The Sunday Leader

Claims And Counter Claims To Wilpattu Encroachment

By Camelia Nathaniel - Pictures By Pavithra De Mello

Since the Wilpattu National Park (WNP) has been the topic of discussion over the past few weeks, after the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) revealed that Muslim settlements were being built within the sanctuary, the Muslim community has been trying to prove their legitimate right to this land. Although the Muslim villages of Marichchikatti, Karadikkuli, Palakuli and Mullikulam have been under the spotlight, according to Minister of Resettlement Rishad Bathiudeen, there is an issue only with regard to 18 of the 43 huts built on the land area just outside the wildlife park.

The Minister told media that although there is proof that these people have been living on this land prior to being driven out by the LTTE in 1990, these 65 families are now living in temporary huts built on former burial grounds.

The BBS on the other hand accused the government of being silent on this issue and turning a blind eye while a group of persons backed by a powerful regional politician continues to plunder the Park. They charge that illegal activities including logging, sand mining, Chena cultivation, and the construction of houses and a mosque are destroying the Park, and will have a devastating effect on the wildlife and ecosystem.

Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera addressing a press conference said, “A project of this magnitude is invariably carried out with the involvement of several ministers such as those of the Environment and Renewable Energy Ministry and the Wildlife Resources Conservation Ministry. Without their knowledge and backing no project such as this can happen within a National Park. The National Heritage Ministry should take responsibility as valuable artefacts might be destroyed because of the construction work. Ministries of Finance and Planning and External Affairs and even the security forces should not keep silent on important matters such as this,” he said adding that the minister who is backing the project has received funds from an NGO.

“Even the Regional office of the Central Environmental Authority has said this project would destroy the forest. If the authorities are resettling people it should be carried out in a proper manner and in appropriate location, not illegally in the heartland of a valuable forest reserve,” said the monk.

However, according to the Minister, the 43 Muslim families who had put up temporary shelters within the sanctuary, but outside the border of the WNP, had gone there on their own, after being evicted from their lands by the Navy which has since occupied the area.

During a visit to the area concerned last Tuesday (22nd) the Minister pointed out that the Navy had taken over the lands of these people and that while they were willing to move from within the Park reserve, they had to be given alternative lands to rebuild their lives. However while many of the male occupants of these temporary huts claimed to not have any other place to go to, one of the female occupants told The Sunday Leader that her family had been given lands in Puttalam as well. Having noticed her talking to the media personnel, one of the Muslim men came over and practically chased her into one of the houses.

This incident raised doubts whether the story being told by these temporary settlers is in fact the truth or if they are displaced at all as portrayed to the rest of the country. Or for that matter do these people have lands in Puttalam as well?

Another factor was that almost every family which is said to be destitute with no means of income or no place to go to, seems to have a motor bike or two which according to the current value costs over Rs 200,000. Most of the men too seem to be dressed quite well. These observations raised suspicion as to whether these people even live in these huts.

Meanwhile the Navy, which has been accused of grabbing the lands of these people, is refuting the allegations levelled against them claiming that only one Muslim family had been affected by the setting up of their camp and that the land owner currently lives in Colombo.

According to Navy Spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasooriya, compensation will be paid for the land that has been taken over by the Navy for the setting of their PRO office which is around two acres in extent.

Navy Spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasooriya

This Navy camp had to be set up in order to enhance the security and prevent illegal fishing that is being carried out in this area and also human smuggling, drug trafficking and also poaching within the sanctuary itself.

However in spite of the camp being located in Wilpattu, we have not taken over any lands of the Muslims as claimed by certain parties, and there are also no burial grounds within the camp territory. While the Naval camp originally comprised 1659 acres, on the instructions of the Secretary Defence, almost 700 acres from the northern boundary of the camp was released, in order to facilitate the resettlement of the displaced and also for their agricultural purposes.

The camp currently occupies only around 940 acres.
When the Naval camp was originally established in this area there were around 170 Tamil families that had settled there. Hence these families who were displaced due to the establishment of the camp were each provided 80 perches of land in the Musalai GS division as an alternative. Furthermore there were also 26 houses that were once on this land and had been destroyed due to the war, but the Navy also took measures to build 27 houses for the owners of the destroyed houses, which were handed over to those displaced on 27th August, 2013.

