On November 16, the Appeal Court held former cabinet minister Rishad Bathiudeen guilty of clearing 2,000 hectares in the Wilpattu wild life sanctuary in 2012 to resettle Muslims displaced during the Eelam war; and, following the principle the ‘polluter pays’ as contained in the Rio De Janeiro Declaration, ordered him to pay the cost of [...]


New writ opens season to slash the country’s rainforest canopy

700,000 hectares of forest land condemned to face the axe before the altar of Mammon

On November 16, the Appeal Court held former cabinet minister Rishad Bathiudeen guilty of clearing 2,000 hectares in the Wilpattu wild life sanctuary in 2012 to resettle Muslims displaced during the Eelam war; and, following the principle the ‘polluter pays’ as contained in the Rio De Janeiro Declaration, ordered him to pay the cost of replanting an area equivalent to that cleared.

GILIMALE FOREST RESERVE: Birds in a rainforest paradise now await the loss of Eden

It was a landmark judgment which underscored the importance of the environment; and the deterrent sentence imposed reflected the concomitant need to preserve Lanka’s fast dwindling forest canopy which safeguards the verdant landscape of fertile furrowed fields from turning into a desert land.

If that was the enlightened stance taken by the country’s judiciary with its keen legal eye on the environment, what’s the action taken and the example set by the executive government of the State toward the country’s dwindling forest canopy which it swore to protect and increase in its election manifesto ‘Vision for Prosperity’?

Especially when the Government stands today on the threshold of sacrificing 700,000 hectares  of Lanka’s forest cover to the woodcutters’ axe before the altar of Mammon?

A controversial cabinet circular MWFC/1/2020 issued on November 4 by the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation has provoked a rainstorm of protests by concerned environmentalists who claim it will result in slashing Lanka’s rainforest canopy and will adversely impact the ecology.

This far reaching circular transfers overnight direct control of land classified as state forests under the purview and protection of the Forest Department to the hands of 321 Divisional Secretariats and 25 District Secretariats with the power to release these forest lands when the economic summons arrive at their separate 346 doors.

But before the axe falls on the first tree earmarked to be grounded and erased from nature’s slate for the sake of economic growth, what the circular does is to give the chop-chop to three preceding circulars namely one issued in 1998 limiting the extent of forest land managed by Divisional Secretariats; another issued in 2001 which entrusts the management of all other forest land to the Conservator General of Forests; and a subsequent circular of 2006 which empowers the Conservator General with the authority to release land for non-forest related purposes.

Under the existing system of releasing these state forest lands, a mechanism was in place to ensure the lands were not released arbitrarily to parties merely because they asked for it. Their applications were first subjected to a strict vetting process by a Special Review Committee and released only on approval being granted.

In releasing the land for economic activity, this company of divisional and district secretariats are advised by the cabinet circular to use their discretion and to ‘be careful not to select the land areas’ mentioned in the schedule. Here are the out of bounds 10.

1)   elephant corridor,

2)   catchment areas,

3)   areas with higher gradients,

4)   areas where endangered fauna and flora are protected,

5)   areas near rivers and streams,

6)   areas with historical, cultural or archaeological value,

7)   areas identified for future development activities

8)   areas not suitable to be developed for various reasons

9)   areas proposed for future community forest projects

10) areas proposed to be used to achieve targets of conservation of  biodiversity under the presidential ‘Vision for Prosperity’,

Any trespass on these sensitive areas, needless to say, will have a direct, and sometimes an irreversible, adverse impact on the ecology. The question is whether these divisional and district secretaries — the new Czars of the Forest — have the nitty gritty to identify the sensitive areas so proscribed?

They will be further handicapped, no doubt, by the absence of clear criteria in the circular by which to gauge whether a specified area can be considered ‘environmentally sensitive’. For instance, by what yardstick can they measure higher gradients or how far the area should be from catchment areas or rivers and streams? Or the significance attached and the protection afforded to historical, cultural and archaeological sites in a landscape dotted with some sort of ruins? Or have an uncanny ability to sneak a peep into the future and determine what areas are to be proposed for future projects?

Is the President’s ‘Vision for Prosperity’s environmental facet to be imperiled by placing the fate of ‘proposed areas to be used to achieve its targets of conservation’ at the mercy of faceless divisional secretaries whose experience and knowledge to decide on matters ecological may well be called into question but whose enthusiasm, perhaps, when adorned with sole authority to decide on the decimation of forests may well rank with the proverbial monkey’s zest when given the razor?

Will the circular’s caution, put ever so delicately to the new guarding deities of the forests, ‘be careful not to select from these areas’ specified in the schedule, suffice to ensure that these sacred lands will remain inviolate and be kept religiously untouched? Or will this onerous duty, imposed on their narrow shoulders, be debauched by money, swayed by influence or transgressed by submission to a higher compelling order which cannot be refused? Or simply led a stray due to ignorance, apathy or through negligence?

