The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) has sent letters of demand to the government agencies and the organiser embroiled in a controversial music festival in Habarana to suspend the event.

The letters have been sent to the Conservator General of Forests, Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Inspector General of Police and Sumudu Saman, the founder of the organising company Deep Jungle Entertainment (Pvt) Ltd. It could eventually make way for litigation and the recovery of costs in the case if there is non-compliance.

The crux of the issue which is also argued in the CEJ’s letters is the harm to wildlife, especially elephants,  from the raised noise levels in an area designated a silent zone. Animals are sensitive to sound levels between 20 and 20, 000 decibels and in the case of electronic music this will be heightened.  The CEJ relies on the Police Ordnance and Police Circular 2031 /2007 which does not allow the use and issue of permits for sound producing and amplifying equipment like loudspeakers, between 10 pm and 6 am. The judgement in the case against Uduwe Dhammaloka Thero on the use of a loudspeaker was where the provisions of the Police Circular were upheld recently. The letters also raise the legality of holding an  event in proximity to a national reserve in violation of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordnance and the clearance of forest land in contravention of the National Environmental Authority Act of 1980.  Conservationists fear the organiser may have cleared more than the claimed 1. 5 acres of land.

Environmentalists are worried the noise will heighten encounters with elephants. ‘This is what happened during the Galgamuwa carnival a few months back’, points out Hemantha Withanage, who is a director and senior advisor at the CEJ. ‘Elephant corridors were blocked and there was property damage’.

The Deep Jungle music and cultural festival which is to be held from 17-19 February in the Gal Oya Forest Reserve has brought environmentalists head-to-head with its organiser and government agencies as they try to save one of Sri Lanka’s iconic areas made famous for sightings of wild elephants.

They are angry that the sound and light from the venue chosen for the festival, at the heart of an elephant corridor linking the Minneriya, Kaudulla and Hurulo Eco park national reserves, will be detrimental to elephants and other wildlife.  ‘We have already lost the elephant gathering’, says Withanage referring to one of Asia’s greatest wildlife spectacles where as many as 400 elephants used to converge to graze in the Minneriya national park between July and October every year.  But bad management has led to fluctuating water levels in the Minneriya tank and the once lush plains have lost its lure for the elephants. Hoteliers in the area say between 150- 200 elephants use this corridor every day to move to the nearby Hurulu and Kaudulla parks in search of food.

‘This is an area for eco-tourism’, stresses Withanage.  ‘We have nothing against tourism and music as long as it happens in the right place’.

‘How else can we rebuild tourism in these areas’, questions Jeewa, the administrative and entertainment focal for Deep Jungle. Withanage on the other hand is sceptical about the number of tourists who will come to the event and the business it will generate. ‘One elephant alone generates 19 million rupees annually’, he elaborates.

Jeewa sees no basis for objections. ‘We have been here for one month and there have been no problems with elephants.  There are people who have been living here for about 25- 30 years and cultivating their land. They have electric fences around their land’.  The fences did not alert Deep Jungle that there could be potential issues with elephants.  ‘A group of environmentalists have suddenly got it into their heads that something is wrong’, she goes on.  ‘As far as we are concerned, we are acting within the legal framework and have got the approvals. We will be having a sound pollution check on the 16th and will be inviting environmentalists for it’. She is still uncertain who is on the list of invitees for this.

According to Jeewa this event is their sixth edition.  They started putting on these shows in 2017 and have had them in Nilaweli and Sigiriya so far.  She explains how preparations for this year’s event started back in February last year with a plan to have it at the Kimbissa air force base.  ‘We need a big space for this type of event to be successful’.  But the plan was rejected, and the Ministry for Public Security referred them to the Ministry for Tourism and to meet with high ups there.  They met with the Minister  Harin Fernando and State Minister Diana Gamage during this time. She says they settled for Habarana because of the type of festival they wanted to host. ‘The festival concept is to make people look into themselves and we wanted a quiet place’

Meanwhile, amidst the confusion caused by the involvement of multiple government agencies in the approvals process and the intervention of the presidential secretariat and prime minister’s office to facilitate the event, most who green lighted the festival have backtracked.

The Divisional Forest Office in Polonaruwa which comes under the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Resource Conservation wrote to Deep Jungle on the 13th of February that it is withdrawing the approval it had given earlier.  ‘The area where the event is to be held is private land and we have no control over it’, said an officer from the Divisional Forest Office.  ‘But when an event like this takes place there are restrictions to protect the environment and wildlife. We withdrew our approval because the tourism ministry and the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau withdrew theirs’.

In a statement released on the 13th, the Bureau urged the organiser to consider cancelling the event ‘if they have not obtained the necessary wildlife, forest and other related agency clearance’.

It denied having provided approval for the event. ‘Based on clearances obtained from other line agencies to stage this event and on their submission, the Bureau provided endorsement from a tourism perspective which too will be withdrawn unless necessary environmental clearance is obtained’, the statement went on to say. A source at the Bureau said they have removed the standee promoting the event which they had at the Bandaranaike International Airport.

Media sponsor Sun FM, whose logo is prominently displayed on Deep Jungle’s website, have also distanced themselves.

Despite the overt withdrawal of support by government agencies and mounting opposition from the public, Deep Jungle however is optimistic about the event going ahead and have started the countdown to the festival on its website. ‘We are confident the event will go ahead’, says Jeewa. ‘Even if we have to take a step back we will survive’.


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