Clearing Forest Reserves To Rob Timber Army Refutes Allegations
By Nirmala Kannangara
Accusations have been levelled against Sri Lanka Army for clearing forestlands in Vavuniya for an alleged re-settlement drive.
Environmentalists are up in arms against clearing of nearly 1,500 acres of thick forestlands in Karunkalikulam Forest Reserve in the Vavuniya District.
Director Environment Conservation Trust Sajeewa Chamikara said that in order to settle over 1,200 Sinhala Buddhist families nearly 1,500 acres from the Karunkalikulam Forest Reserve have been cleared over the past 1 ½ – 2 months on the directives of Commanding Officer Vavuniya with the help of the District Secretary Vavuniya and the Divisional Secretary.
“Without getting the Forest Department approval more than 1,200 Sinhala Buddhist families from down south have been settled in the Karunkalikulam Forest Reserve illegally. This is strictly against the Forest Conservation Ordinance No. 65 of 2009. It is strictly illegal not only to enter a forest reserve but to destroy the forest, to construct houses and road networks. We have learnt that the District Secretary has made a request to the Forest Department to de-gazette 8,000 acres from the Karunkalikulam Forest Reserve to settle Sinhala families to which the Forest Department is strictly against,” said Chamikara.
However he said that although the Forest Department is strictly against giving away forest lands to settle people, due to pressure brought on them from one of the higher officers in the Defence Ministry, plans are to be drawn to degazette this allotment.
“When politics are involved, our wildlife, forests and natural resources are at a stake. If things continue in this manner what will happen now our future generations? They will have to go to other countries to see what forests look like,” alleged Chamikara.
Chamikara further alleged that the valuable timber that have been cut down by the army to clear the jungle has been removed by the higher army officials in the district..
“People bear testimony as to how all these valuable timber is being transported in army trucks to locations unknown. This particular forest reserve is a dry mixed evergreen forest and there is a special forest community consists of kaluwara trees. It is these kaluwara trees that are mostly cut down and none of these trees are left over as they have been transported to undisclosed locations,” said Chamikara.
According to him, this is the second largest forest patch Sri Lanka Army has destroyed over the years.
“First they destroyed thousands of acres in Somawathiya National Park for a banana cultivation. Later they had to move out due to strong protest by the environmentalists who took up the matter with US Ambassador in Sri Lanka. Now they are requesting for 8,000 acres from the Karunkalikulam Forest Reserve in Vavuniya District,” said Chamikara.
He added that the Ven. Etabmbagaskada Kalyanitissa Thero too was behind the settlement drive and added that army has put up several posts around the area preventing any private party entering the cleared jungle.
“Other than those who have been settled no one is allowed to enter this area by the army personnel. Although they are claiming that these families have to be re-settled where they were living before the war, this is a thick jungle and all trees are well over 100 years old. So how can they claim that these people were living in this area 30 years ago,” added Chamikara.
Meanwhile, reliable sources from the Forest Department on conditions of anonymity told The Sunday Leader that they are against the proposal made by the District Secretary Vavuniya to get 8,000 forestland de-gazetted in order to re-settle Sinhala IDPs.
“When there are many state lands in the area why do they want 8,000 acres from this forest reserve? If forests are destroyed in this way not a single forest would remain in future,” said the sources.
However, Acting Conservator General Forest S. A. A. Saturusinghe said that he is unaware of forestlands being cleared in the Karunkalikulam Forest Reserve.
“Since I am acting in this post I am not aware of anything and even I do not know whether there was such a request by the District Secretary Vavuniya. If the army is clearing forestlands in the forest reserve, our District Forest Officer would keep us informed. Since we have not received any such information I cannot make any comment,” added Saturusinghe.
When contacted District Forest Officer Vavuniya Sarath Kumara for a comment he declined to give any details.
“These instructions have come from the top and I cannot make any comments as I am a government servant. Anyhow I have informed my superiors what is going on here,” said Kumara.
All attempts to contact District Secretary and Divisional Secretary Vavuniya for a comment failed. Although a text message was sent to Minister Re-Settlement Rishard Bathiudeen seeking a comment, he too did not return the call till the paper went for publication.
However the Ven. Etabmbagaskada Kalyanitissa Thero refuted the charges against the army and said the area where the Sinhala people have been settled is not within a forest reserve but the villages that they were living in.
“It is the Re-Settlement Ministry that is re-settling these people not the army or any other people,” he added.
Meanwhile, Army Spokesman Brig. Ruwan Wanigasooriya said that Sri Lanka Army (SLA) would never resort to any illegal clearing of forestlands and added that if any person or party was involved in any such activity, strict disciplinary action would be taken against them without considering their status or rank.
“I totally refute the wild allegations levelled against the army as SLA is an organization with high discipline with standing operation procedure. There may be a few that violate rules and regulations but if they are proven strict disciplinary action would be taken against them,” added Wanigasooriya.
However, Wanigasooriya said that SLA would always give a helping hand to any development work if any request is made.
“We helped to construct 10,000 houses in the north. Likewise the army may have helped the Re-Settlement Ministry to build houses and even to clear the jungles but I thoroughly refuse the claim that valuable timber has been removed by the army officers,” he said.