The government has sanctioned the clearing of 3,920 acres of jungle in the Mullaitivu district to make way for a large-scale resettlement programme, under the Uthuru Wasanthaya (Northern Spring) programme.
Resettlement Minister Milroy Fernando said the land had been set aside for 1,500 Mullaitivu families who were forced to leave the area because of the conflict, going back to 1985.
“The government is responding to appeals from people who fled the area and who now want to return to their original homes,” he said.
Meanwhile, the large-scale forest clearing operation is ringing alarm bells in environmental circles.
More than 250 acres of forest land have already been cleared, according to State Timber Corporation General Manager, P. G. Kumarasinghe, who says the corporation is acting on the instructions of the Mahaweli Authority.
Hundreds of valuable trees, including ebony, satinwood, teak, palu and weera, have been felled to clear land in the Halambawewa area, close to the Kokilai Lagoon.
Environmentalists say the tree-felling is illegal, pointing out that the Central Environmental Authority has not issued an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on a project that requires the clearing of thousands of acres of virgin forest.
The State Timber Corporation’s Mr. Kumarasinghe, however, says the Mahaweli Authority has the power, under the Mahaweli Authority Act, to go ahead with the project.
Environmentalists also say the felling of trees is being conducted in an irregular way, and that valuable timber is being sold at “firewood prices.”
Acting on a tip-off from one environmental group, the Forest Conservation Department seized five lorries transporting timber out of the area. The drivers were produced before the Kebithigollewa Magistrate and fined Rs. 10,000 each. The Magistrate has ordered the suspension of the felling of trees until investigations are completed.
Meanwhile, the Central Environmental Authority chairman Charitha Herath said the CEA has received no complaints so far about forest clearing in the North.