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Slow death of Sinharaja? President intervenes

2 years ago

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By Sarah Hannan A proposed road that is to connect Lankagama to Deniyaya which allegedly falls through the Sinharaja Forest Reserve has caused a stir within the political and environmental arena, with political activists and certain organisations now claiming that the road is being constructed to bring in traffic towards an alleged tourism hotel that lies within the perimeters of the forest. Many have sounded their displeasure, as not much of an outcry is visible, unlike vociferous protests regarding the Wilpattu issue, hinting that since no minority is involved, no one wants to get involved. There was also speculation about the leisure property allegedly being under a very influential political family. Update as of 29 August: President visits Neluwa-Lankagama road construction site President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Saturday (29 August) paid a visit to the site and upon inspection of the situation of the area, had required the stakeholders to ensure that the road work should commence and should not cause any damage to the environment. Rajapaksa had also issued directives to complete the road construction work in 90 days’ time at the Neluwa-Lankagama end. [caption id="attachment_96493" align="alignleft" width="300"] President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited Lankagama on Saturday 29 August 2020. (Photo/Official Twitter Account @GotabayaR)[/caption] With the outcry of activists and the public alike last week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued directives to halt the road construction work that was happening in the forest reserve or possibly on the bordering village that was allegedly the road that is constructed to connect Deniyaya and Lankagama. The Forest Department along with the Central Environment Authority is now in the process of preparing the assessment report. During the Cabinet briefing, Minister of Wildlife Dr. Ramesh Pathirana said that there is a considerable number of families that have been living in Lankagama for decades and that the Government has a responsibility towards the people of Lankagama to build them a proper road network to access their nearest hospital or town without difficulty. He also noted that the President had taken a personal interest towards the issue, as it concerns the people and the environment and would want to launch development initiatives to improve the quality of life of these people whilst protecting and conserving the forests. Story so far While all these were already discussed in the past weeks, The Sunday Morning focused on the long-term plans that were proposed over the years to maximise the revenue from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Heritage Site under the guise of ecotourism, and the continued requests that are made by the residents who live down the Mederipitiya village, that sits in the border range of the Sinharaja Forest to improve mobility and develop the access road to the area. Last week, when we spoke to the numerous state and private establishments that were in charge of maintaining roads in the region, we were informed that the road in question is not being constructed by their organisations. We spoke with Leela Munasinghe from Mederipitiya to understand the hardships they have to go through as there is no proper road access to their village. “The bridge that is set up across the Gin River is quite old and will only accommodate one Dimo Batta lorry on it to cross. That means when the lorry is to cross, no one can be on the bridge. Once you cross to the Mederipitiya town, the road that takes you to our homes becomes quite narrow; only a Postie bike (Honda Md 90) can be ridden down that road.” According to Munasinghe, during the rainy season, commuting out of the village and within the village becomes unpleasant as the road is washed in mud. She noted that if the road is constructed properly, the lives of the people of Mederipitiya would be somewhat uplifted. She added that many foreign visitors that come to explore the Sinharaja Forest Reserve go through their village and at present, they take a three-wheeler or have to wait for a four-wheel drive to arrive to take them to the entrance of Sinharaja and should the road be built their livelihoods would improve as well. Sinharaja – an ecotourism destination In July 2018, sustainable tourism consultant Matthew Humke had submitted a nature-based tourism plan designed for the Sinharaja Forest Reserve Complex to the Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) that was established by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. This 27-page document focuses on capacity building for the staff of Sinharaja and empowering the villagers that live along the borders to generate positive cash flow for them. It also suggests improving road access. Humke suggested that relatively undeveloped sections of the park, like the 8.5 km from the highway to Morning Side, must be improved. In addition, the road to the Pitadeniya Conservation Centre is currently only passable by 4x4 vehicles. Although improving the road would make the centre more accessible to staff and visitors, it would also make increased development (of homes, farming, illegal activities) more likely as well. Humke proposes that whilst making improvements to the road to improve accessibility, the road should still be maintained as a 4x4 road (no buses, no regular cars – crossing a shallow river required) to limit development. The Sunday Morning spoke to environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardana about the said plan and whether they were consulted on the matter, to which he responded: “When it comes to drafting development plans, we are never invited. I am very aware of the said ‘nature-based tourism plan” that was presented in 2018 by Humke. It is sad that the government institutions never think of anyone from the environmental groups or lawyers that appear for environmental issues to weigh in on such project proposals.” Gunawardena added that there was pushback from environmentalists about that plan and therefore, the then Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment decided to abandon the project. However, he saidthat many have misunderstood the concept of ecotourism and are turning such sensitive environments into mass tourist attraction sites. “If the plan had got off the ground, then we would have witnessed scores of tourists storming Sinharaja Forest Reserve in 4X4 jeeps and would book accommodation in any hotels that would have been allowed to setup,” Gunawardana noted. Possible biopiracy racket Furthermore, there are also allegations that there is a biopiracy racket that seemed to be ongoing which gave access to a group of scientists to