Wilpattu Deforestation Takes Religious Twist
by Ifham Nizam
- In fact, the villages Marichukatti, Karadikkuli, Palakuli and Kondachi are some border villages of Mannar District and located very close to Wilpattu National Park
- The Muslim community must be very cautious of the fact that politicians use caste, creed and religion to strengthen not only their businesses but their vote base
The deforestation of the Wilpattu reserve has taken a religious twist with Muslim Parliamentarians accusing the government of failing to look into the welfare of the Muslims.
President Maithripala Sirisena last week gave instructions to the relevant authorities to issue a gazette notification declaring a larger Wildlife reserve, including the surrounding forest area which is not under the purview of the Department of Wildlife, further expanding the forest area belonging to the Wilpattu National park.
Furthermore, the President ordered the expeditious implementation of a programme to monitor the forest, including the Wilpattu National park with aerial monitoring utilising the modern technology.
Following the instructions issued by the President, a group of Muslim leaders in Colombo called on the government to intervene and solve the Wilpattu issue without any further delay and ensure national reconciliation.
Addressing a press briefing at Renuka Hotel titled ‘Our Stand on Wilpattu Issue’ organised by the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum on Thursday, the Muslim MPs alleged that latest Wilpattu controversy is based on a political agenda and adding that even during the three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka, Muslims continuously sided with the government but today, sadly, they are being targeted by the very-side that they once supported.
Minister of Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs M. L. A. M. Hizbullah, Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen, State Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation A. H. M. Fowzie, Colombo District MP Mujibur Rahman, and President of Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum N. M. Ameen, and Leader of National Unity Front Azath Salley, were among those who addressed the briefing.
Renowned environmentalists however urged the Muslim community not to make Wilpattu a religious issue but to consider as it an environmental issue. They also stressed the Muslim community must be very cautious of the fact that politicians use caste, creed and religion to strengthen not only their businesses but their vote base.
Senior Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardana, responding to our queries, stressed that environmental destruction cannot be connected to a religious issue. “This issue shouldn’t be mixed as a religious issue,” he added.
He also said that if it is by a Sinhalese, Tamil, Burger, Moor or Malay it would be taken up. Citing examples, he said that when the elephant calves were separated from her mother, they took the matter, very seriously and questions were raised whether it was anti Sinhala, anti Buddhist act. He accused Minister Rishad Bathiudeen of making it a religious issue for his own safety and advantage.
Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen said that the latest controversy over Wilpattu resettlement is another “attack on the Northern Muslim IDPs.” “There are no Muslim families living within Wilpattu reserves. The areas being talked about are out of the boundary of the reserve and legally taken” he said.
Explaining as to how Muslim people are found in these areas, Minister Bathiudeen said: “Muslims who have been living in Maruthamadu GS Division in Museli Divisional Secretariat were among those who were forcibly expelled from North by the LTTE. They were victims of ethnic cleansing in these areas.
While they are displaced and living elsewhere, on October 10, 2012 the then government issued a gazette changing the name of Maruthamadu GS Division to Villathikulam.
This gazette acquired 2800 Hectare of forest land to Forest Department using GPS and lands belonging to IDPs were also in this acquisition. Later, Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) allocated about 208 Hectare of lands back to IDPs and the latest issue is created around some of these LLRC allocated lands incorrectly showing them as illegally used. This is an attack on the Northern Muslim IDPs. I request the government to resolve this issue.”
“Minister Bathiudeen is one of the displaced Northern Muslim IDPs” said Colombo District MP Mujibur Rahman, and added: “Various people with their own agendas are saying that the resettling in LLRC land to be an attempt of illegal jungle clearing. This is not true and is against the government’s reconciliation process.
Therefore we call the government to resolve this issue without delay.”
Few old villages
The Wilpattu National park or in its buffer zone of the national park, which extend to 1 1/2 km, has no settlement. There are a few old villages including Marichchukkaddei, Karakdikuli, Palakkuli, Mullikulam and Kondachchi that is there since the ancient time. Even before 1916 a settlement was there. The LTTE chased these people away in 1990 and most of them were living in refugee camps. They returned to this area in 2013 after 23 years.
According to Bathiudeen, in 2012, when Anura Priyadharshana Yapa was the Minister of Environment, this area was mapped using the GPS technology and the Department of Forest identified it as a forest area. They gazetted an area of 15,125 acres as the Marichchukkaddei-Karakdikuli forest reserve. That was indeed a wrong thing to do. People had been living there since before the war.
However, people wanted to come back to resettle in this area but since it was under the Forest Department, they had to get permission from the Government Agent and then from the Forest Ministry, and the Forest Ministry gave permission for people who had deeds to resettle in this area except on state land. However, there is a Navy camp in an area of 1050 acres – most of which belonged to the people.
