Destruction in protected areas sounds death knell for eco-systems

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Shaveen Jeewandara

Endangered seem to be the so-called Protected Areas (PAs), as huge cultivations, attempts at land-grabs, cutting of public roads and sand-mining are carried out sans consideration for the drastic consequences not only for Sri Lanka but also the world.

Reports from across the country are flowing in fast and furious about the massive destruction of PAs. Taken in isolation, they seem like sporadic instances but as a whole they sound a red alert for our very survival, said a conservationist, a view underlined by many others.

The tragedy is that it is in breach of the law, another perturbed environmentalist pointed out, explaining that the PAs come under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), the forests under the Forest Ordinance and Sinharaja alone under the National Heritage Wilderness Areas Act.

The PAs come under the stewardship of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), while forest areas are under the Forest Department.

No one, stressed many a conservationist, is against development. But development must encompass conservation, and respect laws enacted to protect the environment, for ill-planned development will end in disaster, they said.

What is a Protected Area (PA)?

It is an area of land or sea that is especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biodiversity/natural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means.

The three categories under the PAs are Natural Reserves, Sanctuaries and Managed Elephant Reserves. The Natural Reserves are further sub-divided into seven groups: Strict Nature Reserves; National Parks; Nature Reserves; Jungle Corridors; Refuges; Marine National Parks and Buffer Zones.

  • Strict Nature Reserve -- No human activities are allowed here and it is protected as a pure natural system. Research may be carried out under strict supervision of the DWC, with approval from the Director-General, following strict guidelines to minimize impact. There are only three SNRs: Hakgala, the only one in the Wet Zone; Yala and Ritigala.
  • National Park – An area allowed for the public to see and study wildlife, within certain rules and regulations to ensure maximum protection to wildlife and their habitats. The 14 NPs covering the entire range of ecosystems in the country include: Somawathie, Wilpattu and Yala.

Conservationists also pointed out that Sri Lankans seem very proud that the country is a “biodiversity hotspot”. Although it means there are many endemic species, it also means that there is an exceptionally high level of danger to them.

Some countries have landmasses that are more diverse, but they are not “hotspots” because they are not under threat. Did you know that to be a “hotspot” more than 70% of the landmass should have faced destruction in the past few years, a conservationist asked.

As many conservation activists and groups such as the Environmental Foundation Ltd., (EFL), Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), Environment Conservation Trust, Wilderness and Protected Areas Foundation (WPAF), Wildlife Conservation Forum, Young Zoologists’ Association, Ceylon Bird Club and Galle Wildlife Conservation Society spoke up against the degradation and denudation of Pas and forests. The Sunday Times turned the spotlight on them and the very first World Nature Heritage Site in the country to uncover what ails them.

The Sunday Times has taken this major destructive strand running throughout the Pas and the forests to weave the big disastrous picture that will toll the death knell not only for Sri Lanka’s animals and plants but also for its diverse eco-systems.

Somawathie National Park

A commercial banana plantation is being set up on a large parcel of land in this National Park, alleged environmentalists, providing satellite images as proof of park encroachment. It has a very sensitive flood plain area, stressed others, while an EFL spokesperson was perturbed that a large acreage seems to have been “written off” for bananas under a memorandum of understanding signed between the Army and ‘Letsgrow’, the local partner of the international company, Dole Food Inc., based in the US.

Many environmentalists disclosed that ‘Letsgrow’ established in 2009, is managed by the brother of a well-known Sri Lankan bowler along with another cricketer.

As of July 2011, nearly 500 acres of the National Park are under banana, the EFL spokesperson pointed out, adding that the story being spread is that it is the abandoned Kandakadu farm of the National Livestock Development Board (NLDB) on the park’s boundary. However, the EFL showed the Sunday Times satellite maps which indicated that part of the clearing and cultivation is within the park.
When Somawathie sanctuary was declared a National Park and expanded, a part of the NLDB’s abandoned farmland fell within its boundaries, said environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardena, adding his voice to the outcry against PA destruction.

“This is very much a part of the park and should not be touched under the law,” he said. Delving into the demarcations, the EFL spokesperson said that it was in 1966 that the Somawathie Chaitiya sanctuary was first declared. In 1986 it was upgraded to National Park status, due to the importance of the animals and plants in the area. Once again in 1987, more land was added to the National Park, as Block 2. The serious issues with regard to boundaries need to be addressed urgently, she said, refuting claims that the eastern park boundary is the Mahaweli Ganga. “No it’s not. The boundary is the Kandakadu ela,” she said.

While the flood plains (flat land beside the Mahaweli Ganga that becomes flooded in the rainy season) of Somawathie are home to over resident 200 elephants, the National Park is also the epicentre of other PAs such as Kaudulla, Minneriya, Chunnakkadu and Wasgamuwa and should be treated and maintained as a contiguous habitat, was the view of many.Small human settlements are also being set up within the park, another activist pointed out.

Flood Plains National Park

The flood plains along the Mahaweli Ganga within the park are falling victim to mechanized sand-mining, which ironically is prohibited, raising questions about the DWC’s abilty and willingness to take action, was another grouse of conservationists.

