Knuckling It Down
- Illegal Constructions In Protected Knuckles Forest
By Gazala Anver
Illegal constructions and encroachments into the Knuckles Conservation Forest area are hastening the extinction of a few endemic and endangered species found exclusively in the Knuckles region, says the Sri Lanka Nature Forum.
The approximately 17,500 hectares of land was declared as a conservation forest in 2007, and as an environmental protection area in 2008. Despite this, the area is being raped — plagued with illegal encroachments and constructions. Several hotel projects have been constructed by private parties, even, purportedly, a construction by Air Force personnel. Apart from the fact that the constructions are illegal, environmentalists charge that the constructions are leading to the rapid degeneration of a number of rare species of endemic trees, flowers and fish found solely in the Knuckles forest area.
Environmental lawyer, Jagath Gunewardana said the whole area is declared as a soil conservation area under the Soil Conservation Act, as well as the National Environment Act. “Therefore all such constructions and clearing of forests has to be done only after due approval from the Central Environmental Authority. The Pradeshiya Sabha has to monitor the building activities and no one can make any construction even on private properties without approval,” he said, adding the laws are clear. However no action has been taken by the authorities, he said.
The Conservator of Forests – Department of Forests, K.P. Ariyadasa however denies there is illegal construction taking place on the state owned land. He claims private land owners around the area have to contact the committee, formed under the National Environmental Act, to get authorization to put up a building. He also said that the forest law does not apply to private owned land, and the only constructions within the forest were the Forest Department Information Center and other similar buildings.
The Divisional Secretary of the Laggala-Pallegama area, P.H.M.M. Premasinghe, also said there are no illegal constructions taking place in the state owned area, and the few ongoing constructions are by the Forest Department.
They are also currently in the process of acquiring private lands around the conservation forest area. Premasinghe added that in those lands too, there are no illegal constructions but it is entirely possible for unauthorised structures to come up on the unacquired private lands, he said.
Programme Manager, Sri Lanka Nature Forum, Sajeewa Chamikara however disclosed a few names of hotels in the un-acquired areas within the environmentally protected zone, one of them in fact owned by an air force officer, who owns a hotel in Sudugalla, and whose vehicle number is EPLF 5202. Another hotel, he says, is in Pathana, and one is in Gonamadahenawatta, which is a vast area consisting of four hotels, both new and old. There are more in Lulwatta, Kosgolla, Kumbukgolla, Giriswatte and Attalamettuwa (on the Thangatuwa road.)
Jagath Gunewardana added that the declaration made under the National Environmental Act had made it mandatory for any approval of buildings to go through a committee appointed as per the regulations. Gunawardena said the Pradeshiya Sabha cannot give any approval on their own, and if such an approval was given, then it would be considered invalid.
Premasinghe, who is also a member of the committee appointed under the National Environmental Act, was not available for comment and upon asking the Pradeshiya Sabha if permission was given for construction in the said areas, they simply said that there were many files to go through to acquire the information and that the information officer could not be contacted.
Walking on the wild side
Chamikara also spoke of other illegal activities taking place in the area, including cardamom growing. He said that there are 3000 hectares of cardamom grown, all in areas of higher elevation and that despite a court ruling, no action has been taken to stop these activities.
Poaching, he says is another issue, where the rich, noted to be mainly from Colombo, hunt animals with the help of people living in the area, who help them find the routes. Recently, he said, five barking deer, identified as a rare species, were found dead.
He also spoke of illegal encroachments around the edge of the forest and said that, “there is no one to confirm this with. There are just two forest offices in the area and they take care of a total of 17,500 hectares of land.”