Sri Lanka Mahaweli Authority has come under criticism for clearing 61,860 acres of forest lands for a re-settlement drive and for commercial purposes in the Northern Province
Director, Environment Conservation Trust, Sajeewa Chamikara alleged that the Mahaweli Authority had obtained most of the said forest reserves and forest lands without the consent of the Forest Department and added that those forest lands are protected under the Forest Conservation Ordinance.
“Three forest lands in the Medirigiriya – Bisopura forest reserve, namely Ralapanawa Forest Reserve, Wadina Wewa forest and Etamba Oya forest to the extent of 22,260 acres are to be cleared to re-settle people that have been displaced under the Moragahakanda and Kalu Ganga reservoirs while 5,000 acres of thick forest from the Karunkalikulam Forest Reserve have been cleared to settle people from Matara, Gampaha and Hambantota districts,” said Chamikara.
He further added that 31,900 acres from Padaviya Forest Reserve too had been obtained by the Mahaweli Authority to settle people from the south.
“Ninety per cent of these lands in the Padaviya Forest Reserve has been bulldozed and a wide road network has been constructed within the 31,900 acre land. This forest land was declared as a forest reserve under the gazette notification No. 1793/21 of January 18, 2013. Since the Mahaweli Authority wanted to acquire this reserve, it was de-gazetted by gazette notification No. 1808/ 04 of April 29, 2013,” said Chamikara.
According to Chamikara, a three-fourth of the Padaviya Forest Reserve is an area where endangered species are found and once the forest is cleared, there would be no forest patches for the natural habitat of these endangered animals.
“At a time when the Mahinda Chinthanaya has clearly stated that forest cover would be increased by 35% by 2016 in order to protect wildlife, it is questionable as to why the Mahaweli Authority wants such a large extent of forest lands cleared for a re-settlement drive and for other development work. This land is in the North Central Province border and there is no necessity to re-settle people in this province. The re-settlements have to be carried out in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as it is the people in these two provinces that were displaced during the war. When there are many unutilized state lands, why does the Mahaweli Authority wants to resettle the displaced in forest lands?” queried Chamikara.
Chamikara further stated that 700 acres and 2,000 acres of forest lands have been acquired by the Mahaweli Authority in Andamkulam and Vettamkulam forest reserves respectively in the Mahaweli ‘L’ zone.
“This is a forest with a large elephant population. Since the Mahaweli Authority is bulldozing the forest, a severe elephant-human conflict has begun in the area. Also these are catchments areas of many large water bodies. Very soon these water bodies will go dry and the people and the animals will have to face a water crisis,” said Chamikara.
Chamikara further accused the Mahaweli Authority for violating the National Environment Act.
“According to gazette notification No. 772/ 22 of June 24, 1993 if any development work is carried out by clearing more than one hectare (2.5 acres) an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has to be carried out to assess the impact on the environment. This has to be open for 30 working days for public comments. It is the same with settling more than 100 families clearing the forest. Although the law is such, the Mahaweli Authority has violated the National Environment Act and surprisingly the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) too is silent. When I wrote to the CEA to find out whether EIAs have been carried out when the forest lands were cleared, there is no response from the authority. As a result we have to assume that the CEA has allowed the irregularities to take place,” he said.
Chamikara also said that although the Forest Department is strictly against giving away forest lands to settle people, due to pressure mounted on them from higher authorities, they have allowed the Mahaweli Authority to acquire their forest lands.
Meanwhile Etabmbagaskada Kalyanitissa Thero, who is accused of sexually abusing an eight-year-old child who was an inmate in Seth Sevana Children’s Home run by the monk too is said to be behind the settlement drive.
“Although the Mahaweli Authority claims that they re-settle the families who were living in these areas before the war, this is a thick jungle and all trees are well over 100 years old. So how can they claim that these people were living in this area 30 years ago? Maybe the Mahaweli Authority wants to re-settled some of the displaced in these forest lands but most of the settlers are from Hambantota, Matara and Gampaha districts,” added Chamikara.
Meanwhile reliable sources from Forest Department on condition of anonymity told The Sunday Leader that they are against the Mahaweli Authority’s move
“When there are many state lands in the area why do they want to acquire forest reserves? If forests are destroyed in this way not a single forest would remain in future,” said the sources.
Deputy Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Management W. B. Ekanayake when contacted said that there was no wrong in settling people from Hambantota, Matara, Gampaha or from any other districts in the country. “If former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake could settle Gampaha people in Rajanganaya, there is nothing wrong in settling people from Hambantota, Matara and Gampaha districts in these areas. Most of the people who are to be re-settled lived in these areas when LTTE was killing those in the border villages.
When these people could not live in border villages they left their houses and went to live with friends and relatives in other parts of the country. There are many organizations to try to stop these re-settlement drives but where were they when the LTTE was killing our border villagers. If not for them, the LTTE would have invaded further towards inland. Those who were hiding then are now accusing the government when displaced are re-settled,” said the Deputy Minister. Minister Susil Premjayanth, Environment and Renewable Energy Minister, was not available for a comment.