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Large scale land grabbing at Delgoda Reserve in Sinharaja area

Sajeewa Chamikara

Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR)

A group of politically connected individuals are clearing up 143 acres of forest land adjoining the Delgoda Reserve situated at Suduwelipatha Village, Wewagama Grama Niladari Division in Kalawana Divisional Secretariat area. Delgoda Reserve is an important part of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. These individuals have prepared false deeds and are clearing the and for tea cultivation. Already, 10 acres of forests have been cleared. The land cleared are the catchment areas of main tributaries of Kudawa River, which joins the Kukule River.

Delgoda Appu, a resident of Kalawana, and some businessmen from Panadura, Kandy and Colombo are behind the forged deeds and the unauthorized clearing of lands.

Most of the forest areas surrounding the Sinharaja are earmarked to be absorbed into the Forest Reserve because they are an important part of the forest network. These unscrupulous businessmen and politicians are attempting to carve out as much land as possible before these areas receive protected status.

Legal protection afforded

On 21 October 1988, the government demarcated and declared an extent of 11,187 hectares of Sinharaja as national heritage reserve by gazette number 528/14. The gazette was published under section two of the National Heritage Wilderness Areas Act (No. 3 of 1988).

 On 20 November 2019, gazette notification 2150/31 declared under section three of the Fauna and Flora Protection ordinance, last amended in 2009, declared 36, 475 hectares of forest land, comprising of National Heritage Wilderness Area and adjoining forests, as a protected area.

Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area and all adjoining forest areas have been declared a soil conservation area by Extraordinary Gazette No 1550/9 issued under section three of the Soil Conservation Act, no 25 of 1951. This was declared because there is a serious risk of landslides in this area.

According to existing environmental laws, when carrying out development activities in such an area, one needs to take approval as per the National Environmental Act. The aim of this is to ensure the project doesn’t endanger the forest network, its catchment areas as well as the biosphere.

Violation of environmental laws

Gazette Extraordinary No 777/22 of 24th June 1993 issued according to section 23 of the National Environmental Act, no 47 of 1980 (amended) states that one needs to take approval, based on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA,) to convert of forests covering an area exceeding one hectare into non-forest uses. However, at present large swaths of forest land is being cleared for the cultivation of tea, without any clearance from relevant institutions.  The Central Environment Authority (CEA), entrusted with implementing the provisions of the National Environmental Act, has done nothing to address these blatant violations of environmental laws.

Moreover, the same gazette states that one needs to take approval, based on an EIA to also carry out any development activity within 100 meters from any National Heritage Wilderness Area or a forest reserve. The Gazette Extraordinary also says that an EIA is also needed to carry out any development activity within an area declared as a soil conservation area. Given that these hotels have not received any environmental clearance; it is obvious that the forests are being cleared illegally.

As mentioned earlier, the CEA has the power to act against those who carry out such illegal activities. According to Section 23 (a.) (a.) of the National Environmental Act; when a project is carried out without obtaining approval the CEA can present such people before a magistrates’ court. If found guilty a person can be fined up to Rs. 15,000 or imprisoned up to two years or both.

According to Article 27(14) of Chapter VI of the Sri Lankan constitution “the state shall protect, preserve and improve the environment for the benefit of the community.” However, the CEA seems to have no interest in taking action against those who are building these hotels illegally. This is CEA’s attitude to almost all major environmental destruction that seems to be taking place these days

Undermining the President’s election manifesto

According to the section on sustainable environmental policy in Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor,’ the election manifesto of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa states that ‘the government must act as a guardian that ensures both man and animals have the right to land.’ The manifesto states that ‘most human activities that take place today cause massive damage to the natural environment. We have the responsibility to protect the right of future generations to live in a safe environment.’ Speaking about his land use policy, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that the land must be used for the benefit of the people. ‘The government must ensure the right to land of man and animals. The government must act as a guardian of the land for animals and future generations.’ He also said that he will increase the forest cover of the country to 30%.

However, all these promises are being broken. The government is silent when the Sinharaja forest is degraded, and forests are being cleared for tea planting by businessmen. The right to land seems to be a right reserved only for businessmen. We have the right to oppose these under article 28. (f) of the Constitution which states that we have a fundamental duty ‘to protect nature and conserve its riches.’ Article 28. (e) states that we also have a fundamental duty ‘to respect the rights and freedoms of others.’ Thus, we, the citizens have the right to oppose the illegal use of natural resources by powerful businessmen. If we do not apply pressure on the government to stop these illegal activities, soon we will lose large swaths of the Sinharaja Forest to unscrupulous elements. This type of clearings will also adversely affect tea small holders who operate legally in the area.

Stripping Sinharaja off vital forest networks

One of the main reasons for the increase in deforestation in recent times, is the encouragement given by the Executive during programs like Gama Samaga Pilisandara (discussions with the village).

Another reason for this spike in deforestation and illegal development initiatives is the non-implementation of some far-sighted policies formulated by a Presidential Task Force in 2004. Based on the recommendations of the above-mentioned task Force, Cabinet Paper (PS/CS/26/2004 of 22 July 2004) proposed to allow the Forest Department to acquire forests, most of which belong to the Land Reform Commission (LRC), within the radius of 500 meters from the Sinharaja boundary. The Cabinet Paper also proposed that these lands should be acquired under Section 22 (1) F and 44 A of the Land Reform Law of 1972 after paying compensation. The cabinet approved the proposals, but the paper and other documents have been languishing at the Ministry Environment for decades without any action being taken. If these proposals were implemented, businessmen and politicians would not have been able to grab large swaths of ecologically sensitive land adjoining Sinharaja Forest.

According to Department of Forest Conservation statistics, by 2010, only 3% of the total land area of Sri Lanka is covered in rainforests but not all of them are protected. Thus, it is obvious that the ecosystems affiliated with rainforests will collapse of deforestation continues at the current pace. To ensure that future generations of Sri Lankans are to benefit from rainforests; all the existing rainforests must be protected.