The lack of a minister for the environment in the new government has dismayed environmentalists even though they largely view the change in regime as being beneficial.
Just days before his election, President Maithripala Sirisena signed a public pact presented by the Environment Organisations’ Collective (EOC), and the grouping hopes the new leader will honour the terms of the pact, which includes a pledge to stop abuse of natural resources and ensure their protection.
The omission of an environmental minister at this week’s ministerial swearing-in ceremony puzzled many and raised doubts as to whether the new government is serious about tackling environmental issues.
Sources close to the government say Athuraliye Rathana Thero’s name emerged as a suitable candidate for the post but the Thera’s decision not to accept any ministerial posts had prevented the naming of another person for the portfolio in the time available.
The sources have assured the conservation lobby that a strong person would eventually be named environmental minister.
The environmental lawyer, Jagath Gunawardene, who was continuously critical on issues during the Rajapaksa government, said the most important thing was to establish the rule of law, and when this broader issue was resolved action on environmental matters would start falling into place.
He said illegal work that disrupts the environment should be investigated and those responsible should be held accountable. Many projects went ahead without proper Environmental Impact Assessments such as the development of a Port City in Colombo, and these projects should be reassessed by capable people, he said.
Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) stressed the need to bring together departments and institutes relating to environmental matters.
During the previous government, even the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and Department of Forest Conservation that had to be working hand in hand were split into two ministries, making co-ordination a problem. The DWC) was at one time assigned to the Ministry of Economic Development and for while operated without a director-general. Meanwhile, the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) is under the Ministry of Defence.
Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environmental Conservation Trust pointed out that the previous government oversaw unnecessary land-grabbing amounting to nearly 200,000 acres. The baby elephant abduction racket has been another injustice that went on unabated. There were incidents where there was enough evidence to frame charges against culprits but no action had been taken.
Mr. Chamikara issued a press release recently saying even the Auditor-General’s report stated that at least 14 elephants had been captured from the wild. This week, the Department of Wildlife Conservation team raided a property and confiscated a baby elephant kept by a powerful figure in the previous government, Sajin Vass Gunawardene, but he produced a permit to get the elephant released.
With the complex political situation, some of those who stand accused by environmentalists of offences are now supporting the government, so vigilance was needed to make sure investigations were fair and unbiased.
Wildlife Dept. probing cases of animals held sans permits
The Wildlife Department has opened investigations into cases where animals have been held illegally without permits from the Department.
Following a complaint received by the Department, officials visited a location in Ambalangoda on Monday to inspect documents relating to an elephant allegedly held by MP Sajin Vass Gunawardena.
A Wildlife Department officer who visited the place on Monday said the animal was inspected but the documents were not available for perusal.Though the animal should have been taken into custody after informing a magistrate or the animal placed under guard of at least two Wildlife officials and a veterinary surgeon, those involved in the inspection had left and returned the following day.
Hikkaduwa Park warden Asanka Gunawardena said he had the authority to take the elephant into custody but it was too late to take the animal to courts, as the twelve officials present along with the veterinarian could not tackle the elephant without tranquilising it.
On the following day a set of documents was shown to the Wildlife officials. The elephant had been purchased from a monk for a million rupees.
An official said at first glance the permit appeared to be valid, but there were certain discrepancies in the documents produced and the Wildlife Department would have to take a decision. The discrepancies related to the previous records of the animal, including details of the mother-elephant and the pedigree of the animal.
Meanwhile Wildlife Department sources told the Sunday Times learns that a deer from President’s House has been relocated to the Horagolla National Park. The young fawn about a year old was found when Wildlife officers inspected the premises. The sources also said that the fawn was very healthy and tame but was hesitating to eat grass. Meanwhile the Department had received complaints that there were two elephant calves at Temple Trees. Wildlife Director General H.D.Ratnayake was not available for comment.
Previous incomplete audit queries about animals held without valid permits are to be probed.
The Auditor General in a recent report said there were too many contradictions in the explanations given by the Wildlife Department officials to his queries.
There is controversy over the documents of some elephant owners including that of Ajith Gallage who was one of the owners checked by the Audit Department. The Auditor General had sent a letter to the Wildlife Director General pointing out that the background of the photos of the elephant calf taken in 2008 at the previous owner’s place and at the new owner’s place in 2012 were similar. It said that the description of the animal such as the height too had not changed.
The Sunday Times learns that there was another audit inquiry about the approval of four elephant licences by forging signatures of Wildlife Director General Dr. Chandrawansa Pathiraja. Mr. Pathiraja told the Sunday Times that he found his signature was used in an ownership document. He said the document was not signed by him and had sent a letter in this connection to former Wildlife Minister Vijith Wijayamuni Zoysa.