Land clearing continues at Wilpattu

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

The saga and rape of Wilpattu continue. With each passing day, the destruction of Wilpattu and its environs increases with more and more land being cleared not only for cadjan huts and other structures but also for cultivations, the Sunday Times understands.

In the eye of the storm now is the Wilpattu Sanctuary, which includes the one-mile buffer zone on the northern boundary of this oldest and biggest National Park in the country, as well as the state forests adjoining it.

The destruction is shocking, stressed a spokesperson for the Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL), whose members have been in the area frequently, pointing out that within the short span of June to September, three months to be precise, massive clearing of these protected areas has taken place.

Where there was a small naval camp, now there is a huge cantonment while in the same area large clusters of cadjan huts have come up, literally overnight, aided by backhoes clearing tracts of land for paddy cultivations, it is learnt.

Three backhoes were observed during the most recent visit of EFL members to the area, the spokesperson said, adding that the people now living in the cadjan huts, having ploughed the land and already been given fertilizer and seed paddy are awaiting the rains to start cultivations.
The clearing and destruction covering more than 350 acres so far in Mullikulam and Marichchkaddy are in direct contravention of the law.

The sentinels of Wilpattu, the majestic burutha, weera, palu and other valuable timber trees have been felled wantonly, an EFL member who was in the area on September 30 said, overcome by emotion and the blatant breach of the law.

No one, of course, knows what the fate of the wildlife has been, for Wilpattu is famous for deer and many small animals as well as the leopard, bear and elephant.

“Whereas there were only some small clearings when we visited the area on June 13, things had changed drastically when we went to the same areas on September 2 and 30, the EFL member said.

The Wilpattu North Sanctuary covering 4,160 hectares is the oldest sanctuary in the country, gazetted way back on February 25, 1938.

The boundaries of the sanctuary, the Sunday Times understands are the cart track from Dixon’s Tower to Veppal Villu on the north, the Veppal Reserved Forest on the east, the Modaragam-aru on the south and the sea on the west.

The sanctuary which shares the Modaragam-aru boundary with the Wilpattu National Park and the state forests adjoining it have a forest canopy similar to that found in the National Park, another EFL member said, pointing out that laws with regard to “development” or “any other activity” in such areas are very clear.

There are no grey areas in the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) and the National Environmental Act, the Sunday Times learns, with everything laid down clearly in black and white.
Sanctuaries, which may contain both state and private land, come under the mandate of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) while state forest land is under the purview of the Forest Department.

Even for private lands within a sanctuary, numerous are the restrictions under the FFPO with many an activity being prohibited or requiring specific permission. “State land within a sanctuary is protected in a manner similar to a National Park,” an EFL member pointed out.

The spokesperson also underlined the fact that ANY development activity within the one-mile buffer zone of a National Park requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

The same applies to a sanctuary as well, as the FFPO states in no uncertain terms: No person or organization, whether private or state, shall within a distance of one mile of the boundary of any National Reserve (under which falls a sanctuary)………..carry out any development activity of any description whatsoever without obtaining the prior written approval of the Director–General (DWC).

In addition, an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) Report or an EIA is mandatory when converting ANY forest land over a hectare for non-forest uses while an IEE or EIA is also mandatory when clearing ANY land area exceeding 50 hectares, the spokesperson said. Meanwhile, involuntary resettlement exceeding 100 families other than resettlement effected under emergency situations also requires EIA/IEEs, it is learnt.

What the officials say

The clearing of sections of the Wilpattu North Sanctuary has been reported to the Ministry of Economic Development by the DWC and a ministry advisor is expected to visit the area and submit a report, said DWC Director-General W.A.D.A. Wijesooriya when contacted by the Sunday Times.
With regard to the expansion of a navy camp into a cantonment, a wildlife official said the camp had been set up under a different situation when the country was facing a war and recently been strengthened.

Meanwhile, a Forest Department source explained that if people encroached on state forest lands, the department usually files legal action against them but the situation in the area adjoining the Wilpattu North Sanctuary was different.

There is “resettlement” going on there, he said, adding that the department was finalizing a report about the issue to be submitted to Environment Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa.

There have been traditional villages in some of these areas which may have been abandoned due to the conflict. If people are to be resettled in those traditional villages a policy decision is a must to follow the normal procedure, he said.

The normal procedure entails a request being made to the Forest Department which in turn would check whether such villages are plotted in old maps and submit a report to an inter-ministerial committee comprising the relevant ministries and permission being granted taking into consideration whether conditions such as an EIA had been met.

Thereafter, the department will ensure that those resettled will not encroach into state forest lands beyond the boundaries of the traditional villages.

Currently, the department is carrying out a strategic environmental assessment of the north to ensure that areas which need to be protected as elephant corridors and sanctuaries (which come under the DWC) and reserve and conservation forests will not fall prey to the rapid development envisaged for the north.

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