On the A9

The A9 highway is today the most talked of road in the country. Although it is still far from becoming the most travelled, it has been attracting a growing number of commuters, since it was opened for civilian travel following the signing of the MOU between the Government and the LTTE last month.

For some, this route finally provides an affordable opportunity to visit relatives living in the North, for others it opens a path to assess for themselves the devastation that almost two decades of war has left behind.


Shrinking Bundala
We are near a tiny, natural pool, trying to capture the beauty of flocks of herons, spoonbills, egrets, elegant painted storks and the occasional ibis. It is late April and the flamingos - the main attraction of this wonderful birds' paradise, have flown back home to India.

Importance of Bundala
Bundala was declared a sanctuary in 1969 and upgraded to a national park in 1992.
In 1990, under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance for Migratory Waterfowl, Bundala was declared a Ramsar site, the only one in this country. In Scots' Directory of Asian wetlands, Bundala is the 26th recognised site.

To be so recognised, the area has to be an example of a wetland type rare or unusual, support an appreciable assemblage of rare, vulnerable and endangered species or subspecies or plant or animal or an appreciable number of individuals. It also should have special value for maintaining the genetic and ecological diversity and regularly support 20,000 waterfowl.

Bundala is a haven for migrant and resident birds, and is home to over 20,000 migrant birds. According to 'A Guide to Bundala' by Channa Bambaradeniya, a total number of 383 plant species are found while 324 species of vertebrates are also found, 11 being endemic while 29 are nationally threatened species. The largest reptiles in Sri Lanka, crocodiles and the Indian python and highly venomous species such as the cobra, Russell's viper and the saw -scaled viper are found in Bundala.

Importantly, Bundala is an ideal habitat for birds, both resident and migratory. This bird paradise is also a haven for waders with a total of 197 residents and 58 winter visitors being recorded within the park during the past three years. Among the residents, three are endemic while 10 are nationally threatened.

As we draw nearer, the birds get disturbed and leave their little pool. And it is yet another wonderful sight to watch the painted storks in flight, their black, pink and white feathers drawing a distinct pattern against the clear blue sky.

A little beyond the pool, I spot the peafowl, spreading its plumage as the sun comes out. There are also the small wonders like the green-feathered bee-eaters and the kingfishers. Diverse and beautiful. But all these charms may be transitory, as the Bundala national park, home to so many resident and migratory birds and also the habitat of the globally endangered waterfowl, stands threatened today.

A move by the government to redraw the boundaries thereby significantly reducing the land area of the Bundala national park, the only recognised Ramsar wetland in Sri Lanka and undisputedly, the country's most recognised bird site has alarmed environmentalists.

The 6216 ha park area consists mainly of dry thorny scrubland and lagoons. In addition, there are streams, seasonal water holes, tanks, salt marshes, mangroves, seashores and salterns, aspects that add to the diversity of habitat and the richness of its biodiversity.

The shallow brackish water lagoons within the park include Koholankala ( 390 ha), Malala (650 ha), Embilikale ( 430 ha) and Bundala ( 520 ha) creating a complex wetland system which provides for the rich and diverse bird life. Three streams, Malala, Embilikele and Kirindi Oya also flow through the park area.

The southern border of the park, a haven for peacocks, migrant birds and crocodiles is the area under threat. According to senior officers of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the plan to issue title deeds to the villagers of Wetakeiyawa and Bundala has been in the pipeline for a decade.

Long before Bundala was declared a national park in1992, these villagers occupied the land and farmed there. The plan to grant title deeds to these villagers would in effect reduce the land extent at least by a vital 1200 ha, according to officials.

Mostly farmers, the villagers of Wetakeiyawa and Bundala occasionally do some inland fishing when the economy plummets. Their families have lived in the same area for at least three generations. But, things changed when the area was declared a natural reserve, and Bundala was declared a national park ten years ago, they said.

"Nobody disrupts our cultivations. But we do feel restricted because there are so many park rules that we have to adhere to now. Removing firewood, cutting a tree for a fence are things that we can no longer do. The park brings revenue to the government, but not to us," said A. Nandasena, a farmer.

Other villagers too seem to agree with Nandasena's sentiments that their lifestyle has been affected as a result of the park. They have no other land to plough, so they cultivate parkland.

Some felt they should have been granted land many years ago, and were taken by surprise when two years ago, officials visited the area to assess the land and the extent of cultivation with a view to re-declaring park boundaries excluding the two villages.

"We thought it was perfectly legal for us to cultivate the land and believed we had absolute ownership. Two years ago, we requested title deeds or a viable alternative," said another villager.

But with the move to re-declare the park boundaries earning the ire of environmentalists, the new government is reconsidering its options.

Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Rukman Senanayake told The Sunday Times that the ministry was willing to consider new options that would be fair by the people and support habitat conservation.

"The re-declaration of Bundala boundaries is an emotional issue for environmentalists and ecologists. It should be so, considering the significance of the site. We appreciate the need to protect out wetlands as they maintain the ecological balance. At the same time, we invite fresh suggestions that could settle the problem in a satisfactory manner," he told The Sunday Times.

He added that he would initiate discussions with the villagers so that a solution could be found, based on their requirements. There has been no proper structural management of the park so far, and there were many aspects that needed to be immediately addressed besides the villagers' issue.

Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardene said that perhaps the best solution would be to resettle people under the Kirindi Oya scheme or in the Bandagiriya area, a nearby village that is recommended for farming activities. As a third option, he said that land could be granted from other areas depending on the choice of villagers in a manner conducive to their livelihood. "It is much better to resettle them elsewhere.

That way, they could gain more arable land and the freedom to do their farming without the park rules restricting them. Similarly, the park would be protected from possible plundering, poaching and illegal felling," he said.

Endorsing the above view, a former Samurdhi officer from Bandagiriya, K. Somasiri said that the villagers were not insisting that they should live in Wetakeiyawa or Bundala. Their main concern was to cultivate land, and they would actually prefer a scheme which would grant them title deeds of more land.

He noted that much destruction was being caused to the vegetation as the residual agro chemicals that are discharged to the lagoon have an adverse effect on aquatic animals.

Environmentalists also claim that as elephants migrate to Uda Walawe between Koholangala and Malala, the route should be kept free of cultivation or settlements to prevent elephant- man conflicts.

Environmentalists also point out the many other threats to Bundala such as shell mining, poaching, hunting and felling of trees causing the depletion of the vital forest canopy in an arid area.

Minister Senanayake added that there have been complaints about high speed driving within the park area that could destroy the habitat. The park was also severely affected by the recent drought with waterholes drying up and many animals dying.

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