All Forests Matter
By Risidra Mendis
A decision taken by the Government to abolish Circular No. 5/2001 and hand over the Other State Forests (OSF) in the country from the Forest Department (FD) to the Divisional Secretaries and District Secretaries has come under severe criticism by environmentalists who say the remaining forests will be in grave danger.
Sri Lanka has a 17 per cent of primary forest cover. But the Government while saying they want to increase the forest cover by 3 per cent by 2030, has now taken a decision to put all OSFs in the hands of the Divisional Secretaries and District Secretaries to be used and destroyed.
Executive Director of Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Hemantha Withanage said the CEJ is of the view that if this Circular is abolished and OSFs are handed over to the Divisional Secretaries for any reason, the remaining forests would be in danger.
Forests become insecure
“The remaining forests under the FD are located in various ecological zones of Sri Lanka and include; forested catchments, habitats of the biological community - including elephant grounds and archaeological sites of medicinal value. These forests have been preserved as they are currently required to obtain the stones, sand or other materials that are present in these forests. According to the new Circular 5/2001, the forests will become insecure,” Withanage said.
For example, the forest lands near Arugam Bay (Surfing Point) and the forest areas of Digawapi were handed over to other parties by a Divisional Secretary, but due to circular 5/2001, the FD was able to re-acquire them and secure them.
“The new Circular is to be handed over to the Divisional Secretaries and not only those forests, but also the natural resources such as sand and rocks in forest areas currently under the FD, especially in Moneragala, Ampara, Hambantota, Trincomalee and Puttalam Districts are now insecure. In addition to this new Circular, the River Reserve and Tank Reserve Zones will come under the Divisional Secretariat, which will cause serious environmental damage in the future,” Withanage feared.
He said Politicians contesting the election in certain areas are spreading the news about the repeal of the 5/2001 Circular to the public and the CEJ has already taken steps to inform President Gotabaya Rajapaksa about this matter. “Many elephant passes are fallen through these forests, leading to an inevitable human – elephant conflict. The CEJ has directed the Secretary to the Ministry of Environment to take legal action against the abolition of the Circular 5/2001 and requests those responsible to take action to abolish the existing 5/2001 Circular to protect the remaining forest cover and to safeguard our environment,” Withanage said.
Commenting on the Circular Environment Lawyer Jagath Gunawardana said the OSFs are as important as the rest of the forests in the country. “This Circular gave the FD the much-needed encouragement to introduce the provisions of the Forest Ordinance and it cleared certain things that the FD always had its doubts about. On the other hand it also helped to give clear guidance to the forest officers over what to do. Most of the time there was a misperception in the minds of the Government officials that all these OSFs belong to the Assistant Government Agents (AGAs). The real situation is it is the Forest Ordinance and the FD that has to take care of all these lands,” Gunawardana said.
Endemic plant and animal species
He further added that many species of animals and plants are found in these areas, together with a larger proportion of endemic species of animals and plants, and nobody can say these lands are unimportant in any context. “Certain species of fish are only found in this type of OSFs or in a stream that is fed by an OSF. The Bandula Barb is a perfect example. The stream is fed by a small stretch of an OSF in the Randenigala Mountain. Certain species of fish was also discovered in an OSF in Kegalle District. The Rasbora Wilpita and Danio Pathirana were found in a stream flowing through an OSF,” Gunawardana explained.
He said that there are so many examples of point endemics and very rare species of animals and plants, most of which are critically endangered or endangered, and owning their existence to OSFs. “Similarly, there are other species of animals whose existence have been found in OSFs and if these OSFs are destroyed so many species will disappear. I don’t have much data on invertebrates like spiders and insects but it has been found out that these forests harbour a significant number of these species and have a large number of new species as well. This is not an issue of land but a real issue of protecting our endemic and important rare biodiversity,” Gunawardana said.
Extinction of aquatic plants
He feared that certain officials will have a field day distributing land for various purposes, including nefarious purposes and that because of this gazette the illegal trade in aquatic plants has also occurred causing the extinction of three species of aquatic plants.
“Around 500,000 hectares of forest land minimum and about 4 per cent of the forest cover is to be given. These lands were transferred to the FD due to mismanagement by politicians using Government land for them and their families, and also because these forests cannot be kept under the Government Agents but need better protection under the FD. The Government Agents couldn’t issue a permit, or release or transfer ownership or issue deeds like they previously used to issue for State land. When lands were under the Government Agents they issue these lands to every other person in their own interest due to pressure from the politicians. But due to the Circular they couldn’t do that,” opined the Convenor of Rain Forest Protectors of Sri Lanka Jayantha Wijesingha.
Land given out illegally
Wijesingha added that in late March or early April with the lockdown the President appointed a committee headed by Basil Rajapaksa to look into economic revival. “A letter was issued by Basil Rajapaksa allowing under-utilised State land to be used for economic revival or economic development. When this press release was put out I said this will be an attempt to giveaway land to companies. In Anuradhapura, Pollonnaruwa and Moneragala areas the Divisional Secretariats have given out a lot of land on permit when they don’t have the power to do so, to farmers and businesses without the permission of the FD. Divisional Secretariats released FD and Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) land without their permission. Politicians want to legalise the illegally encroached state land by removing the Circular,” Wijesingha explained.
He further said that the Government needs to and should protect forests and not cut them down but the removal of this Circular will make way for all the forest cover to be destroyed. “Most of these lands are habitats of elephants and/or other wildlife. Small forest patches belonging to the State is where the wild boar, deer, and pangolins among other animals live. These small forests have become a safe haven for these animals. The politicians are targeting the elections and to remove this Circular and give land to their supporters for votes. We are trying to get an appointment with the President to discuss this matter because it would be the most dangerous recent move when taking the extent of land that is going to be at the disposal of the politicians into consideration,” Wijesingha said.
Illegal construction at Hakkinda
Scientist Pradeep Samarawickrema said that cement steps have been illegally built to access the Hakkinda Islands, in the Kandy District that were declared as an Environmental Protection Area under the National Environmental Act (NEA) during the tenure of the former President Maithripala Sirisena.
“The order was published in Gazette Extraordinary No; 2024/06 of 19 June 2017, titled, ‘Order to Declare Waratenna-Hakkinda Environmental Protection Area’. Developers were trying to get permission to build in this area but were not given permission because it is now protected,” Samarawickrema said.
Commenting on the point endemics found in the OSFs President of Wildlife Conservation Society Galle (WCSG), Madura De Silva said the Kitulgala area is rich in aqua fauna and is a lowland wet forest area. “You get many aquatic habitats that are under the FD. Apart from the forest areas, other areas declared as ‘buffer zones’ are also rich in biodiversity. On an average we have recorded 20 to 30 species fresh water fish species in any given aquatic habitat in the Kitulgala area,” De Silva said.
He said the Asoka Barb (Systomus asoka) and the Kitulgala Devario (Devario micronema) are considered point endemics and found only in Kitulgala and Deraniyagala areas. “Kitulgala Devario is found only in Kitulgala area. For many years there have been threats to these habitats from mini-hydro power projects. Some of the Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs) on these projects state that developers are trying to put up structures inside these forest reserves. These forests are adjoining forest reserves that are under the FD in the buffer zone,” De Silva explained.
He said by this Act if they are going to revoke this protection, the developers will definitely come because there is no legal protection from the State and the Government officers can decide whether to allow developers in these areas or not.
“Kitulgala also has an abundance of pure water and water bottling companies are trying to put up plants in this area. However, these projects are still on hold because the buffer zone is protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO). If the AGAs can decide on the land and what to do they will allow the bottling plant people to come. A road was to be built on the Morning Side - an area rich in biodiversity but was stopped due to the protests by environmentalists. There is still a plan to put up a road in this area,” De Silva explained.