Focus/Spotlight

Reclaiming Knuckles Range

  • Local Government completes survey
  • 1,600 acres to be reacquired under the Environmentally Protected Land Act

By Sarah Hannan

For years, the settlements and unregulated development work that was taking place in the perimeters of the Knuckles Range, which is an environmentally protected land, has ignited a tug-o-war between the regulatory authorities and the sovereign residents of the area.

The Matale District Secretariat recently reported that about 1,600 acres of privately owned land within the Knuckles Range had been identified and that the Government was looking to acquire these lands in the coming weeks.

The Sunday Morning contacted Additional District Secretary Ishan Wijetilake, who responded: “This has been a long-term process and the said lands had been identified since the ‘80s, during which time the Knuckles Range was named an environmentally protected land. It is in recent times that we have been able to track these areas and we are looking to take legal action against squatters and encroachers who have been occupying the lands for over four decades.”

Wijetilake also noted that the authorities are faced with the difficult task of tracing the occupiers, as some lands have been cordoned off and there are no residents or workers from whom they can get information.

He added that it was only recently, after much field research, that they have been able to map out these lands that are in fact part of the Knuckles Range Environmentally Protected Land Zone.

He also explained that they are seeking the assistance of multiple state authorities including the Forest Department, Land Reform Commission, Range Forest Office, and Central Environmental Authority to assist in identifying which section of these lands can be demarcated into the Knuckles Range.

“This is mainly in the Matale District portion of the Knuckles Range, which belongs to the Laggala Divisional Secretariat’s Pitawala Pathana in the Gonamadawatte Division. If you take the acreage of land from the Knuckles Range that stretches towards the Matale District, it is about 15,000 hectares, out of which a 1,600-acre land area in scattered sections has been occupied by people over the years,” Wijetilake elaborated.

The surveying of these lands has already been completed. However, since the occupants of the said lands are not to be found or are unreachable, the District Secretariat is unable to take legal action against them yet.

Questioned on repurposing land

In 2018, environmental activist Keerthi Hewagoda had conducted research on the area and had later published an open complaint regarding the leasing out of portions of the protected land to plantation companies.

When contacted by The Sunday Morning, Hewagoda noted that the 1,600 acres of land that the District Secretariat has mentioned in the progress report for reclamation needs to be further investigated.

“The families that live in these areas have been given annual permits by the local government to engage in chena cultivation. Therefore, it will be a challenge that the authorities will have to face, should they decide to move these residents out and acquire the land to be added to the Knuckles Range. It is true that what is taking place is environmental destruction, but one must also look at a workable method on how to retain the people of the area whilst protecting the forest,” Hewagoda noted.

Hewagoda had also submitted a written complaint in June 2018, indicating that with Cabinet Directive 2017/81 dated 23 November 2017, the Government of Sri Lanka was to lease the large tracts of land in Knuckles Range to private ownerships for long periods for factory farms (livestock), mineral excavation, tourism, bottled water industry, and mini/small hydropower plants.

The state-owned estates that were earmarked to be leased were in Opalgala, Nikal Oya, Midlands, Kallebokka, Alakola, Gomare, Galpihilla, Kotagala, Rangala, Hare Park, and some others, altogether comprising approximately 21,000 acres.

Former ministers deny allegations

Allegations were hurled at former ministers Kabir Hashim and Lakshman Kiriella, and government institutions, including the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation in 2018 for aiding the land allocations. Later that year, Kiriella claimed that the Government was not planning to establish any type of industry within the range area.

Hewagoda, in his paper, listed the critical observations of the adverse biological impact, adverse geological and ecological impact, and adverse economic and social impact these activities could cause to the range ecosystem.

Furthermore, he had noted that there are underlying political implications that should be addressed with time. It must be noted that the Knuckles Range is already threatened by the spread of invasive plants, ground fires, boundary encroachments, tourism-related activities, illegal agricultural practices, etc. and the leasing out of these lands will dramatically increase the damage, Hewagoda had stated in his paper, adding that the Sri Lankan Government must be urged to stop handing out these eco-sensitive lands to environmentally destructive activities.

Knuckles Range (Dumbara Adaviya)

The Knuckles Range, traditionally called the “Dumbara Adaviya”, is a massif located in the central hills in Sri Lanka. The term “range” encompasses not only Knuckles Forest Reserve but the whole ecological unit that geographically belongs to the Knuckles massif. The area above 1,500 metres (approximately 4,900 feet) in the Knuckles Range was declared a climatic reserve in 1873, and in 1988, the Knuckles conservation area was declared over all lands above 1,067 metres (approximately 3,500 feet AMSL).

The Knuckles conservation area was subjected to a floral and faunal survey under the National Conservation Review (1992-1996) (5). Considering the high biodiversity and significant cultural value, the central highlands, including the Knuckles Conservation Forest (KCF), was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Property in 2010.

Under the Soil Conservation Ordinance of 1993, human activity had been restricted in certain areas in the Knuckles Range. As for the management plan, the Knuckles Range was surveyed, demarcated, and declared a conservation forest in 2000 under the Forest Ordinance Act 1907 (Gazette No. 1130). Moreover, in July 2007, with the objective of regulating unauthorised activities on the private lands in the vicinity of the KCF, all private land within the boundary of the KCF were declared an environmentally protected area (EPA) under the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980 (5). Further, this Act facilitates acquisition of non-state lands and includes them in the forest reserve.

The Knuckles Forest is a refugium for a number of point endemics; the leaf-nosed lizard (Ceretophora tennennti), crestless lizard (Calotes liocephalus), an endemic fish (Laubuka insularis), and the Keerthisinghe Rock frog (Nannophrys marmorata) are found only in the Knuckles Range, and it has been home to the indigenous community since historic times.

All attempts made by The Sunday Morning to contact Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera for comment proved futile.