Just a year into the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency,environmentalists are up in arms over the apparentassault on the country’s Wildlife and Forest Reserves.
Recent actions of the government’s Ministers’ and associates belie the promise of his election Manifesto, “Vistas of Splendour and Prosperity’, they say, where a variety of actions have been identified under the topic ‘A Sustainable Environment Policy.’
Amongst those are ‘Biodiversity: The sustainability of land and water resource management will be ensured while taking proactive measures to increase national forest cover by 30%. Appropriate and definitive measures will be taken to identify areas for reforestation purposes.
Settlements and Cities: When establishing settlements, potential areas will be selected that will have minimum environmental impact while no large-scale developments will be allowed in identified environmentally sensitive areas.’ The policy further explains that ‘All infrastructure development that occurs in rural areas will be built to be resilient to natural disasters (Disaster Resilient Villages). Measures will be taken to mitigate the serious environmental damage that occurs due to illegal and irregular sand mining; this will be achieved by introducing specific zones where riverine and ground sand can be mined.” As well it specifies that, ‘Action will be taken to control human impact on marshy lands and mangrove ecosystems and to conserve them. A system will be put in place to identify barren and abandoned lands and to restore them to be used as agricultural land and forest lands.
Despite all that, the pattern of behaviour and actions taken regarding the environment this past year, do not seem to reflect the promise in the manifesto.
The latest controversy is the plan to re-open a long abandoned road, along the Mahaweli River in the Flood Plains National Reserve from Manampitiya to Yakkure. While environmentalists allege that this is really an attempt to grab lands in the Weheragoda area,and also mine sand, another bone of contention is the plan to permit cattle grazing within the Reserve.
Environmentalists point out that the Yakkure village itself had been relocated when the MahaweliDevelopment Project was implemented, with access to nearby Dehiathakandiya which has infrastructure facilities such as hospitals.
Convenor of Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka, Jayantha Wijesinghe explains that the Flood Plains National Park was created in 1984 to compensate for the land areas that were taken up for the MahaweliDevelopment Scheme. Running alongside the Mahaweli River, the National Park connects two other national parks, Wasgamuwa and Somawathiya, and forms a contiguous path through smaller forests providing a corridor for elephants and other animals. Overflow of the Mahaweli River, he states, creates a series of villus (marshy land) which provide water and food for elephants. As well, there are many sand deposits found in the area.
Permitting cattle to graze on these lands will, apart from their eating the grass, a food source for elephants, also disturb wildlife. In fact, according to a report by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society earlier this year, they had found two illegally set up stockades in the Wasgamuwa Forest Reserve area, with domesticated buffaloes. Since the stockades had been moved around several times, the SLWCS had found that ‘the forest reserve was devoid of ground cover which provides food and habitats for a large number of wild animals.”
On Wednesday, December 2, several environment and wildlife enthusiasts gathered outside the Sobha Dam Piyasa, in Battaramulla to silently protest the government’s planned actions within the Flood Plains National Reserve.
Led by the Ven. Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara, Convenor of the Protect Sri Lanka Organisation, the group protested not only the plans to re-open the roadway and allow cattle grazing within the Reserve, but also showed their displeasure at the behaviour of the State Minister for Wildlife Protection, Adoption of Safety Measures including Construction of Electrical Fences and Trenches and Reforestation and Forest Resources Development, Wimalaweera Dissanayake. He was recently videoed berating wildlife conservation officers, who were attempting to dissuade him from re-opening the road and permitting cattle into the Reserve.
Those who spoke at the protest questioned whether this and other decisions made by the government which will negatively impact the environment, are in line with the promises made in the manifesto. They pointed out that dissatisfied by the track record of the previous Yahapalanaya government, they were instrumental in defeating it at the elections. Now, though the new government has just been a year in office, environmentalists have been compelled to protest the incorrect decisions made regarding the environmentthey added.
Ven. Ananda Sagara and a few others who were allowed into the Ministry building, were unable to meet the State Minister or the Secretary to officially lodge their complaint against the planned actions, and also ensure that the Wildlife Officials who stood up to the Minister would not be punished.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, December 3, another group of activists which included members of HarithaPurawesiyo Environmental Organisation and local residents gathered in Polonnaruwa, to protest against the planned actions within the Flood Plains Reserve. Speaking at the protest, the Haritha PurawesiyaConvenor, Kanchana Weriwelpanawa had stated that the unique biodiversity found within the plains keeps the water tanks in the area full, and helps cultivation. Instead of safeguarding the elephant corridor, what is being planned, she said would negatively impact not only the elephants but also its bio-diversity.