Ironically, while there have been many allegations that the Navy has taken over lands of Muslim settlers, so far not a single Muslim family had made any formal complaint or produced any ownership claims to lands within the Naval camp. There were only Tamil families that were displaced due to the setting up of this camp and they have been provided with alternative lands. I firmly state that there is no Muslim burial grounds within our camp premises nor have we taken over any lands that belong to any Muslims. The Naval deployment in the Mullikulam and Marichchikatti areas has resulted in the displacement of only one Muslim family and that family is not among those seeking resettlement within the sanctuary.

W. Mohommed Yehiya, Chairman of the Musalai Pradeshiya Sabha

There are 65 families in this Marichchikatti area and they have been living here prior to 1990. However they returned around four years ago and since the Navy has taken over their lands, they have set up temporary shelters here. But the wildlife officials are now asking them to leave this land as they are encroaching on the Wilpattu sanctuary.

However the Navy has provided alternative lands for around half the people displaced due to the camp in Mullikulam, and they say that the rest will also be provided lands. Around 100 families have been resettled in a village called Kayakkuli around seven kilometres from Marichchikatti. These are all Tamil families who were displaced due to the Navy camp; no Muslims were displaced due to the camp.

We have had discussions with the officials of the Defence Ministry and these people who are in temporary shelters should definitely be given lands. However so far the resettlement of these people has not been done effectively but soon we hope to resolve this matter and resettle these people.

These Muslim families in Marichchikatti are the ones who are having a problem. These people claim that they resided here prior to 1990 but the wild life authorities claim that this land belongs to the Wilpattu wild life park. These displaced Muslim persons are asking for 40 acres in this location just outside the Wilpattu Park. However the wildlife officials say that this land is a part of the Park’s sanctuary and that they cannot reside here and must be removed from this location.

We have heard that the Wildlife Department has filed a case for the eviction of these people, but so far we have not been informed of it.

Najaad, a displaced resident of the Marichchikatti village

The problem here is that these people have been living here for the past three years and no one had any problem. However after the BBS came here and made a big fuss, the Wildlife Department now says that this land belongs to the Park and wants these people out.
Moreover the villages of Mullikulam consisting mainly of Tamils and Silawathurai comprising mainly Muslims have been taken over by the Navy and part of these displaced people have been given alternative lands. However the other half have yet to receive lands and these people are part of them. We are still not clear as to what is happening. Our minister (Bathiudeen) is also saying that this is sanctuary land and that we should move from here. He promised to speak to the secretary defence and obtain alternative lands for these people. But before that was done the BBS came here and created all these problems for us.

Until today when the media came here we were not aware of any case having been filed by the Wildlife Department. We will stay here until we are given lands as we have nowhere else to go.

Surveyor A.M. Ishaak of the Surveyor General’s Department, Mannar

Two methods are used when declaring a forest reserve and buffer zone of an area. One method is where the Wildlife Department declares such an area by measuring the area and demarcating it with stone posts, etc. The other method is by using a 1:50,000 scale map. According to this map drawn to scale, an area can be identified and demarcated. The Marichchikatti reserve area has also been identified and declared in this manner. Therefore according to this map the area south of Modara Gam Aaru (a river) belongs to the Anuradhapura district. Modara Gam Aaru is considered the northern boundary of the Wilpattu National Park. A small area north of this boundary has been declared a buffer zone by the Wildlife Department, but no one had been notified of this, and only they knew about it.

The people living here previously had not been aware of this either, until recently when Wildlife Department officials had come and asked the settlers to leave stating that they were encroaching on forest land.

In the past this law had not been strictly enforced, but now after the BBS brought up the matter the Wildlife officials have suddenly started enforcing this rule strictly, and that is how this has become such a big issue.
Minister of Resettlement Rishad Bathiudeen

Of the four villages from which people were displaced Marichchikatti, Karadikkuli, Palakuli and Mullikulam, three villages are Muslim villages. These people, who were affected due to the war in 1990, gradually proceeded south along the forest path through Wilpattu and eventually settled in Puttalam.

