The forest department’s delays in acquiring land that would triple the size of the Sinharaja rainforest sanctuary is allowing landholders and rogue operators to clear land, fell valuable trees and gain controversial building permission inside the reserve, environmentalists claimed. Activist Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera alleged businessmen and estate owners have started to encroach into the [...]


Forest of falsehoods surrounds Sinharaja clearings

Activists ask why forestry officials take so long to mark and guard reserve

The forest department’s delays in acquiring land that would triple the size of the Sinharaja rainforest sanctuary is allowing landholders and rogue operators to clear land, fell valuable trees and gain controversial building permission inside the reserve, environmentalists claimed.

Activist Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera alleged businessmen and estate owners have started to encroach into the forested area surrounding the core reserve – a world renowned virgin forest and a World Heritage site – with the support of provincial politicians and local government bodies.

Activist Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera alleged businessmen and estate owners have started to encroach into the forested area surrounding the reserve with the support of provincial politicians and local government bodies

He pointed out that former president Maithripala Sirisena, before ending his term, had increased the size of the Sinharaja by annexing nine peripheral forests to the reserve through a gazette.

“I increased the Sinharaja forest which was limited to 11,000 hectares by 36474.93 hectares. This decision is a decision taken by me for living in the holy motherland and for the existence of human, animals and the nature of the whole world”, Mr Sirisena said after the gazette was published last November a year after being signed.

The Department of Forest had, however, failed to act on this directive by demarcating the reserve’s new boundaries and acquiring private holdings in the added territory, he said.

Deputy Forest Conservator Nishantha Edirisinghe told the Sunday Times that acquiring private land was a long process that involved several ministries such as the Ministry of Lands, and so officials were unable to bring the project to quick fruition.

Due to budget constraints GPS technology was being used to mark the new boundaries rather than deploying officers.

The Sunday Times found that the forests department has not published any new demarcations.

The Ven. Sagara Thera and activist Sajeewa Chamikara from the Movement for Land and Agriculture Reform (MONLAR) said many areas in and near the Sinharaja reserve have been subjected to forest clearances, often carried out by people using faked freehold title deeds.

The cleared areas, Mr Chamikara said, included:

85 acres in the Godakawila Divisional Secretariat area, where, in addition a group of people had forged freehold deeds for 143 acres of land in the Delgoda reserve and had already cleared 10 acres of forest

seven acres in Manikkawatta Botiyatanna in the Kalawana Pradeshiya Sabha in Ratnapura, that includes a pathway used by the two remaining Sinharaja forest elephants

eight acres of land in the Godakawela Divisional Secretariat area that links up with Botiyatanna.

This week, a furore erupted over the land clearing at Manikkawatta Botiyatanna, when a young woman, 19-year-old Bhagya Abeyratna, spoke out on television against forest destruction in the area, a few miles from her village.

Activists such as Ven. Sagara Thera and Mr. Chamikara claim this is in an area of Land Reform Commission (LRC) land that will be part of the enlarged Sinharaja reserve planned by ex-president Sirisena. The Thera said the forests department had delayed for 16 years to take action on acquiring LRC land, allowing renegade businessmen to claim parts of it as their own property.

The issue is clouded in claim and counter-claim.

Those claiming to own the land say they hold freehold title to it. Sagara Thera said LRC land is cannot by law be obtained by freehold title so that those claiming they have such title are holding faked deeds.

The forest department says, for its part, that the land is privately owned and is not part of the area incorporated into the Sinharaja reserve that it has to buy up if in private hands. Activists such as the Thera retort that as the department has not demarcated the area it cannot be certain if the disputed areas are legitimately in private hands or are LRC lands.

Businessman G.P. Guruge, who is the managing director of Guruge Gems, issued a press release saying he was one of three people to whom the disputed land in the Botiyawanna area belonged.

He claimed to hold 45-year-old freehold deeds to the land and denied that it was part of the Sinharaja reserve.

He said he was building three houses and establishing a tea estate for which stone enclosures were being built to prevent soil erosion, and all this work had been approved by the Kalawana PS.

Mr Chamikara said seven acres was not needed to build a house and claimed there are plans to set up a hotel in Botiyawanna.

Kalawana PS Chairman K.V.S. Chaminda Indrappriya said he had given approval for the construction of a house on the Botiyatanna land, not a hotel. He also said the Pradeshiya Sabha did not have power to give approval for the clearing of land, and so had only given approval for a house construction, not for the clearing of seven acres.

“We will look into this matter; they have not informed us that they are building a hotel. We will only allow the construction of a house not a hotel. We also not accountable for clearing the seven acres, we only approved the construction of a house,” he said.

The forests department’s Mr. Edirisinghe said the Manikkawatta Botiyatanna land was privately-owned property and was not one of those set to be acquired for the Sinharaja.

In response to claims that timber had been felled for sale on that land, he agreed that permits were needed to cut down certain types of trees but added that the department did not have the authority for this and could not take action against tree- felling on private land.

He said it was up to the Irrigation department to take action against the blocking of waterways leading out of the cleared private land and added his own department could play a supportive role.

Ven Sagara Thera said while forestry and wildlife department officials claim forest land being cleared was private land and they could not interfere, the trees being uprooted, cut and destroyed were unique as they were forests surrounding the rainforest.

He said officers were not even investigating what trees had been cut down and how the trees were being transported, apparently without the permits are needed for felling and transporting certain kinds of trees even if they are growing on private property.

The Ratnapura District Secretary, Malani Lokupothagama, said she had no powers to take action over forest clearing as the lands that have been cleared was LRC land.

“We are aware of the clearing of land but when we send officials to investigate, they come back and report that the people clearing lands have permits. These permits have been issued by the LRC and therefore we are unable to take action,” Ms. Lokupothagama said.

The Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), Siripala Amarasinghe, said the authority could not act on the clearing of the seven acres at Botiyawanna as it was freehold land and that the Kalawana PS, local grama sewaka and area police were accountable as their approval was required to clear lands, cut and transport trees and build houses.

He added: “The Environmental Act 1992 says an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) must be done for any land-clearing project which exceeds one hectare, but it doesn’t specify an EIA must be done to erect houses”.

The issue of the elephant corridor through Manikkawatta Botiyawanna is also contested. Ven. Sagara Thera, Mr Chamikara and other activists claim it is an elephant pathway. The Kalawana PS Chairman admitted the area is used by elephants.

The Director-General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Chandana Sooriyabandara, however, rejected the claim that Manikkawatta, Botiyatanna is an elephant corridor, saying it was one of many areas frequented by elephants.

“We have not identified the area as an elephant path, therefore there is very little we can do because land is a private property. However, we will report facts to courts regarding the matter,” he added.

The claim sits oddly with the fact that there is a board on the site stating that a elephant corridor exists there. Environmentalists and nearby villagers confirm that the elephants’ movement on the pathway has been disrupted due to the land being cleared and closed off.

Bhagya’s bravery saluted, legal aid pledged

Politicians, lawyers, environmental and social media activists this week came out strongly in support of 19-year-old Bhagya Abeyratna, who created a furore by fearlessly speaking out on television against clearing of the Sinharaja forest.

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party (SJB) held a press conference to back the young woman’s right to free speech and called on the government not to pursue or harass her.

Ms. Abeyratna said the reaction of state officials was “appalling” after she had spoken out against forest destruction taking place 7km from her village, Kaju Gas Watta. She said the cleared area, Botiyatanna, had been the haunt of two elephants living in the area.

Bhagya Abeyratna

She said that soon after she exposed the forest destruction police had taken a statement from her and afterwards a forests department official had arrived at her home to get another statement from her.

“While taking the statement, the official asked me whether I knew the extent of the Sinharaja rainforest and was trying to find fault with what I was telling. I have not done anything wrong and was saying what I saw. It is up to them to investigate it,” Ms Abayratna said.

SJB member Hirunika Premachandra said “saluted the brave action” of Ms Abeyratna and accused the government of “trying to silence the young girl who talked of environmental destruction”.

“As the women’s wing of the SJB, we support Bhagaya Abeyratne and will give her protection, legal support as well as obtaining international assistance if needed,” Ms. Premachandra said.

A large protest in front of the Colombo Municipal Council was held on Friday in support of Ms Abeyratna and another protest was held on Thursday in front of the Human Rights Commission office in Colombo. Placards and a massive painting illustrating forest destruction set up outside the CMC were taken down by officials.

The legal activists’ group, Lawyers Forum for the People, met Ms Abeyratne and promised her legal aid.

The group’s leader, Senaka Perera, said when Ms. Abayratna made her claim of destruction of the forests officials should have begun looking into her claims instead of trying to intimidate the person exposing such activity.

He said that the example given by the state officials was wrong as their actions would discourage others from standing against wrongdoing.

“We are planning to take legal action on behalf of her in future and would support her,” he said.

The forests department denied officers had tried to bully Ms. Abeyratna and said they had only been trying to learn if the location of the tree-felling was in the protected area of the Sinharaja forest.

Protest in front of the Human Rights Commission office in Colombo.

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