Portion of Rajawaka loses reservation status

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While the ongoing economic crisis is said to have occurred due to the faulty decisions made in the past, environmentalists warned of an inevitable catastrophe that is around the corner due to certain decisions made in regard to sensitive ecosystems.

Environmental conservationist and Executive Director of Leopocon Sethil Muhandiram said while forest degradation is so common in Sri Lanka, minimal effort is being made to rectify the situation adding that recent decision to declare over 27 hectares of the Rajawaka Forest Reserve to cease to be a reservation is also of a grave concern.

The Rajawaka Forest Reserve is a Lower Montane Forest located in the Balangoda region with a large extent of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem with natural vegetation. The Rajawaka Forest Reserve has also been identified as a water catchment area for the Samanalawewa reservoir.

Cease to be reserved

While the Rajawaka forest in Balangoda was declared as a reserve on 25 November 2008 by way of Gazette Extraordinary 1577/5, former Minister of Wildlife and Forest Resources Conservation Wimalaweera Dissanayake issued a Gazette Extraordinary No 2278/04 declaring 27.3684 hectares of the Rajawaka Forest Reserve to cease to be a reservation.

According to the Forest Conservator General, Nishantha Edirisinghe, the forested land ceased to be reserved as the said portion of land was allocated to a religious place in the Kuragala pre-historic archaeological site. He added while 100 hectares of the Rajawaka Forest Reserve was requested to be allocated after ceasing to be reservation, only 27 hectares was allocated and ceased to be reserved.

He noted that according to the Forest Ordinance Section 4 (2), the Minister may, by order published in the Gazette, direct that from a date fixed by such order any reserved forest or any portion thereof shall cease to be reserved. From the date so fixed such forest or portion of forest shall cease to be reserved.

He added thereby that Dissanayake has the authority to do so and that the Kuragala pre-historic archaeological site is of great importance and such decision was arrived at in accordance to law.

Muhandiram noted that the Rajawaka Forest Reserve has already been subject to several forms of destruction for development purposes and has been encroached over the years emphasising that although legally the Minister is empowered to declare a forest reserve to cease to be reserved, there should be a mandate by which at least a basic survey or study about the sensitive eco system is carried out before making such declaration.

He added that the protection given to a forest reserve by the Forest Ordinance will cease to exist with the issuance of this Gazette in relation to the 27 hectares of land in the Rajawaka Forest Reserve immensely affecting the wildlife and biodiversity in the forest reserve.

Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, Dilena Pathragoda, observed that the primary issue is not the purpose for which over 27 hectares ceased to be reserved but rather the consequences that would follow as this would pave way for increased encroachment in the forest land.

What happens when a portion of a reserved forest ceases to be reserved?

Section 6 and 7 of the Forest Ordinance sets out acts that are prohibited to be carried out in a forest reserve and accordingly it is an offence to carry environmental degradation acts such as causing any damage by negligence in felling any tree, or cutting or dragging any timber, wilfully strips off the bark or leaves from, or girdles, lops, taps, burns or otherwise damages, any tree.

Environmental Lawyer Ravindranath Dabare stated once a forest reserve ceases to be a reserve, it will be considered as an Other State Forest and although the protection guaranteed for reserves ceases to exist, the protection granted to other State forests will remain to be in force.

He added according to Section 20 of the Forest Ordinance, no person shall clear, set fire to, or break up the soil of, or make use of the pasturage or of the forest produce of, any forest not included in a reserved or village forest, except in accordance with rules to be made by the Minister.

Dabare noted that although the words in the provision permits the Minister to make rules, it does not imply rules that would include destroying the environment and thereby the portion of land that has ceased to be reserved should also be protected in accordance to the Forest Ordinance and the said portion of land will continue to be under the purview of the Forest Department.

Is it necessary for forested land to cease to be reserved for development of an archaeological site?

According to an article published by the Uva Wellassa University, Kuragala is one of a most significant archaeological preserve in the Sabaragamuwa Province which is designated in Sri Lanka as a pre-historic archaeological site with ruins of ancient Buddhist Cave temple complex, dating back to the second century BC. Kuragala is considered as the oldest archaeological site found in the Intermediate Zone.

Archaeological officer M.W. Indika stated that while the Kuragala pre-historic archaeological site and the religious places in it is of great value culturally and historically, development activities carried out in the vicinity of the site has immensely affected the historic value of the site.

He added there is no valid reasoning behind specifically allocating over 27 hectares of land that has been declared as a reserve as there will only be further legally permissible constructions which could result in further depletion of the historic value of the site.

“As archaeological officers, we do not agree with such decision and the authorities should understand the importance of preserving both an archaeological site while preserving a sensitive environment,” he added stating that the environment should be preserved while securing the cultural and historic value of the site.

The Department of Archaeology when contacted stated that although the Ministry has issued a Gazette to the effect that over 27 hectares of the Rajawaka Forest Reserve has ceased to be a reserve for the purpose of allocating the said land to a religious place adjoining the Kuragala pre-historic archaeological site, such allocated land will not fall under the purview of the Department but that it would rather continue to be governed by the Forest Department.

Impacts of previous development in the reserve

A conference paper titled ‘Forest Die-Back at Rajawaka Forest Reserve at Balangoda: Results of Preliminary Observations’ done by H.M.A.B. Herath, Kithsiri Ranawana from the University of Peradeniya and G.W.A.R. Fernando from the Open University of Sri Lanka focused on the species in the reserve and the issues that has arisen by previous development activities within the reserve.

The study revealed that eleven plants species were susceptible to dieback in the Rajawaka Reserve. Out of the six families were severely affected namely Mesuaferrea, Palaquiumhinmolpedda, Melastomatacea, Myrtacea and Clusiaceae and Melastomatacea and according to the study, this is the first time that such a large number of die back of Mesuaferrea was reported from a natural forest reserve.

 Field and experimental evidence showed that two pathogenic fungi were the main cause for dying trees in Rajawaka forest, and which affected relatively larger trees than the smaller trees.

“These roots were believed to be attacked by fungi, which could easily grow in water saturated environments. Construction of Samanalawewa Reservoir in 1990, could well increase the groundwater table at least by 30m,” the study revealed.

The soil moisture in the surroundings had facilitated the fungal growth and as a result of dieback phenomenon, rapid and drastic change of forest structure had occurred replacing many invasive species in the process.

Further, according to the Initial Environmental Examination prepared by the Road Development Authority, Ministry of Highways for the Government of Sri Lanka and the Asian Development Bank regarding the Rehabilitation and Improvement of Balangoda – Bowatte-Kaltota Road in March 2022, it was noted that if the labour camps are established near Rajawaka Forest area during the construction of the said road, there could be several adverse impacts such as dumping of waste, clearance of vegetation for worker campsites, hunting of animal species and collection of firewood from forests.

The said road has been proposed to pass the Rajawaka Forest Reserve in a few locations at the vicinity of the road and around 25 km-27 km through the forest.

Thereby environmental conservationists have called for the need to ensure an equal balance between conservation of the environment and archaeological sites without an impact on either and with a detailed study of its overall and long term impacts.

By Faadhila Thassim