50,000 Acres Put to the Axe
By Ranmini Gunasekara
While Yala National Park – Sri Lanka’s most-visited and second-largest national park – is famous for having one of the world’s highest leopard densities as well as being home to several endangered mammals such as elephants, Sri Lankan sloth bears and wild water buffaloes, it is far less known that massive deforestation is encroaching on its borders.
Although heated protests were staged to save the buffer zone of Wilpattu National Park, hardly any mention has been made of the rampant destruction taking place on the borders of Yala as well as Kumana National Park (formerly known as the Yala East National Park). However, according to the Convener of the Rainforest Protectors, Jayantha Wijesingha, the deforestation near the borders of Yala and Kumana is five times as much as what happened to Wilpattu, and spans across 50,000 acres.
“The deforestation has taken place mainly in the Wattegama Kabiliththa National Reserve Forest, the Kumbukkan Conservation Forest, and in the Yala and Kumana National Park buffer zones. These are all areas adjoining each other. We previously learnt that the further expansion of this deforestation has been halted to a great extent, but the damage is already done,” said Wijesingha.
Wijesingha added that the main cause for deforestation is mass-scale chena cultivation.
“This is not individual Chena cultivation; these are companies that have obtained agriculture permits through Divisional Secretariats. From what I know, you can only get about two to five acres of land under an agriculture permit, but these companies have received up to 30-40 acres under a single permit.”
He alleged that one of the main culprits behind the deforestation was a company named K.S.T. Evergreen (Pvt) Ltd, which is a company engaging in mass-scale cultivation of maize.
“K.S.T. Evergreen was the company that came up in our search. This was the same company to which the Ministry of Health and Indigenous Medicine awarded a contract to purchase 12,000 metric tonnes of maize back in 2019. This company is very politically connected with both the Rajapaksa regime as well as the UNP regime. Particularly in the Moneragala District where this deforestation is happening, the company is well connected with former Parliamentarians of this area, such as Ranjith Madduma Bandara and Wijith Wijayamuni Zoysa,” he claimed.
Wijesingha further alleged that K.S.T. Evergreen had obtained these permits under the guise of individual permits, and added that most of the deforestation had happened after the end of the civil war.
“K.S.T. Evergreen has put forward individual names for the agricultural permits. The only way to trace it is that all the harvests from these chenas are going to this company. When you look at the view through Google Maps, the extent is roughly around 50,000 acres. These have all been cleared more or less after the war, because during the war people didn’t go into the forests; they were all border villages. Much like Wilpattu, which was cleared after the war under the guise of resettlement, here they cleared it under the guise of individual chena cultivation.”
In a visit to the site back in 2016, Rainforest Protectors exposed this deforestation, which was close to 30,000 acres back then. However, though the destruction has now further expanded, authorities have taken little action to reclaim this land.
“When we went there back then, the people there had even tried to bring down massive trees, which could not be cut due to their sheer size. They burnt many of them in the hope that the tree would die, while others have been shredded, their barks removed, for them to die. They mostly grew corn and sugarcane in these areas, and those people had heavy machinery for land preparation, which could not have been purchased individually. We suspect they obtained these from this company.”
DFC vs. DWC
While both the Yala and Kumana National Parks come under the purview Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), the Wattegama Kebiliththa Forest Reserve and the Kumbukkan Conservation Forest come under the purview of the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC).
In a letter addressed to the Forest Conservator General on 03 October 2016, Rainforest Protectors President, Sriyantha Perera, revealed that the DFC officers of the Moneragala Liyangolla DFC Office had been illegally selling land in the area, and further stated that the racketeers had also sold land within the new border of the Kumana National Park. This new border for Kumana National Park was declared under Extraordinary Gazette 1461/7, dated 05 September 2006.
Moreover, he highlighted that the DWC officers of Kumana National Park had earlier taken measures to strengthen the northern park boundary to prevent the invasion of land by the racketeers, but that all attempts failed due to threats by the corrupt Liyangolla DFC officers that engaged in the land fraud. He further stated that on one occasion, the DWC officers had been threatened by the DFC officers, while on another occasion, the corrupt DFC officers had tried to arrest DWC officers trying to set up a new Beat Wildlife Office in the area.
Furthermore, the letter stated that the elephant habitat and the elephant transit corridor between Yala, Kumana and Lahugala had already been destroyed, and warned this would further aggravate the human-elephant conflict in the surrounding villages.
According to Wijesingha, this destruction further escalated due to this rift between the DWC and the DFC.
“At the time, the DWC and the DFC had a rift about their borders. The DFC had a problem with a particular Gazette the DWC had issued on Kotiyagala, which is another area in the vicinity of this destruction, which led to a legal battle between these two departments. While the court case was going on, neither the DWC nor the DFC could take any action, giving a free hand to the company in question to decimate the area. From satellite imagery, we can roughly say that up to 50,000 acres of forest has now been lost.”
When Ceylon Today contacted the DFC Forest Conservator General, W.A.C. Weragoda in this regard, he said he was unaware of this destruction.
“There have been some chena cultivations in that area for quite a long time. I think that is what is showing up on the satellite imagery, but I’m not sure whether the destruction is that bad. I have informed our branches about this, but I will have to check on this to comment on the exact size of the destruction and whether it has expanded,” he said.
He further added that he was not in a position to comment on whether the DFC officers of the Moneragala Liyangolla DFC office were guilty of any land racketeering.
When Ceylon Today contacted the DWC Director General, Chandana Sooriyabandara, he stated that the destruction was not within the DWC’s jurisdiction to prevent.
“This is not the Kumana National Park, and to my knowledge, this destruction hasn’t reached the Kumana National Park yet. Certain other forests nearby have been destroyed, but I cannot comment on it, because those forests are not under the purview of the DWC. The deforestation has come near the Kumana boundary, but the problem is that it hasn’t come inside the boundary yet. We can’t take action for forests belonging to other institutions.”
He further claimed that there were no court cases between the DWC and the DFC.
While authorities continue quarrelling over boundaries, the Greater Yala complex remains at imminent risk in the hands of corrupt officials and profit-centric businesses. Unfortunately, recent events show that this situation is by no means exclusive to Greater Yala – the days are numbered for most of Sri Lanka’s vulnerable ecosystems.