identify a new species of pygmy grasshopper from Sri Lanka that was discovered by Croatian scientists which was later named after an Indian scientist. The announcement was made just days before the general election, and therefore, went under the radar of the newsrooms. “While there were so many rumours about such incidents, we could not trace it back to the perpetrators. However, a recent press announcement of a new species of a Sri Lankan twighopper that was popularised in regional newspapers caught my attention. While the announcement was made just days before the election, I could not drag anyone’s attention to the incident,” Gunawardana noted. Gunawardana noted that while this is just one of the incidents where a group of foreign scientists had made this discovery without even the assistance of any Sri Lanka scientist, he had researched more about the method that the researchers would have used to discover the species. “It is quite clear that someone who clearly knew the forest would have assisted the research team to obtain the biological material sample. In fact, when I studied the sequencing of the species, the description for the twig-hopper mentioned that it was a dried specimen,” he added. The discovery was published in Zootaxa which described a new species of a Sri Lankan twig-hopper; genus Cladonotus Saussure, 1862 (Orthoptera: Tetrigidae: Cladonotini); scientific name Cladonotus bhaskari. It was discovered by a group of Croatian and German researchers in the Sinharaja Rainforest of Sri Lanka. The discovery was said to be based on a single specimen of the species photographed in 2016 by Tom Kirschey in its natural rainforest habitat in Sri Lanka at Sinharaja. It was the only known specimen of this new and rare pygmy grasshopper species. The new species is clearly distinguished from other species of the genus by its long and spine-like front medial projection and cockscomb-shaped promedial projection. Species of this genus resemble tiny twigs, hence the name “twighopper”. The species was named in honour of Dhaneesh Bhaskar, a young Indian orthopterist, conservation biologist, and good friend of the authors. This peculiar genus now includes four species of rather unique pronotal morphology. Road renovation inside Sinharaja When media as well as conservation nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) expressed their concerns about the new impacts that the renovations would have on the Sinharaja World Heritage Site, when the road leading from the ticket counter along the 1,600 m road to the Doranaela-Wathurawa entrance to the Sinharaja World Heritage Site and Core Zone of the Sinharaja Biosphere Reserve was to be renovated, Prof. I.A.U.N. Gunatilleke and Dr. Jinie Dela presented a report on Potential Environmental Aspects of Renovations done by the Forest Department, when the Forest Department requested an informal independent view of the renovations being done on 22 January 2019. The report had observed that at the time, due to the heavy rains in this area, and the high embankment on the eastern side of the road which drains the rainwater onto the road, this road had been rendered unusable due to extensive soil erosion. The uneven surface created by gully erosion and the exposed boulders and stones along the road as well as a few earth slips have caused danger to the visitors especially during monsoonal rainy periods. Reportedly, several visitors have been subject to falls due to the poor state of the road. As such, the Forest Department has commenced a complete renovation of the road under the ESCAMP. Observations were made while walking from the ticket counter to the Doranaela‐Wathurawa entrance to the Sinharaja World Heritage Site and back along the 1,600 m existing road which is being renovated on the activities being undertaken and any impacts they had on the forest. Discussions were carried out with the trail guide from a bordering village as well as several nearby villagers who are assisting with field research in the Sinharaja Forest at present, to obtain the views of local people about the road renovations. Observations by Prof. Gunatilleke and Dr. Dela
  1. There were no signs of a “new” road being constructed. What is occurring is the renovation of the existing logging road for the convenience of visitors on foot, and as such, it is not an illegal activity.
  2. Figure 1a indicates that the road being repaired is on the outside of the boundary of the Sinharaja World Heritage Site and the Core Zone of the Sinharaja Biosphere Reserve. This road was originally built for the Sinharaja Mechanised Logging Project (Photo 1) in accordance with the Forest Department’s felling rules leaving a stream reservation for the Dorana Eli.
  3. The area of the forest where the renovation of the old logging road is currently being done was widened about 10 years ago in sections by laying two lanes of concrete paths along the widened road. Two large culverts also have been constructed during that period but no appreciable damage to the biodiversity has been reported as a result of these renovations. Therefore, it is our view that the present construction work, which is merely building on work done earlier in the recent past, would not contribute to significant loss of biodiversity.
  4. The area of the forest rich in biodiversity, which is most popular with birdwatching tourists, lies beyond the Doranaela‐Wathurawa entrance gate (i.e. inside the World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve Core Zone boundary). The road being repaired leads up to this point.
  5. There is no perceivable widening of the existing road, and hence there is no apparent removal of trees on either side of the road being renovated. There is apparently a restoration of dysfunctional drains on either side of the logging road in order to facilitate proper drainage, thereby reducing the erosion impact on the road surface that is being prepared, for easy and safe travelling of visitors on foot.The exposed boulders and stones on the road are being removed by JCBs, and the stones were being used at other points on the road to stabilise it. This is justified as the road cannot be repaired without this activity.
  6. While there is forest belonging to the Forest Department on either side of the road being repaired, this situation is of longstanding. Hence the present renovation work has not significantly fragmented the forest. The restoration of a highly dilapidated road (which was reduced to a badly maintained foot path at some places, and renovated with concrete lanes in other areas along this road previously), would provide safer travel (on foot) to thousands of both young and elderly who visit this forest annually.
  7. Accordingly, the closure of the road is inevitable for some time to enable the carrying out of activities connected with the renovations.

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