Those who lost land in that area and new people who came there with their extended families were given state land by the Land Commission (land kachcheriya).
There were about 100,000 people. Of them about 35,000 families displaced during the war and 22,000 families who lived outside North removed their names from refugee camps and came to their original settlements. Each of them brought a letter from either Grama Niladhari or divisional officer or from a relevant government body confirming that they lived as refugees and intended to return to their original settlement.
Those who obtained that letter thereafter did not receive government facilities. Once they submitted that letter to the GA, Divisional Secretary and Grama Niladhari in the area of their original settlement, only these people were accepted to be resettled in that area. Likewise 22,000 families returned to the North and if those families or their forefathers’ names were in the 1990 voters’ list, then those families were resettled in the respective areas. However, from 22,000 who were shifted, only 30% are living in the North at present. 70% of them left because they do not have facilities there – proper shelter or infrastructure. Right now only 7000 or 8000 families live in the North in Mannar, Vavuniya, Mulathivu, Kilinochchi and Jaffna.
“If I have done anything wrong as they say, there is a law in the country.
Anybody can go to the police and lodge a complaint against me – then the police can do the investigations and take legal actions if there has been a breach of law.
There are groups who make false allegations just to split communities,” he told The Sunday Leader recently.
Another official said that in 2012 Muslims in Marichukatti began their resettlement process with the support of Qatar foundation (Al-JASSIM). Since then some Buddhist monks and media groups began to accuse their resettlement and claimed it was an illegal resettlement and violation of Wilpattu forest, though the Muslims hold their deeds to live in their own place.
From the Muslims’ point of view, these are the lands where they have lived for more than 100 years even before the conflict started and they have deeds -legal documents- to prove the ownership and right to live in their own place. The issue is little complicated and not many understand what exactly happens in Wilpattu.
In fact, the villages Marichukatti, Karadikkuli, Palakuli and Kondachi are some border villages of Mannar District and located very close to Wilpattu National Park. Due to the conflict and absence of people all these villages were neglected and looks like a forest.
“We are quite concerned on the new development on the matters relating to the wide media coverage in the past few weeks on the forest destruction in the Mannar district with the allegation that new areas have been cleared for human settlements and for an Industrial Park. Some elements in both sides are trying to paint this issue as an ethnic issue, which we reject at the outset,” said Centre for Environmental Justice Executive Director Hemantha Withanage.
CEJ is the only environmental organisation to have filed legal action against Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, Conservator General of Forest and seven others in 2015.
“Yet the delay of the court process have resulted new round of accusations and unrest. Lack of political commitment and the lack of accountability of the relevant agencies for a realistic and balance solution are also reasons for the new round of accusations,” he said.
Right to return
“We believe the Right to return for those who have been displaced during the civil conflict. They should be given lands in a legal manner, with proper infrastructure to live in peace and engage in livelihood with dignity. It has to do within legal system in the country and should not allow political leadership in the area to develop the infrastructure in an ad-hoc manner and grab forestlands.
We are aware that the destruction is not within the area declared under the Fauna and Flora Protection act as Wilpattu National Park, but the other forests declared under the Forest Ordinance in 2012/13 which includes Northern Sanctuary of Wilpattu National Park and Maraichukkaddi /Karadikkuli Reserved Forest Stands west ward of Wilpattu blocks II and IV and forest in Madu, Periyamadu and Sannara area which is part of the Forest complex i.e. Madu Road Sanctuary declared on 28.06.1968 and Madu road Reserved Forests declared in 20 September 2012.” He added
According to the District Secretary- Mannar, a total extent of 300 Acres of lands governed under the forest Department had been released without demarcating boundaries and certain extents in Sannar- Widathalthivu earlier and 1080 hectares under Forest department was released in February 2013 in Mannar district. In addition 983 ha and 325 ha have been released in same way in Mulativu and Vavunia districts as requested by the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy. Released lands are located within 250 meters from the Puttalam- Mannar road, however clearing has done up to 1.2 km from the road. One can clearly see this violation in the Google maps.
Although the lands have been cleared, people have not yet settled in many of those lands. This proves that some people are not interested to return to this area for some reason and those responsible have destroyed more forests than what is required for resettlement at the moment.These forest aged more than 1000 years would have given service to our own people and for the wildlife for many more years and act as part of the solution for much bigger humanity crisis we are facing today due to climate change. This is part of the ignorance of our political leadership on the sustainable development and conservation.
