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Two businessmen cordon off the main elephant corridor of Sinharaja

Sajeeewa Chamikara

Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform

Botiyatenna elephant corridor in Manikkkawatta is the main corridor used by elephants who live in Sinharaja to travel to Dellawa – walankanda forest area. In recent times two businessmen have obstructed the elephant corridor and are clearing the forest to build two new hotels. One hotel is being constructed by the son in law of the owner of Guruge Gems, Kahawatta in Dolekanda Grama Niladari area after clearing seven acres of forest land. Kalawana Divisional Secretariat had approved the construction of the hotel ignoring environmental regulations. As it is the forests are being cleared, land is being prepared and buildings are being constructed using heavy equipment.

Another hotel is being built at Botiyatenna Elephant Corridor, situated in Godakawela Divisonal Secretariat area by Lalith Rajapaksa, a businessman from Godakawela. He has cleared up around eight acres of forest land.

These two hotels have obstructed the elephant corridors used by the two elephants that live in Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Now the residents of Rambuka, Thanawela, Ellagama, Handiyekade, Kajugaswatte, Pothupitiya, Kopikella and Cypresswatte villages will face increased human elephant conflict as the two Sinharaja Elephants maraud these villages. Residents of these villages will lose property and lives due to the hotels constructed by obstructing the elephant corridors.

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. They are also doing their best to delay the declaration of these lands as protected areas.

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 since there is a serious risk of landslides in this area. 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 does not endanger the forest network, its catchment areas as well as the biosphere.

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, these hotels that are being constructed by clearing up seven and eight acres had not obtained EIA.

The Gazette Extraordinary adds 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. 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 construction of the two hotels is illegal.

The Central Environmental Authority (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.

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 elephant corridors are closed 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 oppose these moves as citizens, powerful businessmen will take over all our natural assets like they are doing at Sinharaja.