On 4th of August, it was reported that The Court of Appeal issued notice on Minister Rishad Bathiudeen to appear in court on September 16 following a writ petition filed against illegal removal of forest cover and illegal re settlement in Wilpattu National Park. (http://www.dailymirror.lk/82059/rishard-issued-notice-on-wilpattu-issue). Here is my article published on the SundayTimes on 24th of May, 2015.
Environmentalists to fight Wilpattu clearance in court
Despite President Maithripala Sirisena’s order to stop the clearance of forests in the Wilpattu area, the row over the forests dragged for another week with Minister Rishad Bathiudeen justifying his actions while environmentalists fought back, insisting the clearances were illegal.
The problem of illegal resettlement inside Wilpattu National Park surfaced earlier this month with social media and other groups sharing outraged messages about the resettlement.
A settlement in the area (above) and trees being cutdown
Mr. Bathiudeen, the Minister for Science and Industry, who was put in the hot seat, asserted that if it were proved that he had given out lands belonging to the Wilpattu National Park he would resign.
Environmentalists visiting the area clarified that the lands distributed were not part of the Wilpattu National Park but an associated forest called Kallaru Forest under the custodianship of the Forests Department. A small section of the Wilpattu North Sanctuary under Department of Wildlife (DWC) had also been given out.
“The lands that are distributed are not part of Wilpattu National Park but are important forest reserves connecting the areas often used by elephants. So these settlements will only create human-elephant conflict,” said environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara.
He said the giving out of this forest land for human settlement had commenced in 2012. The clearances had been stopped temporally in 2013 and recommenced in 2014. A total of more than 2,500 acres had been cleared, he alleged.
Earlier this week, the senior officers of the Forests Department, Department of Wildlife Conservation and Environment Ministry also explained their actions to the media. The lands had been released for settlement under pressure from ministers of the previous government.
Hemantha Wiithanage of the Centre for Environment Justice (CEJ) further revealed that the land had been distributed as part of the former government’s pet project, Uthuru Wasanthaya but that the process was illegal.
“The CEJ is in the process of filing a case against the Forest Department, Department of Wildlife Conservation, Central Environment Authority and District Secretary,” he revealed. The case alleges that officials of these ministries had been forced by politicians to bend rules.
“The forests in the northern areas play a very important role regulating the north-east monsoon so it is very important to protect the remaining forests,” he said. Irrespective of such warnings, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environmental Conservation Trust said, his organisation had information that there were plans to give out more forest lands in the north for development and resettlement.
Environmental experts point out the need of an integrated and sustainable approach to development. Soon after the war was over in 2009, the Integrated Strategic Environment Assessment for the Northern Province (ISEA) was carried out by the Central Environment Authority (CEA) and the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) with assistance of the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP).
The ISEA mapped the areas that can be used for development and the areas that should be left alone for their ecological values.
Dr. Ananda Mallawatantri, who took a leading role in this study, said ISEA was a unique concept in post-conflict development by any standards but that its recommendations of ISEA had not been fully adopted.
With increasing population and competition for natural resources between humans and animals, proper management of forests is vital.
Continued encroachment into northern forest areas will result in suffering for both wildlife and human settlers. Wildlife, particularly, will be on the losing side, and the harm they will suffer could be many times greater than that caused by the war.