These Muslim villagers had to abandon their villages and move out at the time as they did not assist the LTTE to divide the country. At that time neither the BBS nor any other Sevawa was there to deal with the LTTE and the people had to face those atrocities by themselves.

The whole country should know that at that time when the LTTE was trying to divide this country, these innocent people sacrificed their lands and moved out but did not assist them. These people did not help the LTTE at the time and they left their homes, belongings and mosques, everything … and left with just a handful of essentials in a shopping bag.

Today it is these innocent civilians who are living like this in the Marichchikatti village and are being treated in this manner.
After having left their lands these people returned to their villages around 23 years later, and one can imagine that the forest had engulfed their villages and it was not the same as when they left; it had been uninhabited for the past 23 or so years. However the remnants of a mosque and a cemetery are yet visible and this is proof that these villagers lived here in the past.

There is a rule of the Forest Department that if the jungle growth is over 6 feet, then even if the land belongs to anyone they do not have the right to clear this land or cut down the trees without the approval of the Forest Ministry. Similarly these people, once they returned, made a request through the Pradeshiya Sabha to the relevant authorities to resettle them. Accordingly the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha wrote to the Forest Department and obtained approval to clear the land and Jasim city was built. This is a village that historically been occupied by the Muslims.

Some question me as to why Sinhalese or Tamil families are not resettled here. I would like to tell them that prior to 1990 this village was occupied solely by the Muslim people and it is they who have now returned to claim rightful ownership to their lands. Had there been any other race that lived here then we too would welcome them now.

Over 1000 villages have been built to house the displaced Tamils and over 50 villages have been constructed for the displaced Sinhalese. The government has assisted them immensely in their resettlement.

However it is only when these innocent Muslim civilians are returning to claim their rightful land that the Wildlife Department, the BBS and everyone else is making such a big issue of it. I wish to firmly state that these people are not encroaching on forest land. This is blatant discrimination against the Muslim villages and we have not damaged or cleared any land that belongs to the Wilpattu National Park.

6 Comments for “Claims And Counter Claims To Wilpattu Encroachment”

  1. Lareef A. Samad

    History of Marichchukkaddi
    Marichchikatti, internationally known as Marichchukkaddi, during the British Colonial period, was one of several ancient pearling villages, like Silavatthurai and Arippu, situated north of the Wilpattu sanctuary, along the Kondaichchi Bay, and south of the Mannar Island, known as “Epidorus” by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The trans-Indian Ocean pearl trade with the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka, dominated by the Romans during the heyday of the Roman Empire, was taken over by the Arabs, after the decline of the Roman Empire in the 4th-century A.D. The Arabs were the unchallenged masters of the sea from around 5th-century A.D. to 15th-century A.D., when western nations like the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British emerged as maritime nations.

    During this period, Arab merchant ship owners, pearl divers, pearl dealers and merchants whose forefathers were traditionally engaged in the pearl trade and industry in the Persian Gulf for centuries, visited the pearling centers of Kondaichchi Bay during the height of the pearling season that fell between March and May, every year. Marichchukkaddi, close to the northern boundary of the Wilpattu National Park, was one of the pearling centers frequented by Arabs from the western coast of the Persian Gulf. Navigation during this period was based on trade winds, and the southwest monsoon that lasted from July to September, facilitated the navigation of ships from the Arabian and East African coast towards the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka. The return journey from the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka towards Arabia and East Africa was facilitated by the northeast monsoon that lasted from November to February. Hence, Arabs who wished to take part in the March-May pearl fishery of a particular year had to arrive in Sri Lanka during the July-September period of the previous year, and had to wait till November to return to their country.

    The difficulties of the to-and-fro movement between Arabia and Sri Lanka, necessitated the creation of permanent Arab settlemets in Sri Lanka, and Marichchukkadi and Silavatthurai were among the first such settlements in Sri Lanka. Kayalpattanam in southern India was a similar settlement formed by Arab pearl dealers and divers who married local Parawa women, and are known today as “Kayalars.” Hence, most of the Muslim settlements in the Mannar District have a very ancient history dating back to the 5th-15th century A.D.
    Incidentally, one of the last pearl fisheries held in Sri Lanka by the British took place in Marichchukkadi in 1907 and was presided by Leonard Woolf, the young British administrator attached to the Jaffna Kachcheri as learner Government Agent. After a stint in the Ceylon Civil Service, Woolf returned to England in 1911 and married Virginia Stephen in 1912. Woolf then turned to writing and published his first novel, “The Village in the Jungle” in 1913. Virginia Woolf became an established author in her own right with several publications to her credit.