The authorities are turning a blind eye to the mining with backhoes, a source said, adding that squatters in the area are also engaging in this illegal activity.

Hakgala Strict Nature Reserve (SNRs)

One of only three SNRs in the country, Hakgala which is of immense value with regard to biodiversity, is threatened by potato, leek and cabbage cultivations and settlements continuing to encroach on the SNR, the EFL spokesperson said.

Two cases filed by EFL against the DWC for inaction against encroachers were settled on the basis that certain terms laid down by court would be met. A major challenge is also the encroachment into Hakgala by the Ambewela farm, EFL sources said, adding that the DWC was dragging its feet by excluding the farm in its demarcation of the SNR’s boundaries. This was while the farm had taken the law into its own hands and electrically fenced itself in.

The EFL is considering initiating legal action once again to get the DWC to evict encroachers, the Sunday Times learns.

Wilpattu National Park

World famous in the past for startling images of leopards on white sands, in recent times what has been highlighted is the rape of the pristine Wilpattu National Park to cut two 60 foot roads, one close to its unique villu system and the other hugging the coastline.

Wilpattu’s plight is being fought in the Supreme Court, with the case against the DWC, the Navy and the Ministries of Economic Development and Tourism, filed by EFL, WNPS and WPAF, going in for argument next January.

Banana cultivation at Somawathie National Park. Pic by Vimukthi Weeratunga of EFL

There was large-scale felling of valuable timber trees such as weera, palu and karuwala to make way for the “interior” road from Eluvankulam to Mullikkulam, while the road cuts across the Kala Oya flood plains, an activist lamented, adding it has harmed the villu system and led to many road-kills of animals.
Attempts have also been made by the military to fence off certain areas of Wilpattu, he said.

Many visitors to Wilpattu informed the Sunday Times that the coastal road has collapsed destroying many archaeological treasures. Yearly flooding of the interior road for nearly nine months makes it impassable, a fact that those clamouring for “right of way” have not taken into account, a source pointed out, while another added that the Kala Oya flood plains are the largest in the country and should not be decercrated by a public road.

Meanwhile, large-scale sand-mining has also dogged the Moderagam Aru on the park’s northern boundary, with the matter being brought up in Parliament and Wildlife Minister S.M. Chandrasena denying allegations and explaining that dredging of the waterway is done to prevent flooding.

Ruhuna (Yala) National Park

Development of the buffer-zone activity prohibited under the FFPO, is taking place at this National Park. The one-mile buffer zone is meant to ward off the effects of untoward development activity close to the parks, said activists.

There are also serious concerns about military activity within Yala, with many sources pointing out that especially during the Pada Yatra, stalls had been erected along the devotee-trail within the park.
It was like a circus with much pollution, a source said, stressing that nobody including the DWC had thought about the consequences on the animals and plants. “People forget that these National Parks are meant for the protection of fauna and flora,” a disgusted animal rights activist said.

Sinharaja, the World Nature Heritage Site

It may not be in the heart of Sinharaja, but this World Nature Heritage Site considered the “jewel” in the crown, is facing imminent danger with the latest attempt being to cut a road on its boundary connecting Ilumbakanda village to Suriyakanda.Twice started and twice stopped, if a road is cut on the eastern side of Sinharaja known as Morning Side, it will spell disaster to both fauna and flora, stressed EFL’s Vimukthi Weeratunga, showing the repercussions of a “new but bad frontier” being opened up.
The argument that the villagers of Ilumbakanda are isolated doesn’t hold water as they already have an access road, a conservationist pointed out.

First will come a road, followed by local politicians either ignorant or those looking for quick votes, grabbing land for distribution, Mr. Weeratunga said harking back to the past when Sinharaja became the experimental toy of high-level politicians who first attempted to feed a white-elephant plywood factory by stripping this natural wonder and later allowed large-scale mechanized logging here.

Once again, the plea is that Sinharaja, home to many unique and endemic species couldn’t and shouldn’t be taken in isolation but as a contiguous habitat and protected as such.

Roads, settlements or tea and cardamom cultivations in any of the 14 forest areas identified as the 11,000-hectare Sinharaja Adaviya, which includes the National Wilderness Heritage Site, will lead to fragmentation and loss of both animals and plants, said another conservationist.

Another explained that Sinharaja is the most vulnerable hotspot and any dabbling with it or its environs, where the critical mass would be reduced, could lead to the extinction of many “point endemic” species. Point endemism is when a species is confined to one local area within a site, he said, adding that there may be many more undiscovered species within Sinharaja.

Many were the questions raised why it has taken so long for the authorities to acquire the areas around Sinharaja coming under the Land Reform Commission (LRC).

The Sunday Times learns that under Articles 9 and 10 of the World Heritage Convention (WHC), it requires the evolutionary process to continue for a site to be considered of “natural” importance globally.
Once a Natural Heritage Site is declared due to its “uniqueness and universal value” with world biota being identified there, after competing heavily with many other sites, the authorities of the country where it is located have to abide by the WHC.

It no longer belongs to the government of that country but to the global community and nothing should be done to endanger it, a source said.

(Next week: Why PAs are important and what the ‘Guardians’ say)

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