Building In Nature Reserve
- “It is my house” says minister Kumaratunga
- “It is a hotel” says Environmentalists
- “We marketed it as a hotel” Says a marketing company
By Nirmala Kannangara
Postal Services Minister Jeewan Kumaratunga is denying allegations that he had constructed a small tourist hotel within the Minneriya National Park buffer zone violating environmental laws of the country.
The minister says he has not built a hotel but a house for him to spend his leisure time away from his busy schedule.
“This is my own land and is not within the park or the buffer zone. I have received all the necessary approvals and is in the process of getting the EIA passed. I have grown a few varieties of herbal plants in this land and want to do cultivation but still it would not be possible to put up fences around the land as it could harm the environment. Hence I have decided not to do any cultivation here,” said Kumaratunga.
However the minister’s claim is being contradicted by Ranjith Balasuriya, the CEO of the now defunct Havelock Eco Holidays and Travels. He confirmed that Jeew’s Hide-Out was marketed as a tourist bungalow by Havelock Eco Holidays in 2011.
“This is a perfect hide-out for families and not a big hotel. Havelock Eco Holidays and Travels marketed this hide-out for a short period in 2011,” said Balasuriya.
Minister Kumaratunga could not give a proper answer whether he has obtained approvals to use a 15KW generator to supply electricity to the buildings but said that noise pollution had been minimised.
“The sound emission has been minimised and there is no sound pollution. We have not dumped any garbage into the forest. I do not have any intention to rent this out for holiday seekers. These NGO environmentalists are levelling baseless allegations to discredit my name,” the minister said
Meanwhile Deputy Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservaton, Manjula Amararatne says that Kumaratunga had requested approval to build 8 mediation halls last year.
“We had a discussion with all the stakeholders at our head office and told Minister Kumaratunga that approval cannot be given for eight meditation halls but could be given only for five halls subject to an EIA. However this is yet to be done although some construction work has taken place during this period,” he said.
Amararatne further said that legal action could be taken against Kumaratunga if found that those buildings were being rented out for holiday seekers.
“According to the National Environment Act we can take legal action if we come to know that this is used as a guest house or a hotel. From the inception we told him that any tourist activity cannot take place within this limit and that he cannot dump garbage that would impact wild life. Although we were told that this is a house, the name board Jeew’s Hide-Out make us suspicious,” said Amararatne.
Meanwhile, Chairman, Central Environmental Authority (CEA) Charitha Herath confirmed that Kumaratunga had not sought CEA approval for the construction work or forwarded any application for an EIA. Ms. Jayani of the Standard Quality Section of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) meanwhile said that Jeew’s Hide-Out was not a registered hotel, adding there was a legal requirement to get all hotels and guest houses registered with the SLTDA.
“It is a must. There is a legal requirement to get each hotel registered with us,” she said. The Deputy Director (Natural Resources Management) Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) Manjula Amararatne confirmed that permission had been granted to Kumaratunga in 2007 to build a small house by the Wildlife Department for his personal use and to grow medicinal herbs but not for a tourist hotel.
The Minister’s Hide-Out is situated in a 2.2 hectare of land (5.4 acres) between the national park boundary posts No. 72 and 75 and 2 kms away from the Polonnaruwa – Habarana road. The newly constructed 10 feet wide road to the property through the thick forest from the main road has damaged the thick virgin forest.
“According to Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), it is strictly prohibited to construct a hotel within one kilometer radius from any national park boundary. If any other development projects are to be made they are subjected to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to the DWLC approval. Since the request was for a house for personal use on a private land, although situated within the buffer zone, we gave permission to Kumaratunga without seeking an EIA. We have not granted any permission for a hotel or even for a guest house,” said Amararatne.
Meanwhile, Director Environmental Conservation Trust, Sajeewa Chamikara said that the first phase of Jeew’s Hide-Out was built within the national park in 2007 but later with the political clout, the boundary posts had been moved inside the park to show that the hotel is within the buffer zone but not within the park.
“Wildlife officers are biased and that was why the boundary stones were allowed to be shifted inside the park. This is discrimination. Will an ordinary citizen of this country without any political influence be allowed to construct even a small hut within restricted areas without any approval? They will be chased away. But see how they have bent their backs to a powerful government minister and now giving lame excuses to safeguard him,” alleged Chamikara.
According to Chamikara, it is strictly prohibited to carry out any development project in the buffer zone without conducting an EIA. “According to Section 3 of the FFPO No: 22 of 2009, hotels cannot be constructed within a radius of one mile from any national park boundary. Section 9 of the same ordinance further says that any other development work could be carried out within the buffer zone subjected to an EIA and on the DWLC permission. Although the law is such, these government officials who get paid from our money, work hard to safeguard the interests of our politicians for personal benefits,” added Chamikara.
He further said that the land in question where the structure had come up belongs to the DWLC and not to Minister Kumaratunga.
“Minneriya – Giritale was declared a wildlife sanctuary by an extraordinary gazette notification in July, 1938. This was later amended by gazette notification in August 1997 and declared as a National Park. The total land extent of this national park is 8889.41 hectares. How can Minister Kumaratunga own a land within this area since this was declared a sanctuary way back in 1938. Either he has to inherit the land from his ancestors or he has to purchase the land there. Since this said land is within the buffer zone and is not to be sold, he cannot buy the land and that is why we say that he has obtained this land illegally,” said Chamikara.
Chamikara, who has visited the area a few weeks ago, said that it was pathetic to see empty alcohol bottles, plastic water containers and shopping bags dumped in the forest which would certainly bring adverse effects to the wild life in the park. “Being a very sensitive ecological area and a feeding ground for the elephant population in the park, any adverse human activity within the park will have a serious impact on wild life.
If the elephants get used to this dump site, and once they consume plastic bags and bottles what would be the final result. This is also a part of the elephant corridor. Why cannot the wildlife officials look into these grave issues? If they allow politicians and their henchmen to ruin our forests, national parks and nature reserves would not exist in thirty years time. In addition the loud sound that emits from the 15KW generator too would bring harmful effects to the wildlife,” added Chamikara.
Chamikara further said as to how the environmentalists were able to stop the first phase of the construction work in 2010 when this was highlighted in the media, but added that the second phase of the project has been started recently.
“First the approvals were sought to grow medicinal herbal plants and for stores. After getting the DWLC approval, Minister Kumaratunga got a two storied building constructed and put up the name board –Jeew’s Hide-Out. Later to recommence the stalled work, Minister Kumaratunga wanted approval to construct meditating halls for Buddhists. When the DWLC wanted them to get an EIA done, ignoring the recommendations several rooms were constructed. Since this hotel is within the thick forest cover and is situated in an isolated area, it was rented out for holiday seekers. Last year there was a paper article by Havelock Eco Travels and Tours promoting Jeew’s Hide-Out for holiday seekers.
The waterways behind the hotel that feeds the downstream is said to have diverted to the hotel. If the downstream dries up it would effect the ecological system and the wildlife as well,” said Chamikara.