  2. who ever who approved this should be investigated & this area is for wild life & not for humans. by people living there, it will only scare off the animals. the government should take steps to relocate them in their original lands where ever they came from. i wonder if the learnt this move from the Russians? or if Russia learnt it from these people?

    • Lareef A. Samad

      Muslims IDPs are only occupying the so-called buffer zone adjacent to the Wilpattu National Park, created only recently by the Wildlife Department, after they were driven out of these areas by the LTTE in the early 1990s. These lands are the traditional settlements of the IDPs for nearly a thousand years ever since their Arab forefathers settled here, when Sri Lanka was the hub of the international pearl trade. During this period they lived in perfect harmony with their environment, preserving the fauna and flora in their immediate neighbourhood, though the concept of wildlife protection was non-existent at that time. Hence, the charge that their presence would be detrimental to the wildlife sanctuary, is baseless and totally unfounded. Why is the BBS so worried about preserving the Wilpattu National Park, when on the contrary the World Heritage Site, the Sinharajah, situated in the Southern and Sabaragamuwa provinces, is being gradually encroached upon and destroyed by illegal loggers and timber merchants, right under the nose of the law enforcement authorities?

  3. Abdul Hameed

    What happened to Vauniya south where instead of 90 families 5000 homes and 15000 Sinhala families are settled in Forest Area. The Forest Area was totally cleared. Muslims are in outside the Forest Area. There is Racism in this country.

  4. Robert

    Your comment is awaiting moderation. (Corrected version)

    Dear Ms Nathaniel,

    Your poor reporting excludes the few hundred Tamil families who were evicted by the state in 2007 from their village , Mulikulam , which is only 3 miles away from the Muslim village in question. A Navy garrison is built over the ancient village of Mullikulam and now nothing is stated the way the business was conducted. these Tamils were homeless and scattered between since 2007. Some of them are given houses in a paddy field in 2013. Marichukadi and aradikulli are very ancient Muslim village which were evicted by LTTE before 2007. These villages have been tranformed into some form of habitats which the original Muslim and Tamil people find difficult to swallow. I have stayed in Mulikullam in1980 for nearly 2 months (There was not a sinhalese man or family around then except the Wild life Ranger, whose office was on the other side of the river bank, inside the Wilpatu reservation. He was my father’s friend and
    we use to visit him whenever we went on excursions to this area from Colombo
    ( where we lived) .
    Lt Col. Deen who was the CO for local Silavathurai Cattoment(was a first leftinant) and our families enjoyed enriching friendly relationship for the next 20 years until he was killed in action. I also happened to be there again in 1986 when the indian army was roaming around. Mullikulam people are now living in appalling conditions in a place which were paddy fields.
    Facts are Facts and do not change even if you wrote something else in your report.

    I studied in St Benedict’s College with Lasntha Wickrathunge and attend his rememberance days ceremonies. Since his death, Sunday Leader’s reporting has become appalling. It is a sorry state in Sri Lanka that reporters too loose their insight . I am too old to be told twisted facts and saddened by the false reporting of facts.

    I know bit of the old history about this area. In 1940,s Fr. Schurman, a German national who wanted to hide away from WW II stayed in Mullikulam as it’s parish priest many years. He was a enthusiatic motor cycle mechanic. Fr Gonsavas, a spanish priest in 1960′s. Mullikulam was a 100%Tamil village and Marichukaddi was a 100% muslim village at that time.Some information I know is not even available to the post conflict born decendants from these villages . It is funny to read the comments from some young people from present day South SriLanka.

    Dr Robert, UK

  5. Sylvia Haik

    These disputes are best left to the proper authorities to settle and Gnanasara Thera and Bodu Bala Sena have no business getting involved. Their hidden agenda has nothing to do with the welfare of the animals but to drive away anyone who is not a Singhalese Buddhist, much like Israeli settlements in Palestine.

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