been used as the main supply line to the Navy camps.
Religious and racial twist
However, the action taken by environmental organizations and activists to stop this destruction completely overturned in 2014 and took a religious and racial twist with a group, led by the Bodu Bala Sena, taking the limelight away from the true and professional cause. With them accusing Minister Rishad Bathiudeen of being responsible for illegal encroachment and as another attempt of Muslim extremists to destroy national heritages, Minister Bathiudeen too launched a counter campaign saying Sinhala-Buddhist extremists are depriving displaced Muslims of their right to return to their original lands.
He also said that these resettlements were taking place on the directive of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) for the Resettlement, Development and Security of Northern Province (appointed during former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime).
Much has been said since then. However, with President Maithripala Sirisena, being under pressure from various interested groups to settle the matter, on 30 December 2016 ordered authorities to extend the borders of the Wilpattu National Park and declare it a ‘Wildlife Zone’ by a Gazette Notification.
He told officials to include all the adjacent forest areas of the Wilpattu National Park, presently not coming under the Wildlife Department, into this wildlife zone.
The President issued this directive at a special meeting at the Presidential Secretariat with the Heads of institutions affiliated to the Mahaweli Development and Environment Ministry. President Sirisena also instructed them to work out a mechanism which enables the constant monitoring of all forest areas, including Wilpattu, from the air using the latest technology.
With questions being raised on the matter, even in Parliament, the Auditor General’s Department initiated an inquiry into allegations of misusing the Vilaththikulam protected forest reserve and submitted its report dated 17 November 2017 to Parliament as per Article 154 (6) of the Constitution.
Against the law
Auditor General H.M. Gamini Wijesinghe has concluded that; Although, the Forest Conservator General took measures to release 650 acres for resettlements from the Vilaththikulam forest which was declared as a forest reserve under gazette No 1759/02 issued on 21 May 2012, it is against the existing laws.
Even though a proper mitigation mechanism should be in place for the environment destruction that was caused and is expected to occur in future as a result of deforestation, such mechanism was not in place as the felling of trees have taken place without conducting proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
When considered, the fact that most of these houses are not being occupied for a long period and the constructions have not been implemented in the land plots allocated for the families claimed to be displaced during the war, it is clear that the project was not meant for the genuine IDPs.
Even though the main objective of the PTF for Resettlement was to provide original lands to the people who lost their lands during war, the lands were acquired from the forest reserve to fulfil the land needs of the second and third generation of original victims and have thus deviated from the original objectives.
The Auditor General has also recommended that government should allocate lands for the internally displaced people only after accurately identifying such persons and the resettlements should take place in accordance with the national policies and existing laws of the country.
He also recommended that forest reserves or areas with environmental value should not be cleared and utilized for resettlements.
Most importantly, the Auditor General has insisted that out of the cleared area of Vilaithikulam forest reserve for the so-called purpose of resettling original occupants of the area, only 20 per cent have been actually occupied. Rest 80 per cent has either empty land plots or houses that are not being occupied.
“The government should take measures to relocate the settlers in this 20% of deforested area and should maintain the forest reserve as it was before this destruction took place,” the Attorney General has recommended.