Politicos Destroying Nilgala Forest
By Nirmala Kannangara
Politicians in the Uva Province are accused of causing damage to the Uva grasslands, known as the Nilgala Savana Forest.
Environmentalists are up in arms against certain politicians in the Uva Province for the Nilgala forest destruction, and said that while, in the past, it was timber dealers that became politicians, politicians have now become timber dealers.
“It is the politicians who destroy the forests, and the damage is lifelong and irreversible,” said Sajeewa Chamikara, Director of the Environment Trust Conservation (ETC).
Chamikara held Wildlife Minister Vijith Vijayamuni Zoysa, Coconut Development Minister Jagath Pushpakumara and local politicians of the Uva Province responsible for the destruction to the Niilgala forest, adding that stern action must be taken immediately against those who engage in deforestation.
“Politicians destroy forests for their personal benefits,” he said. “In some cases they sell the expensive timber for money, and in some instances they give away forest lands to their supporters, to get their votes. Although these illegal deforestations are carried out in every forest, national park or forest reserve, has the Department of Wildlife Conservation or the Department of Forest Conservation taken any action against the lawbreakers, unless the culprits are villagers without any political backing? ” asks Chamikara.
According to Chamikara, the Nilgala forest holds medicinal herbs and trees of value; Aralu (Terminalia chebula), Bulu (Terminalia belerica), Nelli (Phyllanthus emblica) and Gammalu (Pterocorpus marsupium) trees are found in plenty. “With the start of the Nilgala deforestation, however, all these valuable herbs and plants are facing a great threat, and instead sugarcane, plantain and maze plantations have come up in the forest,” said Chamikara
He further charged that the Wildlife Department and the Forest Conservation Department were unable to preserve the forests. “Most of these forest areas are not forest reserves but falls onto other forest land categories. That is why neither the forest department nor the wildlife department takes care of this forest range and has allowed the politicians to engage in large-scale deforestation,” he said.
According to Chamikara, Jungle Bush Quail, Painted Francolin and Yellow footed Green Pigeon are endangered species found in this forest range. “In addition there are two varieties of endemic chameleon species found only in the Nilgala forest range which are Ophisops leschenaultia lankae and Ophisops minor.
If the government has allowed its stooges and politicians to destroy our nature in this manner without any mercy, our future generation will not be able to see a forest in this country,” said Chamikara.
Meanwhile Executive Director at the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Hemantha Vithanage said that more than 800 acres of forests have been destroyed by politicians and their supporters.
“When we went seven kilometres into the forest we found out that each Samurdhi officer in the Uva Province has been given two and a half acres of lands within the Nilgala forest which amounts to more than 2000 acres. We could understand if these lands were given to Samurdhi beneficiaries, but giving lands to Samurdhi officers who are public servants? Since the politicians’ bank on Samurdhi officers’ support at a future election to get Samurdhi votes, these lands have been distributed amongst these public servants,” alleged Vithanage.
According to Vithanage, as there is no other way for the environmentalists and villagers to safeguard the rest of the forest, the Centre for Environment Justice and the villagers had ordained 1000 trees on 11 January 2014.
“If the authorities are deaf and blind, where do we go? That is why we ordained 1,000 trees in the Nilgala forest, hoping to put a stop to this heartless deforestation. If these politicians and their stooges have any respect to Buddhism they will not touch the trees we have already ordained, and will not destroy the remaining forest which causes lifelong damage and is irreparable,” said Vithanage.
Vithanage further said that he and his organization would not hesitate to take legal action against the Forest Department if action is not taken against encroachers.
“The villagers claim that the Forest Department surveyed the lands given to Samurdhi officers on the request of Minister Vijith Vijayamuni Zoysa. All these trees are over 2500 years and all the other encroachers are local politicians and their supporters. If these lands are not cleared and if action is not taken against the encroachers, we are ready to go to courts against the Forest Department,” Vithanage said.
However refuting these allegations, District Forest Officer for Moneragala R. Weerasinghe said that encroachers have not destroyed the forest, as claimed by the environmentalists.
“When we were surveying the forest, the villagers accused us of taking over their lands which were their chenas. Since most of these villagers were engaged in chena cultivation for generations, we told them that they would be given licenses for cultivation. People mistook this to mean the Forest Department is going to give licenses for the lands. As a result villagers started planting plantains, maize, rubber and coconut.
Although the environmentalists claimed that more than 800 acres have been destroyed, only 11.4 hectares have been destroyed by the villagers, and they have cut down only 14 trees, not more than that,” said Weerasinghe.
He further claimed that legal action has been taken against the encroachers. “We are implementing the State Land (Review of Procession) Act and are in the process of removing the illegal land grabbers. With the assistance of the Special Task Force (STF) we are nabbing the people who enter the forest,” he said.
Ministers Vijith Vijayamuni Zoysa and Jagath Pushpakumara were not available for a comment. Neither did they respond to the text messages sent seeking comments on the allegations levelled against them by the environmentalists.