Military deployed to Wilpattu

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

The military has been deployed to protect Wilpattu National Park as the clearing of land continues around the area to resettle families.

The controversy over the deforestation near Wilpattu National Park, which has witnessed several twists and turns over the past few years, has stolen the spotlight once again with fresh incidents of forest clearing adjacent to the park reported last week.

According to environmentalists, clearing land had taken place outside the borders of the national park as well as the recently declared Mavillu Forest Reserve situated adjacent to the park.

They alleged that even though the land was not inside the national park or the forest reserve, the Department of Forest had no proper mechanism to monitor the forest reserves to spot illegal activities taking place within those areas.

Deforestation or clearance?

Environment Conservation Trust (ECT) Executive Director Sajeewa Chamikara said deforestation had not taken place in the alleged area but the land in the area had been cleared for settlements.

Chamikara, who was on his way from Wilpattu to Horowpathana when contacted by The Sunday Morning, said: “At the end of 2014, a total of 3,400 acres had been deforested and a hut had been temporarily erected in the area. The resettlement had taken place in an area of around 400 acres.”

Only 40% of the total families resettled in the area are currently residing as the rest had been moved into some other areas because they had no proper infrastructure facilities, he alleged.

“What we have seen is that the land adjacent to the settlements has been cleared. But there was no deforestation seen during our visit. Apart from the land clearances, we have noticed that there are no sign boards or demarcation marks of the forest reserve. However, it is not an excuse for the wrongdoers. The residents living in adjoining areas should be educated about the newly gazetted forest reserve. It is part of the Department’s job,” Chamikara stressed.

He said the Department of Forest should educate the residents about the charges in a case of violating the Forest Conservation Ordinance. Also, they should mark the demarcations of the forest reserve to help the residents easily identify the area.

Lack of forest officers

Wilpattu National Park, which has an area of around 131,693 hectares, is the largest and one of the oldest national parks in Sri Lanka. The park is situated on the northwest coast, spanning the border between the North Central Province and North Western Province, with the Modergam Aru River to the south and Kala Oya to the north of the park. Nearly 60 lakes and tanks are found spread over Wilpattu National Park.

Delving into its historical background, the park was closed due to security concerns surrounding the Sri Lankan civil war from December 1988 to 16 March 2003 and reopened to the public and tourists 16 years later. Visitor access is currently limited to approximately 25% of the park whereas the remainder continues to be a dense forest or scrub.

Following the recently reported incidents, The Sunday Morning contacted the Divisional Forest Office in Mannar to see whether such an incident had been reported to the Forest Office.

A Forest Officer in Mannar, who wished to remain anonymous, said that no complaint was lodged with the Forest Office, but after the incident was reported, the forest officers visited the area and identified that land clearance had taken place within the 770 acres released for resettlement by the Government.

“We have discovered that those people had cleared the area before the District Secretariat had officially handed over the deeds for those entitled. The GA of the area had given the authority for these people and we are taking legal action against them,” he said.

Asked what actions had been taken by the Department to monitor the Mavillu Forest Reserve, the Forest Officer stressed that there were only three forest officers in the area and therefore, they couldn’t cover the whole area.

“We have requested the Department to consider recruiting more officers to these rural areas where there are important forest reserves situated,” he said.

Army unit in Wilpattu?

In addition, the tri-forces – the Army, Navy, and Air Force – are currently assisting the Department of Forest to protect the forest reserves. With regard to Wilpattu, the Army would set up a special unit to protect it, he added.

Wilpattu has been a hot topic in the political and public platforms during the past few years over the deforestation allegations, and most of these allegations were levelled against Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen. However, Bathiudeen refuted the allegations.

Speaking about the Wilpattu deforestation issue, 54 Division in Mannar General Officer Commanding (GOC) Brigadier Senarath Bandara told The Sunday Morning that the Army started a replanting campaign on 18 May under the instructions given by the Commander.

“However, after couple of days, we saw that a section of the forest area had been cleared by the villagers. When we inquired about this from the Divisional Secretary, he informed us that the area had been cleared for a housing project – the project launched by Minister Sajith Premadasa to construct 87 houses in Marichchukkaddi. Earlier, Minister Bathiudeen constructed 1,893 houses for the Muslim community and around 75 houses for Sinhala families. Out of those 75 houses, only 28 houses are currently being occupied by the residents, whereas the others have abandoned them,” Brig. Bandara explained.

“When we inquired from the families in these areas, they informed us that around 597 families left their houses and moved into other places. We then inquired from the Divisional Secretary on what basis they were going to build new houses while there are over 500 houses already available. The DS said they had left. The DS should have sent notices and, if they were not willing to move into those houses, distributed those houses among the poor families instead of building new ones,” he said.

“However, the housing project is being implemented in a proper way as the Commander informed. But still, the people should understand the gravity of the issue,” Brig. Bandara said.

When asked whether the Army was planning to build a special unit in Wilpattu, Brig. Bandara noted that the Army has already established a camp for national security reasons as well as to prevent people from entering from the sea route.

Explaining further, he said: “There is a huge gap, a 47 km gap, between Silavathurai and the border of the Puttalam District, Pomparippu. The Navy is observing the sea movements. But the land issue is our responsibility.”

However, when The Sunday Morning also contacted the Ministry of Environment to see what policy decisions had been taken to prevent further deforestation in Wilpattu or other forest reserves, Additional Secretary – Environment Policy and Planning M.G.W.M.W.T.B. Dissanayake said that apart from the instructions given by the President, all other forest-related issues were handled by the Department of Forest.

In 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena issued a special decree prohibiting allocation of land and clearing the surrounding areas of Wilpattu National Park, which is applicable to the Districts of Mannar and Vavuniya. He also instructed the relevant authorities to strictly enforce the law with regard to deforestation, illegal land allocation, and transfers in those areas.

The President also signed a special gazette notification in 2017 while he was in Russia on an official visit, declaring Mavillu, Weppal, Karadikkuli, Marichchukkaddi, and Vilaththikulam forests as the Mavillu Forest Reserve under 3A of the Forest Conservation Ordinance.

Fresh inquiry

In 2015, a local environmental organisation took the issue to court by filing a writ petition naming the Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen, Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment, the Attorney General, Conservator General of the Forest Conservation Department, Central Environmental Authority (CEA), Director General of the Wildlife Department, Commissioner General of Lands, Commissioner General of the Archaeological Department, and Mannar District Secretary as respondents, seeking to quash the clearance of Wilpattu National Park and construction of houses adjoining the national park.

In the petition, the petitioner stated that a vast area of around 2,000 hectares in the forest adjoining Wilpattu National Park had been cleared and divided into plots, followed by paving roads and establishing unauthorised settlements. While this creates irremediable damage to the environment, ecosystem, and wildlife habitats, around 1,000 hectares in the areas of Madu, Periyamadu, and Sannara, which are also parts of the forest, have been destroyed for settlements.

Last week, Court of Appeal Judge Justice Mahinda Samayawardhena had recused himself from delivering the judgment, and the writ petition was fixed for a fresh inquiry to be heard on 31 July by a two-judge-bench of the Court of Appeal including Justice Janak de Silva and Justice Nissanka Bandula Karunaratne.