Buttala Land Grab
By Nirmala Kannangara
Allegations have been levelled against Coconut Development and State Plantations Development Minister Jagath Pushpakumara and Buttala Pradeshiya Sabha member R. M. Premaratne for encroaching forest lands in Buttala in the Monaragala district.
According to the Environment Conservation Trust (ECT), this 20,000 acre forest land is situated within the Buttala Divisional Secretariat and runs across Niyadella, Demodara, Upaliya, Kaludiyaella, Tenagallanda, Bopitiya, Ethimale, Kotiyagala and Ittekatuwa locales and the Forest Department’s failure to take action against the encroachers has caused severe damage to this virgin forest.
Director, ECT Sajeewa Chamikara accused the District Forest Officer Monaragala R. Weerasinghe of deliberate failure to take action against the wrongdoers and instead helping them to carry out the devastation.
“It is not a secret that Weerasinghe has openly allowed the politicians to engage in illegal activities within the forest. Still there are certain officers who are facing daunting tasks to take legal action against these politicians and their supporters for intruding the forest lands.
They are helpless due to the pressure mounted on them within the Forest Department and from politicians,” said Chamikara. According to him, Minister Jagath Pushpakumara has secured 300 acres from this forest while Premaratne has secured 200 acres adjoining Minister Pushpakumara’s land.
He further added, “Chena cultivators who have been doing their cultivations within this forest for generations are exceptional cases as that is their sole source of income. But the issue is these politicians and their stooges. Why have they been allowed to grab lands for cultivations causing severe damage to the virgin forest.”
Chamikara further accused the Forest Department (FD), Wild Life Conservation Department (WLCD) and the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) for following a ‘deaf and dumb’ attitude over this critical issue.
The Buttala forest land is situated along the northern boundary of the Yala National Park and is one of the major corridors for wild elephants.
“This strip of forest is one of the main elephant corridors for the wild elephants in the Kumbukkan Oya Rorest Reserve, Lahugala-Kithulana National Park and the Yala National Park.
However, this elephant corridor is no longer in existence from the time electric fences were put up around the lands of these politicians and we have understood that elephants have been trapped in Lahugala.
“If immediate actions are not taken to remove these electric fences, the elephants will enter the adjoining villages and it would be the beginning of yet another human-elephant conflict,” alleged Chamikara. Solar power panels have been fixed to provide electricity for these fences. “Forest Department is claiming that these electric fences have been installed by the traditional chena cultivators. Villagers in Monaragala district are not rich enough to put up electric fences to drive away the elephants. Instead they will stay up overnight on trees to drive away the elephants which does not cost them anything,” added Chamikara.
“According to the Forest Conservation Ordinance as amended by Act No. 65 of 2009 Section 20, it is an offence to clear forest lands, set fire to the forest, remove any part of a tree, to carry out any development work, put up electric fences or use the forest for any cultivation purposes.
Despite the fact that these encroachers have violated the Forest Ordinance very clearly, it is surprising as to why the Conservator General and his officers are turning a blind eye to this serious issue.
Are these officers who have the power to take legal action against the wrongdoers silent because they want to protect their posts,” queried Chamikara. Refuting the allegations Minister Jagath Pushpakumara said that he has not encroached lands in this forest land.
“People can make allegations but what can I do? I am a clean politician and does not engage in any illegal activity,” said Minister Pushpakumara. Buttala Pradeshiya Sabha member R. M. Premaratne too refuted the allegations.
When asked whether this issue had been raised at the Pradeshiya Sabha sessions by the opposition members, Premaratne said that the particular issue was never raised at the council meetings.
However, Opposition Leader, Buttala W. S. Dharmasena confirmed that this issue was raised at the council meeting but Premaratne has so far failed to come up with a proper response.
“We live in Buttala and it is disheartening to see how political power has been used to grab forest lands. I am not blaming the politicians but blaming the Forest Department officers who are paid by the public to carry out their duties impartially. Like elsewhere in the country, no one is bothered with implementing the law.
All these laws are only for the innocent people. In regard to Buttala, we have seen as to how the FD has taken legal action against the innocent chena cultivators but where is the law to catch the ‘big fish’ – the politicians. This is the state of the country today,” said Dharmasena.
Conservator General of the Forest Department H. M. P. Hitisekera says that other than small scale chena cultivators there are no large scale encroachments that have taken place at the Buttala forest.
Forest Conservator (Operation) K. P. Ariyadasa said that although there were allegations levelled as such, District Forest Officer (DFO) Monaragala R. Weerasinghe has taken photos to show the department that there were no such encroachments that had taken place.
“The DFO has taken legal action against the encroachers and the issue has been settled now. Environment Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa has advised us to earmark the Buttala forest and to take immediate steps to declare this area as a forest reserve,” said Ariyadasa.
However Forest Range Officer Wellawaya, Vijithasiri Bandara confirmed that there are many issues pertaining to land encroachments in the Buttala forest.
“We have taken legal action against certain land grabbers, but I do not have any authority to talk to the press without the permission of the Conservator General of the Forest Department. “If he gives me approval to talk to the media I will disclose the names of those who have encroached on these forest lands,” said Vijithasiri.
Chairman, Central Environment Authority, Charitha Herath said that although an environment impact assessment (EIA) has to be carried out for any development project that takes place in more than one hectare or two-and-a-half acres, he has not received any application for any such projects in Buttala.
Meanwhile Sanjeewa Bandara in Monaragala confirmed that the developments taking place within the Buttala forest continues although the villagers and environmentalists are up in arms against the FD’s failure to take action against the politicians who are involved. “The entire forest has been ruined by the politicians and their stooges. When I visited the forest recently to find out the latest developments, I saw how armed people were roaming about.
Even I was questioned as to why I was entering the forest. I pretended that I was a trader who came to buy the maize harvest. The FD is in deep slumber and is taking action only against the small scale chena cultivators,” said Bandara.