The controversy over a circular issued by the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation empowering District and Divisional Secretaries to use selected land for economic projects continued this week, with the government defending the move and environmentalists opposing it. The latest directive was on November 4, by Secretary of the Ministry, Bandula Harischandra. It cancels [...]


Laws bulldozed to clear way for land and forest plunder


The controversy over a circular issued by the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation empowering District and Divisional Secretaries to use selected land for economic projects continued this week, with the government defending the move and environmentalists opposing it.

The latest directive was on November 4, by Secretary of the Ministry, Bandula Harischandra.

It cancels the widely-discussed circular (5/2001) of August 2001 and two other complementary circulars.

Recent clearing up in Anvilundawa, Puttalam. Pic by Hiran Priyankara

The controversy that emerged, was a continuation of the protests in July this year when initial proposals to cancel the 5/2001 circular re-surfaced.

The 1/2020 circular will authorise District Secretaries to use state forests for economic and other productive uses without harming the environment.

However, environmentalists claim that environmental damage is what will happen.

Rainforest Protectors, convener, Jayantha Wijesinghe, analysed the three circulars that were cancelled.

The oldest, 5/1998, was issued by the Forest Department, at a time when these other state forests belonged to the District Secretaries, stating that any forest area larger than 20 acres in the wet zone, and 80 acres in the dry zone should be handled, owned, and managed by the department.

The 5/2001 the circular at the heart of the debate extended the previous circular in vesting authority of other forest areas to the Forest Department and away from the District Secretaries as well.

“The rationale for both these circulars was that land under the District Secretaries was being subject to severe exploitation and environmental degradation,” Mr. Wijesinghe noted.

The third is 2/2006 which provided authorities with a mechanism that could be used to redistribute previously reclaimed areas for development. According to circulars, an inter-ministerial committee would assess the merits of a project along with its ecological impact and then approve or deny accordingly.

“Through this circular the government has a clear cut process that they can follow to acquire lands legally with no objections. What is the necessity to cancel the previous circulars and put almost 700,000 hectares of forest land at risk?” Mr Wijesinghe asked.

Mr Harischandra told the Sunday Times, the 1/2020 circular helps to reduce the time-consuming decision-making process.

“We have strong district-level decision making systems so why not make use of it?”

At present approval fro Colombo is needed to distribute land.

Mr Harischandra insists that thorough documentation needed from the divisional, district and national level, provides protection. The circular will still involve decision-making with input from all the area officers of relevant agencies but the final decision making authority is at district level. Any issues that seem too large for this level will come to the Land Commissioner General’s office.

Mr. Harischandra also made reference to the circular of the Land Commissioner that was released along with 1/2020, which he also believes is an added protection against encroaching. This circular allegedly provides the mechanism that must be followed to release any state owned land.

Twelve locations of ecological significance have been tagged as “sensitive areas”, to make them “untouchable”, in every sense.

This was a condition stipulated by Parliament before cabinet approval.

A directory of locations of special ecological value was to be compiled to give added protection. The Central Environmental Authority has been asked to compile this directory, a copy of which will also be shared with the Wildlife and Forest Conservation Ministry.

The circular notes 10 categories of state lands that are to remain untouched as “sensitive areas.”

Environmentalists are skeptical.

Jayantha Wijesinghe told the Sunday Times that it was clear that the protection of these lands was not being taken away to improve farmers’ lives.

“I can name between Yala, Lahugala and Kumana, more than 50,000 acres managed by a single company with farmers as the face of their business. It is a cover to allow large corporations to occupy land that belongs to the Forest Department and the Wildlife Conservation Department,” he insisted.

Mr. Wijesinghe also makes references to letters they found relating to a specific company asking for 3,000 acres, while pressuring the District Secretary to release the lands.

Responding to the vulnerability of District Secretaries to undue influence, Mr. Harischandra noted that even while the decisions are made in Colombo, the destruction of forest areas like Wilpattu did occur.

“Circulars don’t decide these things, our collective behaviour as a society does. The ministry isn’t here to cut trees we’re here to foster it. The necessary measures against exploitation have been taken,” he said in response to the public outcry about the cancellation of the three circulars.

Environmentalists believe that these issues will only worsen when protection is removed.

The Rainforest Protectors also noted an incident in the Mahaweli floodplains where three district secretaries had illegally given permits for about 10,000 acres in the national park. While legal action had been taken, Mr. Wijesinghe noted that under the new laws it is likely to facilitate corruption in lower levels of government.

“Most of our biodiversity exists outside of these national parks, 70% of elephants for example, live outside of national parks, and so do more than 60% of our leopards.”

No conclusive data exists on the exact number of hectares of other state forests.

The ministry assumes tentative figures at 500,000 hectares and 375,000 hectares once the sensitive areas are removed, environmentalists project up to 700,000 hectares.

The Rainforest Protectors are in the process of calculating the extent.

Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena, called the circular a shoddy piece of writing.

“The second provision refers to a class of land that does not exist,” he said.

According to Mr. Gunawardena declared forests are protected under the Flora and Fauna Ordinance and the Forest Conservation Ordinance. Areas such as Sinharaja are protected areas under the National Heritage Wilderness Act and other lands that are not specifically declared as protected areas are still protected under provisions of Section 20 in the Forest Conservation Ordinance, which was amended in 2009 to broaden the scope of protection for lands including other state forests. The circular says that its provisions only apply to lands not under any regulation of the sort.

“They obviously don’t know what they are talking about and are confused about their intentions,” Mr Gunawardena said.

Special mentions made to certain status quo practices such as consulting the attorney general for and the circular’s invalidity where open court cases are concerned, show that the circular has been strewn with distractions to fool people into a false sense of security where these forests are concerned.

Referring to his previous allegations that the term “residual forests” is a misnomer, the lawyer notes that none of the legislation concerning forests makes reference to such a category of land. Whatever is protected under section 20 of the forest conservation ordinance is known as “other state forests’’.

According to Bandula Harischandra, the circular was drafted with input from the Forest Department, Wildlife Conservation Department, Land Commissioner’s Department, Land Policy and Planning Department, Land Survey Department, Land Reforms Commission and other authorities.

This tallies with what R M C M Herath, land commissioner told the Sunday Times at a previous interview. However, Mrs. Herath assured at the time, that the circular would only be revoked gradually. This is found to be in breach given the unexpected new circular.

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