News

Residual forests decision angers activists: Cabinet urged to retract decision

BY SARAH HANNAN

Letters have been sent to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to retract the cabinet decision of assigning the authority of “residual forests” to local government bodies to repurpose them for cultivation and development projects in an attempt to uplift the livelihoods of area residents.

Last Wednesday’s (1) cabinet decision to transfer state-owned residual forestland to district and divisional secretaries came under
severe criticism by environmental activists, environmental lawyers, and politburos alike.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardsna stated that Sri Lanka does not have residual forests and the correct term to be used is “other state forests”.

“Over the years, in some areas that had a dwindling human population, the forest cover had improved. These forests are not recognised as forests by the Forest Department, but are home to many endemic species of flora and fauna,” he said.

Gunawardana too condemned the decision announced on Thursday (2) and informed that environmentalists and environmental activists are considering filing legal action against the Government if they repeal the 05/2001 circular.

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) National Organiser Bimal Rathnayake, in a letter addressed to the President, noted: “Repealing the 05/2001 circular would weaken the law on forest protection. In the recent past, a considerable number of animals and plants endemic to Sri Lanka have been discovered by the ecologists while in some areas, the water supply, the environmental temperature, the cleanliness of the atmosphere, and the survival of some of the endemic animals and plants of our country depend on these forests.”

Rathnayake urged the President and the Cabinet of Ministers to suspend the abolition of this circular and prevent the impending destruction, adding that action should be taken once a study is conducted by a committee of environmental experts which could submit an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before utilising it for cultivation or development projects.

In June, Environmental Foundation (Guarantee) Ltd. reported that with the Forest Department targeting to increase the forest cover of the country to 35% from the existing 24%, there was a need to develop and protect these state forest patches due to increased environmental awareness in safeguarding all such forests.

Furthermore, under the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) programme, the conservation of existing forest cover has been identified as a key priority; the 05/2001 circular had been issued by the

Ministry of Environment to achieve this goal, giving provision for these areas with forest patches, which were previously managed by the divisional secretariats, to be managed, developed, and protected by the Forest Department.

This circular did not affect the authority given to the said divisional secretariats to protect these residual forest patches according to the Forest Ordinance, but it did prevent them from transferring the ownership of these areas to non-state entities at their own discretion.

Sri Lanka’s forests and nature reserves are primarily managed by the Forest Department, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), and divisional secretariats. Of these, the Forest Department is mandated to manage forest reserves, proposed forest reserves, and village forests while strict nature reserves, nature reserves, national parks, trails, and sanctuaries are managed similarly by the DWC.

However, there are areas that have not been identified under any of the aforementioned categories but are state lands inclusive of forest patches.

A state land in general is a devolved subject under the Constitution and there arises an overlapping of authority between the divisional secretariats and the Forest Department in relation to these forest patches.