And what are these ‘Other State Forests’ land, the circular makes constant reference to as being the condemned lot for the executioner’s axe? According to Wildlife and Forestry Ministry Secretary Harischandra, it is land not declared under any forestry or wildlife enactment, but are nevertheless forest areas under the Forest Conservation Department. Examples cited are Hambantota Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve. Another is the Kiribathgala Mountain range. Situated in Pelmadulla in the Ratnapura district, the Kiribathgala Mountain at 948m is the highest mount on the range. The Pulun Waterfall is also situated here. It’s 47km from Belihuloya, and is also a popular hiking and camping site.

The Gilimale Forest Reserve is situated also in the Ratnapura district, and is next to the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary at the foot of the Sri Pada ridge. Washed by the waters of the Kalu Ganga, it has been described as possessing an abundant wildlife diversity, of being a paradisiacal hideaway for a wide array of creatures, both small and beautiful. Recently, a unique frog species was discovered in this forest reserve Ranwella’s spined tree frog (Polypedates ranwellai), named after dedicated environmentalist late Dr. Sanjeeva Ranwella.

It is also a great haven for birds. And is an ideal place to sight some of the endemic birds found in the tropical forests in Sri Lanka such as the Ceylon Blue Magpie, Crested Drongo, Rufus Babbler, Jungle Fowl, and the Spur Owl. But, alas, their halcyon days may soon be coming to an end with the untrammeled power given to the new breed of animate forest dozers to mow down the biodiverse habitat they live in.

According to environmentalists, many forested hills are found in the southeastern Intermediate Zone that lies between Moneragala, Bibile, Mahaoya and Nilgala. Many are ‘Other State Forests’ and are considered to be of great conservational importance since they contain some of the virgin forests still extant in Lanka today. But with circular MWFC/1/2020 attempting to penetrate its forest cover, these zones may not retain their immaculate status for long.

Last week in Parliament, Wildlife and Forestry Minister C. B. Ratnayake stated: “Only the ownership of the lands in the buffer zone would be transferred.” But that does not hold water with many environmentalists who claim its ‘circular’ attempt to release important forest lands to multinational companies for agricultural and tourism purposes after first vesting ownership with 300 odd obliging divisional secretariats.

When the circular was first sounded out in early July, cabinet spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardena noted in particular that one of the reasons prompting its issuance was the need to cut the red tape that had so inconvenienced ‘slash and burn’ chena cultivators. If that is one of the reasons a government minister deems fit to be given, then it reveals the reality of the bleak vision held for Lanka.

For those in the Government who claim these lands must be used for agriculture development, for economic activity without its trees unproductively acting as mere sentinels of time, the environmentalists ask in return: Is it not the case that out of the 62 percent of arable land in the country, half lies idle? Why not utilise them for economic purposes first before attempting, out of environmental ignorance and naivety, to cut the ecological sod under the nation’s feet?

Lest it be forgotten, once the rainforest canopy is destroyed, not all the king’s horses nor all the king’s men can make nature’s creation grow again, not for another half century and more. The call must be Rewild Lanka, not de wild or deforest but rewild.

Wimal’s 5000 buck shockPerhaps, Weerasangilige Wimal Weerawansa was born with the proverbial silver spoon stuffed up his oral cavity right down to his oropharynx that he has remained immune for these last 50 years of his pampered life to the hardships those on the other side of the street face during this corona pandemic that has left them prisoners in their own household.

Perhaps, such a richly molly coddled young tenderling, brought up in diapers and wrapped in cotton wool, who never having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or borne with chilled innards the gnawing pangs of raw hunger, is, perhaps, psychologically incapable of empathising with the wretched  lot of the les miserable since his fortuitous birth to wealth and noble station still shields him from the horrors of the poor’s wails when their sad existence is lightly tossed from the frying pan to the fire.

Had the man been to the manor born and had he been cossetted in the lap of luxury, had he been sheltered from the dark and ugly other side of life and had never set eyes on the poor and the hungry nor walked through their lowly haunts, his contemptuous reaction to the plea of a hungry mass asking for more could have been excused and dismissed as a reaction due to a congenital defect in his make-up.

But when he had been exposed to the same harsh elements and, no doubt, had suffered periods of financial despair as all do, his uppish answer to a people’s cry for help last week in Parliament, is akin to King Louis’ wife Marie Antoinette with superior demeanour asking the locked down peasantry to eat cake when they complain they have run out of bread.

If Mr. Weerawansa honestly thinks that 5000 bucks for a family of four can last for a month as he told Parliament last week, he should give his ministerial motor a miss and get on his old push cycle and revisit the markets of his youth and do a reality check on current food prices. And see how times and prices have changed before the insult in his cussed remark begins to sink into the people’s empty bellies. Marie Antoinette lost her head to pride. Will Wimal lose his to riches.

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