New Twist In Wilpattu Issue
By Nirmala Kannangara
The former Government has been accused of distributing forest lands in Wilpattu to settle Muslims in order to show the Human Rights Council in Geneva that the Sri Lankan government was implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
Accusing the former regime of the present situation in Wilpattu, a source at the Forest Conservation Department who wished to remain anonymous said that he was surprised why the environmental organisations in the country were not so keen to come forward when the higher authorities in the former regime were clearing the forests for political reasons all over the country as if they were their own private properties. He further said that as officers attached to the Forest Department they could not take up the matter openly but informed the media and the environmental organisations to prevent the forests from being cleared but added it was disheartening the way the media and certain environmental organisations kept silent.
“Although we secretly approached many media reporters and environmental organisations to make the public aware of the forest destruction in the country in the guise of resettlement, none of them came forward to highlight the issues. It is now too late to talk about Wilpattu as the Forest Department had to release around 2500 acres of lands bypassing the general procedure which is an illegal act, not only to resettle the Muslim IDPs but also to settle their offspring as well,” sources alleged.
The sources further said the destruction of the forest cannot be appraised as all the expensive timber that was fallen down was not given to the State Timber Corporation, but was taken away from the forests to unknown destinations in Sri Lanka Army vehicles. “Every expensive timber that was cut down when clearing the forest was taken away in army vehicles. It is they who know where these timbers were taken, not anyone else,” he alleged. The sources said when the Forest Department strongly refused to release these stretch of forest lands in Wipattu to settle Muslims IDPs as they were temporarily sheltered in these areas during the war, the former Economic Development Minister and the Presidential Task Force forced the Forest Department first to release 280 acres to re-settle the Muslims and again over 2000 acres. Hence we had to release these lands ‘officially’,” sources claimed.
The sources further said that these lands had to be released as the Economic Development Minister went on to say that it would be a good opportunity for them to show the Human Rights Council in Geneva that Sri Lanka is implementing LLRC recommendations. “Where were these organisations who are now shouting against destruction of the environment when Rishad Bathiudeen demanded more forestlands in the Mannar District to settle Muslim IDP offsprings under the guise of re-settlement? Was it because the then President and the army was involved in it?” sources queried.
According to the sources, more than 2,000 acres of forests in Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya districts were cleared to re-settle Muslim IDPs in 2012 but Minister Bathiudeen requested another 800 acres more to which the Forest Department was not ready to heed any directives. The source further said that it was surprising why Minister Bathiudeen was demanding this land despite the fact that the Additional Secretary of the Land and Land Development Ministry clearly stated that the request could not be granted since the cabinet has decided temporarily to stop distributing lands in the North and the East
“Even the Forest Department is strictly against this request and they too are not ready to release forest lands to settle IDP siblings. When the request came through the Divisional Secretary (DS) Muhudubadapattuwa to Director General Forest Department on January 25, 2012 copied to Commissioner General Lands R.P.R. Rajapaksa, the DS was requested to send the list of names to which the lands have to be given. But however the DS has so far failed to send us the list of names, which is a clear indication what Minister Bathiudeen’s hidden agenda is,” sources said. The sources further said the lands were which the Presidential Task Force has rejected giving away for settlement considering them to be thick forest cover.
“In addition to this thick forest land, Minister Bathiudeen has requested another 450 acres of land from another part in the Mannar District claiming it too was a Muslim colony before the war. This is wrong, as this was an irrigation scheme abandoned when the war erupted. If the Minister really wanted to resettle the Muslim IDPs who lost their houses during the war, then why couldn’t he give the list of names to the DS and send it to the Commissioner General Lands and the Director General Forest Department to consider the request,” said the sources.
The sources further accused the former defence authorities of making a sand dune along the Wilpattu sanctuary boarder. “After the war, the Navy took over around 900 acres of land from the Wilpattu sanctuary buffer zone for the ‘Barana Camp’. It is alleged that the Navy wanted to use this land for a tourism project. However since the wildlife questioned them and because the previous regime’s defeat, the Navy’s plan had to be abandoned but to hand over the 900 acre land back to the wildlife Department,” sources added.
Meanwhile, Director of the Environment Conservation Trust, Sajeewa Chamikara accused Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen for clearing more and more forest lands in Wilpattu. “Although the Minister is now claiming that these lands were predominant Muslim area earlier, our google maps clearly shows that all these areas are part of the Kalaru forest reserve,” Chamikara added. According to Chamikara, although the Forest Department earlier illegally released around 2500 acres from the Kalaru forest reserve in 2011 on the directives of the then Economic Development Minister and the Presidential Task Force, the forest area that has been cleared recently has been taken forcibly without the Forest Department knowledge.
“The Minister has got over 500 acres cleared to settle the offsprings of the IDPs. It is the government’s duty to re-settle IDPs but not the offsprings. Earlier there were no Muslims occupying these land areas. They came from Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna during the height of the war. Once the war ended, the then government re-settled all the IDPs in these districts. The Minister now cannot claim the ownership to these lands as these lands were earlier belonged to Muslims. How can the Minister claim this thick forest cover a Muslim dominant area before the war? Then there should be at least remnants of houses in this area. There are no signs to prove that there was a habitat here,” Chamikara said.
Accusing the District Secretary Mannar of giving away 2500 acres of lands to more than 2500 Muslim families without following the government rules and regulations, Chamikara said that by settling the Muslim IDPs, the then Economic Development Minister has given his approval to violate the Forest Conservation Ordinance, the national Environment Act, the Antiquity Ordinance and the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance.
“In addition to the 2500 acres released in 2011, the 500 acres too have now been fully cleared. According to the Forest Conservation Ordinance, it is illegal to clear the forest or to build houses within any forest reserve. However these regulations have been violated in 2011 and are now being violated when clearing the forest. So does the violation of the National Environment Act. The gazette notification No: 772/ 22 0f July 24, 1993 states that if more than one hectare of land is cleared an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) has to be carried out and obtained the Approval from the Central Environmental Authority. In addition if more than 100 families are settled in an area, an EIA has to be carried out. According to gazette notification No: 1152/ 14 0f October 10, 2000 of the Antiquity Ordinance, an Archeological Impact Assessment (AIA) has to be carried out to get the approval from the Archeological Department, before any housing project commences,” Chamikara added.
According to Chamikara, although District Secretary Mannar was trying to show a picture that the 2500 acres given in 2011 was carried out following the government regulations, the District Secretary was speechless when asked to show all the approvals he received from the relevant government institutions.
“He first said that he does not need to get the Forest Department approval to distribute the lands as he has the authority to distribute government lands. When we told him that he has no authority to do because the ownership of these lands have been given to Forest Department through circular 2001/5, the District Secretary went on to say that the Forest Department gave the approval for him to distribute these lands. It was then the Conservator General Forest Anura Hathurusinghe that said that the Forest Department did not follow the normal procedure and released the lands on the directives of the then Economic Development Minister as they did not have any other alternation but to heed the directives,” Chamikara said.
Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) spokesperson Hasini Sarathchadra confirmed that the Navy has taken over 900 acres from the Wilpattu buffer zone and added that the DWC is now obtaining back the land from the Navy. “When they constructed a sand dune along a part of the sanctuary boarder, we questioned them why they did so without our approval. According to them it was done to prevent the encroachers from entering the land,” Sarathchandra said.
Conservator General Forest Anura Hathurusinghe was unable to be contacted for a comment as he was out of the country.
All attempts to speak to Minister Rishad Bathiudeen for a comment failed as he was not available.