Should “Residual Forests” be managed by District Secretariats?

"Residual forests" play an important role in preserving the ecological system.

Kshama Ranawana

Environmentalists, political parties and even Forest Conservationists are wary of the government’s proposed plan to transfer powers to District Secretariats from the Forest Department that currently manage ‘residuals forests.’

The bone of contention is the cabinet decision taken on July 2 this year, which states, “Administrations of the state Residual Forests, which managed by Divisional Secretaries has been brought under the Department of Forest conservation in terms of the provisions of the circular No. 05/2001 dated 10.08.2001 issued by the secretary to the then Ministry of Forest Resources and Environment. As per the provisions of the said circular, a long procedure should be adopted for the use of such lands for other purposes. Therefore, the farmers who are engaged in chena cultivation in the residual jungles are greatly inconvenienced. This is also a barrier to use the said lands for economically productive purposes.”

Therefore, the Cabinet had asked the   ‘Minister of Environment to look into the matter and furnish an appropriate mechanism for vesting powers in the District secretaries to engage such lands temporarily for other purposes.  In this mechanism, the government ownership should be retained and the residual forest environment and wildlife should not be harmed.’

While some state that the term “Residual forest” is not quite the correct term for the 500,000 hectares of small wooded areas targeted by the government, Counterpoint  learns that these are  patches of land found between National Parks and sanctuaries across the country.  They link sanctuaries and forest reserves, and are used as corridors by wild animals, particularly elephants and are also equally important to preserving the country’s ecosystem.

The management of these forests had been transferred to the Forest Department from the Divisional Secretariats by virtue of circular 05/2001.  According to environmentalists and other published documents on this matter, that 2001 circular had given the powers of managing, protecting and developing these forests to the Department of Forest Conservation to ensure that non-state entities do not acquire, through Divisional Secretariats, ownership of these lands. The circular states however, that there is no bar, when necessary, for District Secretaries, Government Agents and Provincial Secretariats, to exercise the powers vested in them as per the Forest Ordinance.

A circular issued in 2006 (02/2006) meanwhile provided guidelines, which it said would ease procedures set out in the previous circular, when releasing state land for development purposes.   Those opposed to the move believe that misuse of these forests will become easier if managed by District Secretariats.

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya too, Counterpoint learns  is concerned that these forests will be released to private companies for industrial use and not for cultivation by the local landless peasantry as suggested in the Cabinet paper.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) for its part, put pen to paper to register its opposition.  Writing to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on July 3rd,   the JVP cautions  against transferring the management of these lands to the Divisional Secretariats stating that they could end up in the hands of wealthy entrepreneurs.   The JVP points out that the powers vested with Divisional Secretariats with regard to forests were taken away from them ‘due to gross mismanagement and abuse of these forest reserves,” which the JVP alleges had been parceled out to friends and politicians, ultimately leading to ‘ deforestation and destruction.’

In the 1970’s nationalization of lands took place, says the JVP, by the then government with the same purpose that the current administration has in mind.   In the last several decades land was given out to companies and organisations which were owned by a few.   “Protected forests, and forests other than sanctuaries as well as national forests were claimed by landless people, using illegal means due to the non-adherence of policies of the land reform Commission.”

Land belonging to the Lands Reform Commission could be given to the landless, the JVP says,  adding that such matters should be dealt with after the election where it could be discussed in parliament.   “Taking decisions at a time when parliament is dissolved and the main focus is on the epidemic and the impending election can only cause environmental destruction……..’.  The transfer of these forests to Divisional Secretariats are not an urgent matter, the letter adds, and recommends obtaining the advice of  specialist committees before abolishing the circular.

Lalith Gamage, General Secretary of the Forest Resources Conservationists Organisation.
Lalith Gamage, General Secretary of the Forest Resources Conservationists Organisation.