He added: “It is important to know little bit on what we have lost in this business due to political arrogance. This forest is a threatened eco-system which includes Madu Road reserved forest, Madu Road Sanctuary, Northern Sanctuary of Wilpattu National Park and Maraichukkaddi /Karadikkuli reserved forest and adjoining forests. This system is an important forest ecosystem with villu’s providing important habitats for bird life, elephants and other animals. Hundreds of Villu’s is the only water source for the life almost for nine months of the year. The forest is equally important for balancing the climate system even for human population in the nearby villages and cities. As the questioned areas are situated in semi- arid zone, large-scale clearance of them results in localied changes in weather and climate inflicting harmful effects on the communities living in the area.”
The area is lack in surface water especially during the dry season and not suitable for permanent housing settlements. The vegetation is mostly surviving with the rainwater stored the tank system and the ground water table. The removal of forest cover may result in variation of water levels at different geological levels in the ground water table and due to various hydrological mechanisms, the marine water could be drawn toward the inland and cause a dramatic impact on drinking water usage of residential population. Further, large human settlements in the area may force government to provide water either diverting streams flowing across the forest and wildlife reservations, or tapping water from the water bodies located inside the reserves for the purpose of wildlife habitats or drawing ground water which will result future conflicts.
Due to habitat loss wild elephants could not move into their native settlements located opposite the border of the forest and increase the Human Elephant conflict. It is the only catchment for several reservoirs, clearing it will be lead for greater decrease of water level in said reservoirs and will badly affect the fauna and flora during droughts. Depriving of thousands acres of native habitat for endemic, spot endemic and other threatened fauna and flora species may cause extinction. On the other hand unsafe living condition and surrounding does not support (water and enough sanitary facilities) for the persons who settled in the questioned are have already created new issues including deaths by snake bites.
Unless the cumulative impacts of the said resettlement and land grabbing are assessed properly and precautionary measures are taken adequately, it would cause an irreparable and/or irreversible damage and destruction to the environment, ecological balance and interest of the people of the area. On account of the aforesaid adverse impacts on the environment, and livelihood of the villagers and misuse of the protected heritages the said project has attracted much public criticisms and oppositions.
Environmental and Social Impact Assessment study could have answered many of these issues and given clarity on the purpose which relevant authorities failed to respect. It is the statutory duty of the CEA to produce an EIA or IEE Report, as per provisions of Section 23BB(i) of the NEA. According to the Regulation No.01 of 1993 (Gazette Extra Ordinary No 772/22 dated 24.06.1993) “ any development project carried out within an area of more than one hectare in a forest area” or “clearing of land areas exceeding 50 Ha and also in a case of re-settlement, a project of resettling of more than 100 families will need EIA report as per order of the Minister of Environment under Section 23f of the National Environmental Act have to produce this Assessment.
According to Gazette notification bearing No.859/14 published under National Environment Act aforesaid, prior written approval should be obtained from the Forest Department with concurrence of the CEA, subject to EIA process “before carrying out any development activity within a sanctuary or within 100 m from the boundary of a sanctuary”.
In addition, in conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment regarding the said project and to obtain approval in compliance with the afore mentioned statutory duty, news paper advertisement should be published and must invite for public comments with adequate opportunity to inspect and examine the same and Procedure followed by the respecting parties. Unfortunately this law has been violated.
Withanage added that the explanation Minister Bathiudeen is giving is that this resettlement was an emergency which we all know that it was not the case. He cannot hide this requirement as the right to return or by explaining this as a communal issue. Similarly CEA and the Forest Department cannot be excused for not enforcing the respective acts and regulations.
There is another argument by Minister Bathiudeen that the Forest Department has declared their lands in 2012/13 before they returned to those lands. This would have been clearly a matter for a court ruling against the Forest Department which could have filed under the current legal system in the country. In fact the land gabbing in Mannar gives a bad precedent for the country. As we all know lands in Yala, Udawalava, Wasgamuwa, Horton plains etc., are once cultivated lands. If the people start claiming the rights and engage land grabbing there will be no protected area in the country. Therefore Minister Rishad should have acted more responsibly and cannot be excused for violation of the legal system in Sri Lanka.
“I would again reiterate the problem relating to the destruction in the forest system in Mannar district should not be highlighted as a communal issue. It is clearly a lack of environmental governance and good governance in the country. Those politicians should not demonise people to hide the wrongdoing and the conflict of interest on this matter. Meantime, the environmental groups need to engage environmental activism in more socially responsible manner,” he added. He also said that CEJ is fighting against similar matters in other areas in the country such as Soragune, Nilgala, Ethimale etc and they have no other reason to oppose this land grabbing other than the environmental justice interests.