The majority of environmentally-conscious laypersons in Sri Lanka were acquainted with the term Other State Forests (OSFs) and its definition as well as its importance in late 2020 with the passing of Circular 1/2020 by the Cabinet, cancelling the previous Circular 5/2001. The controversial circular relating to the ownership of OSFs was passed on 26 October 2020 and effectively transferred the authority and responsibility of OSFs from the Forest Department (FD) to respective District and Divisional Secretariats.
This meant that the local authorities such as the District and Divisional Secretariat with no proper expertise or experience in handling forest-related matters in not just an administrative perspective but largely, from an environmental and ecological perspective, were given authority to handle OSFs and even transfer the ownership of the OSFs to public and private parties. In private sector, individuals and companies were given eligibility to acquire OSF lands for agricultural purposes such as for chena cultivation and mass cultivation of crops such as maize and finger millet. Government as well as private companies were also given the opportunity to acquire OSF lands for development purposes such as infrastructure building and timber cultivation.
The decision ruffled the feathers of all environmental activists and concerned parties, and since then has been met with vehement opposition. The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) for one, has gone to courts challenging the controversial circular and the legal battle is still on-going.
Recently, the CEJ held an online seminar related to the Circular 1/2020 and OSFs, especially focussing on the districts; Mannar and Ampara. The online seminar titled, ‘The Extent of Possible Social, Ecological Impact in Cancellation of 5/2001 Circular in Mannar and Ampara Districts’ was attended by the Executive Director of CEJ Dilena Pathragoda, Project Planning and Management Officer of CEJ Chalani Rubasinghe, Legal Officer of CEJ Thushini Jayasekara, GIS and Land Use Planning Specialist L.H. Indrasiri, Professor of Zoology at the Department of Zoology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Colombo Prof. Devaka Weerakoon, Director at Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle of Sri Lanka Supun Lahiru Prakash, representatives and residents from the two districts, environmentalists, experts, and many other interested individuals.
The discussion shed light on not only the importance of OSFs in those two particular districts but also cleared out some legal definitions and boundaries related to OSFs.
What are OSFs?
The Legal Officer of CEJ, Jayasekara explained the legal definition of OSFs and other legal issues related to the protection of OSFs. According to her, all the forest cover in Sri Lanka is mainly divided into four categories, as per the Forest Ordinance No: 16 of 1907. This statue was introduced for the purpose of forest management and forest conservation. According to the Ordinance the four categories of forests are; Conservation Forests, Reserved Forests, Village Forests and Other State Forests.
“All the forests other than Conservation Forests, Reserved Forests, and Village Forests can be considered as OSFs,” Jayasekara said.
Under Section 20 of the Forest Ordinance, it is mentioned the acts which are prohibited in the OSFs. “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 reserve or conservation or village forest, except in accordance with rules to be made by the Minister. Such rules may, with respect to such forests or with respect to any particular forest”.
Jayasekara further said that any person who is found guilty of any of the above offences shall stand to receive a prison sentence of no more than two years and/or a fine between Rs 5,000 and Rs 50,000.
OSFs in Mannar and Ampara
The research project – ‘Safeguarding the Environment and Natural Resources and Working towards Sustainable Development through Awareness and Advocacy’ – the CEJ carried out with the funds of USAID, primarily focused on Mannar and Ampara districts for their unique positioning and circumstance, the research findings were revealed by the GIS and Land Use Planning Specialist Indrasiri. In Mannar District, the forest cover extends to 164,103.16 hectares, covering 82 per cent of the district. Out of them, OSFs amount to 1,677 hectares. A relatively small area one might think but it is important to count proposed forest reserves as well, which amounts to 89,545 hectares since now both effectively come under the authority of divisional and district secretariats under the new circular.
In Ampara, the forest cover is 174,939 hectares; a slightly larger cover than Mannar District but considerably less when considered as a percentage as it only amounts to 39.6 per cent of the district. The OSFs and proposed forest reserves of Ampara District amount to 9,556 hectares and 22,454 hectares, respectively.
In Mannar, OSFs are found in Mannar town, Musali, Madhu, and Manthai West while in Ampara they are found in Padiyathalawa, Mahaoya, Ampara, Uhana, Lahugala, Pottuvil, Addalachchenai, Damana, and Eragama areas. Among them Padiyathalawa holds the most amount of OSFs, claiming 62.8 per cent of the district’s OSFs.
The project has identified a number of immediate threats to OSFs as well as forest lands of the two districts in general and implores the importance of immediate actions needed to be taken before the socio-economic as well as irreversible ecological damage is caused. “One of the main issues is the political pressure faced by the local authorities to release OTFs to private parties. It can be a land belonging to an OTF but the release can ultimately cause damages to sensitive forests in the area such as national parks and sanctuaries which both the districts have in abundance,” Indrasiri said.
Also, the authorities when releasing OTFs, neglect the needs of the neighbouring population for their land needs which is an ultimate result of not conducting a proper survey or and assessment before entertaining requests for acquiring OSF lands. Delaying the gazetting of the proposed forest reserves is also an alarming problem. According to Indrasiri, some of the proposed forest reserves of the two districts have been in the ‘waiting list’ to be gazetted for almost a decade.
Since the implementation of the new circular, a change of the use of OTFs has been observed, especially in the areas; Padiyathalawa, Dehiaththakandiya, and Mahaoya. Without due regard to environmental and ecosystem values and its impacts, the shift in ownership can cause to the biodiversity and to the climate, OSF lands have been released to private parties, mainly for the cultivation of economic crops. According to Indrasiri this practice can intensify the natural hazard occurrences, land degradation, and can impact the local livelihood significantly.
