4th March 2001

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Re-drawing Sinharaja's boundaries

Should rainforest settlers be given more land? Dilrukshi Handunnetti reports

  • The only way..
  • 'Shabby treatment'
  • A ForestWe are in the Diyadawa Reserve of Sinharaja forest. A nip in the air, the smell of moist earth, a profusion of wild flowers and a thick forest holding many mysteries welcome us. Yet, nature's bounty seems transient, with human intervention threatening to leave a trail of destruction in what is Sri Lanka's only rainforest.

    A villager leads us through the Deniyaya-Pallegama access to Diyadawa, a forest that takes its name from its spectacular natural waterways. We cross many log bridges and walk across paddy fields, traversing leech-infested terrain to reach the hamlets- the cause of deforestation and increasing encroachment within the reserve.

    Diyadawa is the centre of controversy these days. The government has issued title deeds to villagers who have encroached on the reserve and built their makeshift huts, eking out a living through the cultivation of tea, paddy and chena crops. But can such deeds be issued, even under the clause of 'sustainable use of the forest'? Environmentalists think not, stating that this attempt to redraw the boundaries of the country's most valuable environmental treasure is illegal.

    Declared a reserve in 1936, Diyadawa extends some 2,578.9 hectares. For centuries, there have been hamlets on the banks of the Gin Ganga with a few settlements located within Sinharaja. Mass settlement commenced in the early Seventies and today, most are second generation encroachers believing in their right to cultivate and dwell there.

    The western boundaries of this World Heritage site was the first to fall victim, with the proposal to construct a golf course and a hotel in its midst. Now, the southern boundary is the target with attempts to legalise encroachment.

    There are about 22 villages in the environs of Sinharaja with a total population of about 6,000. The villagers greet us with speculative glances and measured smiles. They have no desire to upset the-powers-that-be who have pledged to legally transfer to them the land they have encroached on.

    These are villagers confined in every way, geographically and psychologically. Plagued by low incomes, large families, inadequate education, unemployment and industrial support, they exploit the forest, which to them is a commodity to be used in their battle for survival.

    It is in this backdrop that the 'Wana Bhoomi Entitlements' were issued in August 2000, just before parliamentary elections, though bearing a December 1999 date. The villagers were ecstatic about 'receiving deeds'. No amount of explaining that these 'entitlements' for the 'sustainable use of forest' lacked legal foundation could convince them otherwise.

    On the day we visited Diyadawa, forest officials were meeting land beneficiaries to discuss future programmes, once this part of the reserve is excluded from the original boundaries. But the entitlements came long before the process commenced.

    The entitlements came without guidelines. The villagers don't know what 'limited use' of the forest means, but are happy about receiving 0.2 hectares for their exclusive use.

    While the majority hold only about 1/2 acre, some have about 5 acres. Their main income is derived from tea, chena and paddy cultivation. Most live in abject poverty in houses resembling cattlesheds without electricity or water.

    And the statistics are daunting. Only about 1% of the population have permanent employment. To improve their income, they clear more forest to grow tea, little knowing that all could be lost anytime.

    "We were told that hereafter the lands would be ours. We will cultivate more tea and expand the paddy field," said enthusiastic Yamuna, a 32-year-old woman from Halgahawalahena. To her, cultivating 3-4 acres of tea in a forest area is not an offence, but a necessity.

    Sixty eight-year-old Piyawathie claimed that 'Samurdhi mahattayas' instructed her to stop further encroachment. "They said not to cultivate beyond the specified limit, but if I were to do it, they promised to allow plucking of tea for another five years."

    E.G. Matin settled here in 1965, long before these settlements flourished in Diyadawa. His family cultivated 11/2 acres of paddy and forest land. He switched from chena to paddy cultivation, settling for tea in 1972 when they were issued 'cultivation permits'.

    " They cautioned us to protect the forest when cultivating. We rarely cut trees, but timber fellers go scot-free," he said angrily.

    In Beliattakumbura in Wathurawa, the clearing of forest land was more pronounced. There were more beneficiaries too. A. K. Karunasena has lived in Beliattakumbura for thirty long years. "Why do they take thirty years to give us our due?" he queried.