Lalith Gamage, General Secretary of the Forest Resources Conservationists Organisation told Counterpoint, that there are no issues about the conduct of the Divisional Secretaries or their staff.  Most of them abide by the regulations and work in co-operation with Forest officials.  However, vesting both forested and un-forested land in their hands would put them in conflicting situations. ‘When procedures that have been put in place to safeguard forested land are relaxed, these officers will come under undue pressure from external sources to get the lands released.”   The best method to avoid such a situation, he says, is to identify all State land that are forested, have natural springs, are rich in bio-diversity and those that are of historical and archaeological value, and then place only the lands that do not fall into any of those categories, directly under the management of Divisional Secretariats.  To do otherwise, would only destroy any plans of sustainable development of such lands, he claimed.

In fact, in a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in June of this year, the Organization had advised that Circular 05/2001 should only be amended to read that all residual forests must be treated as those that are suitable for conservation.

The President’s plans to increase forest cover to 30% and to promote sustainable development of those lands will be met, if the circular is amended thus, while the more than 40% state owned land, that do not fall under the purview of forest conservation could be placed directly under the management of District Secretariats, the Organisation further states in the letter.

Environmentalists point out the circular 02/2006 outlines steps that must be taken if any of the residual forests are to be released such as requesting an environmental report and clearance from the inter-ministerial committee which is made up of representatives of several government entities.

According to a publication on the Centre for Environment Justice Website, its Executive Director Hemantha Withanage, says that they have sent a letter of demand to the Secretary, Ministry of Environment on June 26 this year, requesting the secretary to protect Circular 05/2001.

Tracing the history of the various actions introduced to safeguard the country’s fauna and flora, the letter states that circular 02/2006 provides for the use of state owned barren land for development activity.  While the two circulars ensured protection of the identified residual forests a ‘few conflicting forest areas in Anuradhapura, Monaragala and Ampara,’ exist, the letter says.

According to the CEJ, there have been two judgements based on the Circulars with regard to the protection of the ‘residual forests.’   The “first one is given under CA-Writ-2047/2003 and the Court of Appeal issued a Writ of Mandamus directing Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Natura Resources and Forest Conservator, Forest Department to take appropriate steps under the relevant laws to protect the portion of forest which was called Patapilikanda forest that mattered in this case, second one is given under SC. Appeal No.78/2006, of the appeal case of the same, confirming the previous judgment that the Conservator of Forests has a legal duty and authority to protect the forest. By this precedent the law has already become a part of the soft law.”

Small forests act as corridors for wild animals.
Small forests act as corridors for wild animals.

Ravi Corea, the President of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) says  while all people need land, if every landless person is to be given 2 acres of land each, someday even national parks and forests might be de-gazetted.  Therefore there must be a strategic plan to use land and resources in a sustainable manner. “All land is seen from the perspective of being good for mega development projects or to be given out to politician’s cronies or parceled out for land settlement programs under the guise of developing the agriculture sector.’ Agriculture is the the least dynamic sector in the economy, and a large number of people who have been living off agriculture are still struggling to eke out a living, he adds.

The “residual forests” referred to here ‘are not all forested lands or even arable land that is suitable for agriculture.   Wildlife and forest cover in some of these lands is negligible because some of these lands, when they were under the District and Divisional Secretaries purview had been used for seasonal Chena cultivation.  Therefore most of these lands are denuded of any forest cover and in fact some of them have been identified for reforestation under the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) of the Forestry Sector to comply with the Paris Agreement,’ Mr. Corea added.

The SLWCS was asked to reforest 855 hectares of such land in the Wasgamuwa region, he explained.  According to the proposed NDCs for the Forestry Sector, Sri Lanka intends to increase the country’s forest cover from 29% to 32% by 2030.  The total land area identified for this effort is 148,000 hectares.  Therefore, how would they achieve anything by “handing out these lands back to Chena farmers, he asked.

The Conservator General of Forests, Mr. W A C Weragoda admits that cutting down forests will have negative repercussions.   He is optimistic, however.  The planned move is so far only a Cabinet decision.  There has been no other intimation regarding the matter to the Department, he said, adding that, “With all the opposition that has been raised over this issue, it is possible that the government will not go ahead with it.”

Efforts to reach the Minister for Land, Land Development, Environment and Wildlife Resources for a comment were unsuccessful.

 

 

 

 

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