Impacts on climate
According to the project, the land use change, especially of the OSFs, can have a long-term negative impact on the climate of the two districts. With current data and with a base period of 30 years (1976 – 2005) the project has calculated the rise in temperature as well as the future behaviour of the seasonal rainfall of the two districts. The results however, are not very promising. The predictions were made until 2100 and the in the worst case scenario, the temperature can rise by 3.7 degrees in both districts by that time. The rainfall, monsoons and inter-monsoons too are expected to have a negative impact, resulting in an anomaly of the seasonal rainfall. This is much severe in Mannar in comparison with Ampara.
“Urgent policy decisions and stakeholder interventions are required to minimise the impacts generated on the people, their health, water supply, agriculture, tourism, biodiversity, and the livelihood of both districts by reducing the loss of forest cover and encouraging concentrated planned development,” Indrasiri opined.
Talking particularly about Mannar District, Indrasiri said, “The nature reserves located in Mannar District are under severe pressure due to interventions by organised political parties for different purposes. Encroaching of forest and wildlife areas, clearing forests, felling and burning trees, destroying surrounding vegetation, and using OSF land for settlement development and cultivation purposes are main threats identified in Madhu Road national Park, Vankalai Sanctuary, and Vidattalativu Nature Reserve.”
Flora and fauna found in Mannar and Ampara
Talking about the flora and fauna found in the two districts, Prof. Weerakoon said that both districts are important ecological locations in terms of migratory birds’ conservation. “Coastal belt of Ampara District which is over 100 kilometres contains a number of lagoons; Thimbutu, Komari, Pottuvil-Ureni, Arugam, Panama, Solambe, Kunukala, Helawa, Shastrawela, Okanda, Girikula, Bagura, Andarakala, Itikala, Yakkala, and Kumana. These lagoons and estuaries support rich mangrove vegetation and associated dune vegetation provides habitats for a large number of water birds,” Prof. Weerakoon said.
“The coastal belt of Mannar District which is 173 kilometres in length, contains three large lagoons; Peiya, Vidattalativu, and Vankalai, as well as four major estuaries; Pali Aru, Aravi Aru, Kal Aru, and Uppu Aru. These lagoons and estuaries support a rich mangrove vegetation, salt marshes, and mud flats that serve as habitats to a large number of water birds. Mannar District also comes within the Northern Avifaunal Zone and therefore, supports a good population of species that are restricted to the Northern region. Also, the district supports large populations of water birds including migrant species” Prof. Weerakoon said.
Mannat District also houses several species of butterflies that are restricted to Northern region of Sri Lanka such as; the Yellow Pansy and the Bright Babel Blue. There is also a number of interesting introduced species thriving in Mannar such as ponies, donkeys, and the Baobab tree. Some of the water birds found only in the Northern region and particularly in Mannar District are; the Indian Courser and the Collared Dove.
Importance of OSFs in Mannar and Ampara
According to Prof. Weerakoon OSFs play a vital role in the long-term conservation of native, endemic species since the OSFs provide habitat for a considerable number of endemic species. OSFs also provides habitat continuity between the existing protected areas such as national parks and sanctuaries and therefore, OSFs play an important role in maintaining the ‘gene flow’ of fauna while minimising human-wildlife conflict.
“OSFs of Mannar and Ampara are important to humans as well since they provide a suit of ecosystem services that support livelihoods and wellbeing of people. They provide opportunities for sustainable livelihood development such as eco-tourism and also, they provide protection for archaeological resources,” Prof. Weerakoon said.
Since both districts have a number of sanctuaries and national parks, a host of ‘attractive fauna’ such as leopards, elephants, bears, crocodiles, deer, and water buffaloes can be found in both districts. Among these animals, elephants are rather commonly found in abundance in both districts. This means that the conflict between the land giants and humans is inevitable.
Commenting on the human-elephant conflict (HEC) in Mannar and Ampara districts, Prakash said that Ampara District has a number of Divisional Secretariat (DS) divisions which are included in the list of ‘top 20 more HEC-prone DS division in Sri Lanka’.
“After the war ended, lots of resettlement and development projects took place in the previously war-torn areas, especially in Mannar and Ampara districts. This resulted in clearing of forests, mostly OSFs. Now with the new circular, the OSFs are again under threat and this is not helping to mitigate HEC. A research carried out by Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando showed that in Ampara District, there is at least one herd of elephant for every 25 square kilometres of the district. Same is true to Mannar District. This means that there is a healthy and residential elephant population in both districts. These elephants often travel between their habitats and more than often their elephant corridors are through OSFs. Clearing OSFs for any purpose means inviting HEC,” Prakash revealed.
In terms of mitigating the long-term damages caused by the clearing of OSFs, the most obvious solution agreed by all the experts was to reverse the new circular and make the FD the sole Government entity that has authority over OSFs. The CEJ continues its efforts to make this happen and in the meantime, the experts invite the relevant authorities to use the valuable data generated by the project to determine the further conservation methods of OSFs.
Early detection is the key to prevent destruction caused to forests and therefore, the authorities should take stringent measures in detecting encroachers. It is also vital to create awareness through advocacy and to do so, it is important to incorporate NGOs and other environmental lobbyists to properly identify OSFs and to protect them. The authorities should be open to share their resources, data, and facilities with other interested parties in order to protect OSFs.
Until such time, the circular can be reversed. Authorities should take measures to enact the existing laws and regulations to discourage encroachers. This can be achieved through a collaboration of multiple Government institutes such as the Local Government authorities, the FD, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, and so on.
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe