Land grabbers eye unprotected forests around Sinharaja

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Published on SundayTimes on 23.10.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161023/news/land-grabbers-eye-unprotected-forests-around-sinharaja-213439.html

Protect these LRC forests immediately – environmental organisations urge president

School children learn importance of protecting environment at BLUE – GREEN event

Environment organisations fear  there is an ongoing attempt to grab forest lands in the vicinity of the Sinharaja forest by individuals and groups.. The scheme came to light when a group commenced surveying around 400 acres of the Delgoda Forest located near the Sinharaja Forest last week. The group claimed they possessed  deeds to the land.

The Sunday Times learned  the Forest Department’s Range Forest Office in Kalawana was able  to stop the activity as no proper documentation regarding land ownership was provided..

Sriyantha Perera of the ‘Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka’ said many fraudulent attempts are being made to grab forest land. In one instance an individual claiming rights to the forest land based on ‘Nindagam Oppu’ claimed to have been issued during the British colonial era in 1940.

According to this old ‘nindagam’ document  the individual claimed he owned an extent of 800 ‘vee kuraniya’ – an old unit of measure used to quantify amount of harvest. This roughly equivalent to 2000 acres according to Rainforest Protectors.

The reality however is that no individual can legally own over 50 acres of land.

Another ruse of the land grabbers is to peruse documents of the Land Registry in an effort to identify land  owners who may have died and those who have left the country, create fake documents and claim ownership. Perera added that with the advent of nature-based tourism, land value in the area had sky-rocketed and this was another reason behind the rush to grab land illicitly.

The Kalawana Divisional Secretary refused to comment on the issue when the Sunday Times contacted her. The Conservator General of Forest, Anura Sathurusinghe said that he also got to know about the attempts to grab forest lands adjacent to Sinharaja and the matter is under investigation.

Meanwhile, the ‘Rainforest Protectors’ has called on government to take over all forest lands adjacent to Sinharaja because the high value of its endemic biodiversity. They added these patches of forest also act as corridors linking the larger rainforest complex, and if destroyed, the already fragmented fragile ecosystem would be adversely affected.

The environmentalists said they recognised difficulties faced regarding forest lands claimed by private individuals. However they pointed out that forest lands belonging to the Land Reclamation Commission (LRC) are forests which can be immediately brought under the protected area network as the  LRC had agreed to transfer the lands to the Forest Department several years ago.

Unfortunately boundary demarcation disputes have slowed the process of transferring the said lands for protecting under the control of the Forest Department.

Forest Conservator General Mr. Sathurusinghe said these LRC lands were now being surveyed, but said that Forest Department has to wait until the survey Department finalised its demarcation.

Environmentalists point out that as there were attempts to grab forest lands in these areas with blessings of the local politicians, it was very important to expedite the process of protecting LRC forest lands.

“There have been instances where lands are grabbed overnight. Why can’t work to protect these forest  lands be expedited? especially when the Environment Minister is the President of the country who enjoys executive powers environmentalists ask.

Meanwhile the month of October is earmarked as ‘Tree Planting Month’ with the campaign spearheaded by the President Maithripala Sirisena himself. As Environment Minister, the President also aims to increase Sri Lanka’s forest cover up to 32 percent from the current 29 percent.

Environmentalists are thus  urging the President to expedite the process of bringing these LRC lands under the protected area network to give them the much needed legal protection necessary to ensure their safety.

Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green EraSpeaking at the opening ceremony of the “Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green Era” policy initiative, held at the BMICH,  President Sirisena emphasised that should any individual or institution take action to upset the balance of the environment,  government would not hesitate to enforce the laws against the wrongdoers.

While welcoming these sentiments, environmentalists said action rather than words were necessary. They pointed out that approval had been given  for the implementation of environmentally harmful projects such as mini hydro power plants.

Activists who have a joint stall in the “Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green Era” exhibition, are using the opportunity educate people on how sensitive environments are being destroyed for a negligible amounst of power generated by mini hydro power projects.

The ‘Rainforest Protectors’ also handed over a letter President Sirisena emphasizing need to take timely action to ensure Ministry of Environment, Central Environmental Authority and Sustainable Energy Authority cease issuing permits for future mini hydro projects and urgently appoint a team to investigate issues connected  to existing mini-hydro projects.

The organisation accused unnamed government politicians of attempting to get permission to restart currently halted mini hydro projects which allegedly harm the environment.

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