    With doubts over ownership, villagers feel a new boundary would settle the issue. Waidyaratne is another beneficiary, but in contrast to the wattle and daub houses of others, his house bears signs of comparative prosperity. His walls are covered with posters of government politicians and he claims that he should receive his title now.

    " We were instructed not to clear any further. In Galle, encroachers received massive blocks. What is already cultivated is ours, and if we exceed, we can enjoy the fruits of our labour for five more years. After that, these would come under a forestry plan," he explained.

    Manikkawatta from far appears like a massive expanse of tea. Beyond the tea plantations lies the lush Sinharaja forest. Seeing us, two young boys busy removing logs from the thicket ran away, as our escort informed us that part of the Sinharaja regularly disappeared in the form of firewood.

    A Samurdhi officer said that entitlements are issued strictly to the landless or families with a monthly income below Rs.1,000. They cannot expand their land either. Opposition politicians are giving this effort a political undertone, but the reality is that 800 families must settle somewhere, he said.

    But officials confirmed that the best option would be to settle them in villages and issue lands for cultivation- a suggestion that has not found favour with the politicians who believe re-demarcation of the reserve to be the answer. Meanwhile, a Sinharaja Village Trust has been formed to uplift the economy of the villagers as a means to prevent further encroachment which results in deforestation. As opposed to brewing kasippu and pirating medicinal plants, villagers are encouraged to make kitul-based products and rattan baskets and mats.

    "It is a long way to go for real conservation. People must leave the forest and settle in villages," said a senior official from a nearby divisional secretariat, casting doubts on the viability of de-gazetting the forest. The government has emphasized the need for peaceful co-existence of man and nature. But with the needs of the villagers' being given priority and new boundaries reducing the conserved area, whither Diyadawa, and Sin-haraja, the country's only rainforest?

    The only way..

    "This is the best solution to a continuing problem," said a senior official of the Forest Conservator's office when asked why encroachment is being legalized. According to him, the villagers receive entitlements under the Forestry Conservation Programme, 'Wana Bhoomi Sanra-kshanaya', and thus could be held responsible for the land issued to them.

    This was the only way to counter the problem of growing encroachment, whilst The Ministry of Forestry and Environment retained the right to the land, the official said.

    The issue of land for 'sustainable use' was done after thorough evaluation of the eligibility of candidates. The period of occupation, previous development of land, socio-economic conditions and the conservation aspect were taken into account, the official said. Those who don't satisfy the requirements are legally evicted.

    "This is a social issue. We have to compromise a few things to protect the most important biosphere which is the Sinharaja. Diyadawa is only the reserve. Preserving pristine forests is a luxury we cannot afford, given the socio-economic constraints. This is to protect the core areas of unique bio-diversity and to make the villagers from surrounding areas partners in a conservation process," he said. "From the Deniyaya or Colombo office, it is not possible to protect Diyadawa. It is the people who matter, it is they who should protect it. This is why we retain the land under us and make them partners under our programme," he said.

    'Shabby treatment'

    Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardhane asserts that these entitlements have no legal basis and are only an attempt to legalize encroachment in the future.

    " To permit even limited use, the conserved area should be re-gazetted as 'village forest' , thereby altering existing boundaries. Through de-gazetting, these lands should be declared 'Crown Land. ' Limited use' is permitted only in village forests," he claims. The time-consuming process will be complete when de-gazetting is followed by Parliamentary ratification. However, this cannot be declared a new 'village designate', but only as 'other state forest' (OSF). And the re-declaration process under the State Lands Ordinance should be necessarily preceded by a period for public objections.

    Mr Gunawardene further said that the entitlements did not specify boundaries nor the limitations imposed on the 'sustainable use' of forest.

    "The National Environmental Act of 1980 as amended by Act No.56 of 1988 stipulates that clearing of more than one hectare of forest should follow an EIA. Diyadawa was declared a reserve to prevent future deforestation, and this is shabby treatment meted out to the country's only rainforest," he stated.

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