Half a Million Hectares of Forest in Danger
By Ranmini Gunasekara
Any State forest land that is not officially recognised as a Protected Area under a Gazette is designated under the terms ‘Other State Forests’. In the past, these Other State Forests came under the purview of District or Divisional Secretariats and Government agents, who misused these areas or gave it to various entities at their own discretion.
However, to prevent this, Circular 5/2001 was issued, effectively bringing 500,000 hectares of Other State Forests under the protection of the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC), preventing the misuse of these forest lands. Unfortunately, after 19 years of protection, these forests are once more up for grabs with the current Government’s efforts to withdraw or amend Circular 5/2001.
In a press conference organised by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) on 2 July, many environmentalists and activists alike gathered to express their concern over this destructive move by the Government.
Conservationist Rukshan Jayewardene, attending the event, spoke of the strategic importance of the Other State Forests.
“One of the most important aspects is where these forests are situated. It is often between the wildlife parks and sanctuaries and other DFC forest reserves. They often act as linkage forests, linking reserve forests with national parks. These linkage forests act as corridors for animals to move through. Back in 2001, the importance of bringing these small forest lands under one circular was understood, but now the Government is trying to reverse it.”
He further added that the absence of these Other State Forests will lead to National Parks and Forest Reserves being isolated and fragmented.
“Even if nobody cuts a single tree in a national park or a forest reserve the biodiversity of every single one of those forest lands that we spend so much money to protect, their viability is going to drop without these Other State Forests. These forest lands will be even more isolated. So far, it is only because of this circular that these large forest reserves have connectivity.”
Jayewardene further said that withdrawing or amending Circular 5/2001 could lead to dire consequences, since the country already has a critically low forest cover percentage.
“In any country, if the forest cover percentage drops below a certain minimum level, it could have massive impacts on rainfall, humidity and agriculture, and endanger the livelihoods of people.”
Half a million hectares
Meanwhile, also speaking at the event, CEJ Executive Director, Hemantha Withanage said that Circular 5/2001 protects 25 per cent of Sri Lanka’s existing forest cover.
“According to data, the country’s forest cover is around 2.1 million hectares. So, this circular covers half a million hectares of forest, which is about 25 per cent of our current forest cover. So, the removal or amendment of this circular will leave 25 per cent of our forest cover unprotected.”
He further added that Circular 2/2006 provides adequate provision in case the Government wanted to use a certain amount of this land for development purposes.
“In case the Government wants some of these lands for a development project, Circular 2/2006 introduced a methodology to do this. Through this methodology, if they want a certain land coming under 5/2001, they can prepare an Environmental Report and with the permission of an inter-governmental committee composed of representatives of different ministries, the necessary land area can be released for the project. This circular actually provides provisions for this, so, there is no need to withdraw circular 5/2001.”
Withanage also claimed, the objective of withdrawing Circular 5/2001 is not to give land to farmers to cultivate, contrary to election promises given by politicians, but rather to release these forests for the use of large-scale companies.
“We recently saw that there was a certain company that started an aloe vera plantation in the Wilpattu Forest Reserve. We also saw how they have given a huge chunk of land near Kala Wewa for a mango plantation to a company. So, they are trying to release these lands and give these to large-scale businessmen. These businessmen do not want to bother with environmental reports, so, that’s why they are trying to get rid of Circular 5/2001.”
Endemic species threatened
Animal rights activist, Iraki Kodithuwakku also attending the event, added that the move to withdraw or amend the circular will also lead to an increase in the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) in the country.
“Every year, HEC increases in our country. Over the years environmentalists have identified 16 elephant corridors that have now been lost to elephants due to human activity. It is during a time like this that these politicians are trying to withdraw this circular, further aggravating the conflicts. It is clear that politicians have no interest in solving the HEC in this country. We are requesting the authorities to only act to protect our remaining forests and not take such foolish decisions such as this.”
She further added that endemic species, such as the recently-discovered endemic gecko varieties as well as the fish species, Bandula Pethiya, were also located in these Other State Forests.
“Recently, scientists discovered six new species of gecko in Sri Lanka, which were all found in Other State Forests. We also have an endemic fish species called Bandula Pethiya. Out of the entire world, there is only one specific place in Sri Lanka where the Bandula Pethiya is found – it resides in one of these Other State Forests.”
Worse than Wilpattu
Meanwhile, President of Protect Sri Lanka, Ven. Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera, addressing the Media, also said that the destruction brought about by the withdrawal or the amendment of Circular 5/2001 will be much worse than the deforestation that occurred in the Wilpattu Forest Reserve.
“This is a thousand times worse than what they did to Wilpattu. Everyone in this country needs to breathe, and politicians and governments that come to power once every five years have no right to deny us that. Even the opposition is keeping their mouth shut in this regard because they too have stakes in this decision. Certain politicians in the opposition are also dealing with these big companies.”
He further stressed that there is plenty of land demarcated for agriculture that is underutilised in Sri Lanka.
“Almost 33 per cent of land in this country is actually reserved for agriculture; however, only 12 per cent of it is actually being used effectively. There’s so much left. But what are they trying to do now? We spoke with the Secretary to the Ministry of Environment a few days ago, and he said that this circular will be amended. He further said that this needs to be amended so, the poor farmers will get land. They are bluffing to the public. If there is such a need, Circular 2/2006 provides provisions for it.”
He further expressed his concern on the Government’s contradictory claims of increasing Sri Lanka’s forest cover to 30 per cent.
“In President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘Vision for Prosperity’ it states that he will increase our forest cover to 30 per cent. He started his campaign by planting trees. We felt happy as Buddhist Monks. But we can’t reconcile with the fact that he advocates for planting trees, while on the other hand, the Government is trying to destroy half a million hectares of forest. We request the President to not allow the Government to withdraw this circular.”
On 02 July, Cabinet Spokesperson, Minister Bandula Gunawardena announced a Cabinet proposal to transfer lands considered ‘residual forests’ back to District and Divisional Secretariats. This transfer of rights would ultimately lead to the withdrawal or amendment of Circular 5/2001, spelling the end for much of the island’s forest cover.