Another deforestation debacle unfolding in Ehetuwewa

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While the issues surrounding the clearing of forest land in the vicinity of the Nakolagane Purana Raja Maha Viharaya in Ehetuwewa, in the Kurunegala District has emerged time and again, environmentalists cry foul over the failure to address the catastrophe while blaming the illegal clearing to be backed by influential individuals and certain authorities.

While the illegal clearing has been taking place over a number of years, environmentalists state that in a most recent attempt, over 5,400 acres of forest land and adjacent cultivated land is being cleared and handed over to companies and businessmen for lease.

While conservationists blame the involvement of the Ehetuwewa Pradeshiya Sabha for such act, attempts to contact the relevant authority proved futile.

According to the Centre for Environment and Nature Studies, Nakolagane forest area in Ehatuwewa DSD located in Galgamuwa electorate in Kurunagala District has been grabbed and cleared for cultivation purposes and threatening the total extinction of its fauna and flora and degradation of soil.

The areas being cleared are in the catchment of Palukadawala tank and removal of forest cover has led to problems such as soil erosion in the catchment, filling up of the reservoir with sediment after rains. The multi-nation companies that have grabbed these lands develop them for sandal and mango cultivations. The development activities has also been a threat to the farmers cultivating in the vicinity of the tank as it would create water shortage for paddy, their main livelihood, the Centre observed.

The area has been identified to have a valuable ecosystem while at lease over 500 elephants have been traced in the area.

Human-elephant conflict

Environmentalist, Sajeewa Chamikara said forest land adjoining the Nakolagane Purana Raja Maha Viharaya is being cleared for the cultivation of commercial crops and various types of constructions blocking elephant paths. He added that the Palukadawala reservoir belonging to the Nakolagane Rajamaha Viharaya which is a vital water source for elephants in the area is also under threat.

He added that while elephants most commonly gather in this area on July, August and September, their movement has now being hindered due to erected electric fences. Chamikara noted that this has in turn led to Elephants loitering to adjacent areas leading to human-elephant conflicts.

“Elephants used to be a very rare sight in the areas adjacent to the forests lands of Nakolagane Rajamaha Viharaya but has now become a very common sight heavily inconveniencing both the people and the elephants”, he added.

Chamikara noted that Kurunegala is an area with an increasing number of HEC and acts as such would further complicate the situation and risk lives of people and elephants.

Senior advisor to the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), Hemantha Withanage noted that visits carried out by environmental organisations to the areas adjacent to where the illegal clearing is taking place makes difficulties faced by locals evident as they have to face a double whammy in terms of the fear of elephants intruding their land together with the curtailed power supply.

He added that while different slots of land has been divided and distributed for influential individuals and companies within the forest land, hanging power fences have also been set up with the primary motive of deterring elephants.

Controversy

Withanage noted that on the onset, there is a doubt as to the actual portion of land allocated to the Nakolagane Purana Raja Maha Viharaya and the remaining allocation of the forest land, adding that this allocation is vital to be determined in order to avoid obtaining land under the pretext of requiring it for the Nakolagane Purana Raja Maha Viharaya.

He added that in addition to the various proposed projects and commercial crop cultivation within the 5,400 acres of forest land that is gradually being cleared, plans are also underway for the construction of a solar power plant.

Withanage added that under the National Environmental Act No 56 of 1988 as amended and according  to the list of prescribed project 772/22 June 18, 1993, conversion of forests covering an area exceeding one hectare into non-forest uses and clearing of land areas exceeding 50 hectares and other prescribed project requires following an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process.

He noted however that the forest land adjacent to the Nakolagane Purana Raja Maha Viharaya has been distributed amongst companies without carrying out the relevant EIA.

While the matter was previously taken up before the Court of Appeal, the attorney appearing on behalf of the Chief Incumbent of the Nakolagane Purana Rajamaha Viharaya, informed Court that the latter is the owner of about 2,000 acres under a “sannasa” and it has been registered under the relevant laws and therefore entitled to possess his land in the way he wants.

The Divisional Secretary of Ehatuwewa also confirmed the same. However, Court held that even if it is a private or Sangika land, if it is a forest, under relevant laws it is necessary to obtain the necessary permits prior to clear the forest.

It was also noted that the environment protection laws in relation to deforestation are not only for the state lands but applies to private lands and is subject to the fact that it is a forest.

Case filed in this regard

Environment Foundation Limited filed a case in 2018 in regard to the illegal forest clearing and the subsequent erection of an electric fence within the immediate vicinity of the Nakolagane Purana Raja Maha Viharaya in Ehetuwewa, in the Kurunegala District.

They noted that complaints were received in regard to large-scale clearing of approximately 15-20 acres of forest-land and the subsequent institution of an electric fence in the immediate vicinity of the Nakolagane Purana Raja Maha Viharaya, in Ehetuwewa. “According to the information received, the large scale clearing and the subsequent mango plantation surrounding the temple premises were carried out by the Nakolagane Purana Raja Maha Viharaya in collaboration with funding by private investors,” they noted.

As the said forest land has been subjected to illegal clearing and destruction over the years it has been brought to the attention of authorities time and again. It is crucial for authorities to address the issues, failing which this would be yet another common forest clearing in Sri Lanka.

By Faadhila Thassim