Saving Wilpattu

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The ‘social media warriors’ who were up in arms against the destruction in and around the Wilpattu Forest Reserve over the years seem to have now turned a blind eye to the continuing catastrophe.

With the order made by the Court of Appeal for MP Rishad Bathiudeen to bear the entire cost to carry out a tree planting programme north of the Wilpattu Forest Reserve, when the case filed against illegal forest clearing was taken up, there was most inevitably a sense of relief as the order depicted some sort of deterrence.

The question was, however, whether this did in fact put an end to the man-made disasters taking place within and around the forest reserve. While the importance of the conservation of the forest reserve came to the limelight following this case and decision, the enthusiasm of those who condemned acts of illegal clearing of the Wilpattu Forest Reserve has dropped.

Further, although the Conservator General of Forests was also ordered by Court to calculate the cost of the tree planting programme, environmentalists cry foul over the failure of the Conservator General of Forests to take necessary and sufficient steps to implement the orders of the Appellate Court.

While an environmental organisation filed the said case against the illegal clearing by way of a Writ Application, as a public interest litigator, the lawyer appearing on behalf of the MP in question filed an appeal against the decision of Court, in which it was stated that the Court has failed to consider whether the petitioner had locus standi and is competent to maintain the application by way of public interest litigation.

Environmental organisations have time and again represented the public by way of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to uphold public interests and PIL has most commonly been practised in Sri Lanka over the past in relation to environmental cases. If not for such representation before the Judiciary, how would incidents as such which are in contradiction to public interests be challenged?

To add to the persistent illegal activities within the Wilpattu Forest Reserve, environmentalists are up in arms against a move to develop an illegal road across the Wilpattu National Park, from Puttalam to Mannar, on the whims and fancies of a powerful politician in the area.

According to sources, a team from the Road Development Authority (RDA) had visited Wilpattu National Park recently, after seeking permission from the Director General of Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC). Accordingly, permission has been granted to the team of officials from the RDA, DWLC and the Wanathavilluwa Divisional Secretary to undertake a field visit ‘only’ to observe the status quo of the prevailing road.

However, the politician in question with his team had also arrived to take part in the field visit. Officials of the DWLC and the Divisional Secretariat have expressed their displeasure as permission was only granted for government officials to visit the park and the politician had arrived without prior notice.

Upon being subjected to opposition by officials he had left with only RDA officials undertaking the field visit.  The Environment Foundation Limited (EFL) and the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) petitioned the Supreme Court in 2010 seeking assurance that no construction within the Wilpattu National Park would be conducted till the final determination of their application.

In 2013, the Supreme Court issued a Stay Order to maintain status quo with no further development activity of the road including tarring of road be carried out other than normal repairs of the road. Environmentalists pointed out that any development to the existing road will stand in callous disregard of the SC rule and would amount to contempt of Court.

Meanwhile, due to the pressure exerted by the said politician, another meeting had been called by Puttalam District Secretary at the District Secretariat where officials of the RDA, Irrigation Department and DWLC were present. Wildlife officers have pointed out that doing anything against a Supreme Court order will be problematic and above all such road development activity within a National Park will disturb the wildlife and cause a major threat especially to the elephant and leopard population. 

The series of these events is crystal clear evidence of the ignorance of certain politicians and others in power irrespective of their separate ideologies and agendas towards the dwindling forest cover in Sri Lanka and the need to improve conservation efforts. What aggravates the ignorance of those in power is the ignorance by the public who should not completely rely on environmentalists to represent them but should also voice against such illegal acts.