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29th August 1999

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Should we do this?

Patches of jungle are burnt down in the heart of the dry zone for security and development projects. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports:

Vast tracts of cleared jungle. Bald, burnt patches marring the beauty of nature. Is this the heartland of the dry zone, where nature is at its best?

Is this area - where the elephant and sambhur roam, under threat of destruction and desertification as a result of the accelerated clearing of jungle?

Habarana was just stirring that clear Monday morning, as we took the turn to the right and travelled Imagedown the Polonnaruwa Road. Army vehicles were aplenty and two large tanks were parked near the police station disgorging soldiers from their depths. It was breakfast by the roadside for these young men.

Once the town was behind us, the inexplicable calm that emanates from the thick jungle engulfed us. There was hardly any human habitation and few vehicles on the road. The fresh dung lining the road was evidence that this was truly the land of the elephant. Suddenly we come across a crew of about five men. From the road, about 75 metres of the scrub jungle have been cleared and steel monsters, electricity transmission towers, line the road. The men are working for an Indian company which is drawing a high tension power line from Kotmale to Anuradhapura.

We chat to them and proceed to a "natural rock well'' which villagers say never dries up however harsh the drought. Here too the elephants have been roaming, most probably looking for water. Children, some as young as five or six, armed with sticks and plastic bottles of water drive a large herd of cattle into the jungle

Then we take the other route the Habarana-Trincomalee Road. Here too the jungle has been cleared extensively and burnt in some places leaving ugly gashes.

According to the Conservator of Forests, H.M. Bandarathilake, from time to time, the Defence Ministry requests such clearance for security reasons, as the LTTE could come under cover of the jungle and attack military convoys. About five years ago, there was a request to clear a tract of 150 metres on either side of the Habarana-Trinco Road. Once the request was approved, the Forest Department marked the boundaries of the area to be cleared and also all trees of commercial value. Then the area was released to the State Timber Corporation with a list of the valuable trees. The corporation employed contractors to clear the area and fell the trees.

Referring to the recent furore about the natural forest being set ablaze, Mr. Bandarathilake said about a month ago the department heard that a certain area had been burnt.

This had followed a request by the army to clear up to 500 metres including the 150 already done, on each side of the road. The usual procedure was followed, but some of the Timber Corporation contractors had set fire to the underbrush that had come up in the area cleared earlier, instead of clearing it manually.

As it is the dry season, the breeze had carried the flames farther engulfing about eight hectares, including a Forest Department plantation of kohomba.

The department held an inquiry and initiated legal action against some of the contractors. It also asked the Timber Corporation to "blacklist" them, he said, assuring that the clearing had been stopped after this incident. "The Defence Ministry has agreed to review the security situation to ascertain whether there was a need for 500 metres to be cleared."

The newly-appointed Chairman of the Timber Corporation, Leelananda de Silva confirmed the incident and said some contractors had set fire to the undergrowth, but the matter was looked into.

Conservator Mr. Bandarathilake said logging in the natural forest was banned and no felling operations took place in the jungle unless there was a specific reason such as a development project or security. In the case of a development project, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) would be carried out. Now timber was extracted only from forest plantations established by the department.

Asked what percentage of forest cover had been destroyed due to security reasons, he said statistics were unavailable. "Sri Lanka has a forest cover of two million hectares, of which about 1.5 million are dense cover. A forest resource assessment is done every 10 years, as the process of taking aerial and satellite photos for such assessment is very costly. An assessment is due next year.

Meanwhile, the Assistant General Manager (Transmission) of the Ceylon Electricity Board, D. C. Wijeratne said a high tension line of 220,000 volts was being drawn from Kotmale to Anuradhapura and for that the jungle was being cleared about 60 feet. It was necessary because large trees could cause serious problems and short-circuits. "But we won't ask for a single tree to be cut unless it is absolutely necessary," he said.

In the Minneriya National Park too as we bump along in a ramshackle jeep on the rutty tracks, a swathe of black, burnt land greets us. The magnificent Minneriya tank with its abundant birdlife forms the backdrop. Only a small deer jumps across our track, the other animals have sought the cooling shelter of the jungle in the noon-day heat. About 200 elephants come down to the tank every evening, the tracker who is accompanying us says.

What are the burnt patches? The tracker doesn't know how it had started. A small patch had caught fire and the dry wind had done the rest. The parched vegetation was like a tinder-box and the fire had spread to 15 to 20 acres. The wildlife office at the park has a dearth of staff and it is difficult to keep an eye on all 8,800 hectares which comprise the park, he says.

Who is setting fire to the jungle in the national park? According to the tracker there could be three possibilities it could be the villagers who bring their cattle to graze in the park, the fishermen who put up make-shift wadis near the Minneriya tank or poachers. The villagers may be lighting small fires to prepare tea and those may be spreading because the undergrowth is dry. It could be the same in the case of the fishermen.

When we ask a few fishermen who had just left the tank to partake of their lunch of red rice, fish curry and fried egg roe spiced up with green chillies and onions, Jayasinghe, one of the fishermen says, "We put out the fires properly. Anyway, the wadis are not near the jungle, so there is no chance even for an ember to be taken by the wind to the jungle."

Wildlife Director A. B. Gunasekera laments that the worst threat to the national parks is from the cattle brought in by villagers. About 1.5 lakhs of animals are let loose in the parks in the country and they eat up the food of the elephants. The villagers also set fire to the grass, so that it would grow well after the rains.

The poacher theory is stressed by villagers in the area. They set fire to the underbrush so that their footfall cannot be heard by their prey. Otherwise the crack of dry twigs would give them away, the villagers tell us. Venison being freely available in most of the "buth kades" (boutiques) seems to substantiate this view.

Is such destruction part of this whole conflict of man against nature? Villager against elephant? Industrialisation and security against extinction of animals and destruction of the natural habitat?

The answer would lie in proper co-ordination among the relevant authorities to maintain a balance. We do need industrialisation, we do need security...but it should be done taking precautions to protect the environment.

Otherwise our grandchildren may be able to see elephants only in the zoo and at Pinnawela. The herds that roam Minneriya would have succumbed in our march for development.

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