Golf course threat to prime natural habitat in Udawalawe

Villagers and conservationists vehemently reject so-called ‘eco-friendly’ recreation project in Bogahapattiya – Malaka Rodrigo reports
This happens to be the International Year of Forests, but little is being done to protect our own forests and natural habitats. Rampant, irresponsible deforestation continues around the country. The latest threat to habitat is reported from the Udawalawe area. Over 600 acres of land in Bogahapattiya have been earmarked for a proposed golf course.A private company, according to villagers living in the area, has bought 628 acres of land to construct a golf course in Bogahapattiya. This is prime forest territory, with savannah grasslands inhabited by elephant, bear, sambhur and other animals.

Precious tropical deciduous forest land in Bogahapattiya is threatened by developers.
Age-old trees have already been marked for felling in the Bogahapattiya natural forest.

Should the golf course project go through, Sri Lanka will lose considerable area of an extremely bio-diverse forest. These tropical deciduous forests, as they are called, are the most threatened forest type on earth, according to conservationists. These forests are under greater threat than rainforests: they are being lost at a faster rate and cover land areas that are very favourable to human activity.

But there is more to the threat than losing valuable forest cover. Loss of vegetation caused by deforestation leads to soil erosion and run-off. The silted water ends up in the Weli Oya reservoir, which irrigates more than 3,000 acres of paddy land and feeds 27 small tanks.

The villagers in the area are wholly on the side of the conservationists. They say the Bogahapattiya forest is of great importance to them. Apart from serving many environmental needs, the forest also feeds two streams that enter the Weli Oya, which in turn feeds into the Walawe.

The entire area is a hugely important watershed for populations downstream. The land selected for the golf course comes right up to where the two streams, including the Demata Ara, join up with the Weli Oya at a small dam. Construction work on the intended golf course will disrupt the Weli Oya irrigation system.

Speaking on behalf of the villagers of Bogahapattiya, senior Buddhist monk Nelliwala Sumedhalankara Thera said thousands of families depend on agriculture based on the waters of the Weli Oya.

The thera said the paddy farmers already face hardships because of water shortages. The Weli Oya is not always filled to capacity, and felling trees upstream would only make matters worse for the farmers.
A letter highlighting the potential ill-effects from losing hydro-catchment areas, should the golf course be approved, was sent by Wellawaya District Irrigation Engineer H. T. S. W. Wijesuriya to the higher authorities. Mr. Wijesuriya pointed out that the golf course and the accompanying hotel would consume a large volume of water, and this would drastically affect the water level in the reservoir. The Weli Oya irrigation project was built at great cost, Mr. Wijesuriya noted, and allowing the golf course would totally undermine the investment. [Welioya itself has received some criticism as some rich elephant habitats are being shrinked due to the project. Environmentalists point out that it is a double crime to commit activities that is possible to make such a project fail, pointing out that in that case the project shouldn’t be implemented on the first place]

Shermin de Silva, a conservationist who has studied the elephants of Udawalawe, says the area is a vital elephant habitat. Bogahapattiya has unique mineral deposits which serve as salt licks. These natural mineral deposits provide essential nutrients for animals living in nutrient-poor ecosystems. Elephants in the Udawalawe National Park travel to Bogahapattiya, through the Dahaiyagala Elephant Corridor to satisfy nutritional needs.

Dahaiyagala was in the news when attempts were made to fence off Udawalawe. Environmental Foundation and other environmental groups went to court and obtained a court order to halt the fencing.
As a result of the court action, the Dahaiyagala Elephant corridor has got legal protection from encroachment. The court also issued an order to fence the sides of the corridor to provide a safe passag for elephants while protcting villagers living on both sides of the corridor are protected from the elephants. The main purpose of creating the Dahaiyagala Elephant Corridor is to allow the Udawalawe elephants to move to Bogahapattiya.

Environmental Foundation Limited legal officer Wardani Karunaratne says that even if the golf course was built on privately owned land, the owners had to abide by the law and obtain an Environmental Impact Assessment. She said no such assessment has been made.

Meanwhile, Bogahapattiya residents say trees have been marked for felling. Legal experts say there are many irregularities in the way the project is being handled. Bogahapattiya has Proposed Sanctuary status, which means it does not have the full legal protection given to vital ecosystems. The area was to be declared a sanctuary, under the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Later, it was proposed that the land be declared a Conservation Forest, under the Forest Department. While the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Forest Department argue over who is responsible for what, Bogahapattiya remains seriously threatened, and for what is seen as mere “short-term gains.”

According to Sumedhalankara Thera, a company named Alpha Omega is behind the golf course project, supported by a US-based Sri Lankan businessman named Vasu Nawalingam. A carbon credit certification conducted by Alpha Omega lists 305 acres of the Bogahapattiya land as dense primary forest, and 195 acres as savannah forest.

The Sumedhalankara Thera says Alpha Omega has purchased 628 acres of Bogahapattiya land for Rs. 6 million. The monk said the timber alone on the land was worth many times more than the sum paid for the land, and hinted that the company Alpha Omega seemed to be having its own way in the deal.
The golf project has been labelled the “Beragala Eco-friendly Golf Course.” Environmentalists scoff at the concept of an “eco-friendly golf course,” pointing out that a golf course consumes vast quantities of water and tons of fertiliser.

At a recent meeting on development in Moneragala, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapakse said the golf course would be vetoed if the Irrigation Department also opposed the project.
Bogahapattiya villagers and conservationists are hoping the country’s leaders will step in and insist on Bogahapattiya’s protection, for the sake of the wildlife, the people, and the country.

Pulished on SundayTimes on 04.09.2011 

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