Chandima Fernando, currently doing his PhD studies at the University of Colombo and who has studied elephant behaviour for nearly 15 years told Counterpoint that, “The Flood Plains is bound in by the Wasgamuwa, Minneriya, Kaudulla and Maduru OyaParks, forming a unique area where elephants have the necessary space to roam and food throughout the year. What is unique about this area, he said, is the year round availability of food for elephants. “It is very, very important that these protected areas are left as they are, he pointed out, because with the government’s decisions to place the management of the Other State Forests with District and Divisional Secretariats, the space for elephants and other wild animals is shrinking. The Flood Plains is a unique habitat not only for elephants but for other animals as well, he says. Even if you do not consider the wildlife that will be affected, fragmentation of the Reserve will result in huge flooding in those areas, he points out. As well, elephants, especially the males need a large roaming area, and disturbing such unique environments will only result in more human-elephant casualties. “Just last night, another elephant was mowed down by a train’, he stated, pointing to the dangers that will increase, if the Reserve is fragmented and a roadway opened up, as planned. “The elephant is an “umbrella animal’ he says explaining that protecting elephants will automatically ensure the safety of other wild animals. “It is humans that should change their behaviour.’
Indeed, as the wildlife enthusiasts point out, there have been many negative incursions into protected areas and other forests since the government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power in November 2019.
Against the advice of opposition political parties and environmentalists, in early November, by virtue of Circular MWFC/1/2020, all previous circulars that placed the management of Other State Forests with the Forest Conservator were cancelled. Other State Forests now come under the purview of Divisional and District Secretaries who are authorised to release the land ‘for economic and other productive uses.” Though the circular lists several safeguards such as land which are of historical or archeological value, and those in catchment areas, elephant corridors, etc., that must be considered before Other State Forests could be releasedfor commercial enterprises, environmentalists and even the political opposition fear that the Secretaries would find it difficult to withstand the pressures brought upon them by external forces to have the lands of their choice released.
Those who support the move to place Other State Forests under the management of Divisional and District Secretaries claim, that those lands could be used plant trees of commercial value, and thus contribute towards reforestation. However, those studying bio-diversity and related matters point out, that reforesting for commercial purposes will not safeguard the wildlife or the ecology that these forests support. As well, instead of using forests for commercial purposes, they ask why, the huge land areas that are not in use be parceled out for such agricultural and similar ventures.
In January this year, it was reported that the then Minister in charge of Environment and WildlifeResources, S M Chandrasena, had been permitted by the Cabinet to arm members of the Civil Defence Forcewith T47 rifles as a means of dealing with the human elephant conflict.
Then, soon after the parliamentary election held in August this year, the President himself ordered the widening of a road in the Lankagama– Neluwa –Deniyaya area where a good part of it passes throughthe Sinharaja forest, a World Heritage Site.
Environmentalists protested. Apart from makingfurther incursions into a national heritage site, they were concerned that a carpeted road would make room for speeding vehicles resulting in road kill of wild animals, and also provide easier access to those involved in illegal activities such as bio-piracy andfelling of timber. Despite the concerns raised, the President ordered the road work be completed with minimum cost to the environment.
As well, that same month, the former ArachchikattuwaPradeshiya Sabha (PS) Chairman Jagath Samantha, the brother of State Minister Sanath Nishantha Perera, was arrested for the destruction of the AnawilundawaWetland Sanctuary. Granted bail a few days later after his arrest, Jagath Samantha, had this globally recognised bio-hot spot, one of six in the country identified by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, destroyed to make way for a shrimp farm.
Wetlands are identified by environmentalists as being home to many endangered wildlife, birds and plants around the world and are productive eco-systems that also recharge groundwater supplies.
So now, environmentalists are asking whether the actions spelt out in the election manifesto were just promises to attract votes. Because, they say, the actions of the government since coming to office in November 2019, have at least in terms of environment protection, been contrary to the assurances made.
Wijesinghe points out, that, to date there have only been two decisions that could be applauded, and that is the banning of Oil Palm plantations and single use plastics, the latter is due to come into effect in 2021. However, he adds that it remains to be seen how effectively these two decisions would be implemented.