In Support of ‘Save Sinharaja'
Talked about for many years and been in the forefront of many controversial and illegal issues, the Sinharaja Rainforest is yet to be spared by those interested in destroying what is left of its rich biodiversity and unique ecosystem. As the fight goes on to save Sinharaja, a book titled, Politics of a Rain Forest by Dr. Prasanna Cooray was recently published with the intention of creating awareness among the public, on the ongoing serious and destructive harm to Sinharaja. The book consists of seven articles written by Dr. Cooray.
“Deforestation in Sri Lanka has taken a further and unprecedented set back with the cancellation of the gazette extraordinary notifications number 05/2001 and 2/2006 which restored the custodianship of the residual forests under the Forest Department preventing their arbitrary use. Its (unofficial) replacement the circular number MWFC 1/2020 issued by the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation goes onto transfer the custodianship of these residual forests with the District and Divisional secretaries,” says Dr Cooray.
He adds that as per the circular, in future, anybody who wishes to purchase a forest land could do so by tendering an application to the abovementioned state officials. “The transaction will effectuate if the review committee appointed by the above authorities approves the application. The fear expressed by the activists is that this is a sleazy attempt towards grabbing the forests for various commercial purposes, in the guise of development activities,” Dr. Cooray explains. He says among the major forests in Sri Lanka Sinharaja is one of the foremost as it is the country’s first UNESCO natural World Heritage Site and the Nation Heritage Wilderness Area (NHWA). “However, Sinharajaâ’s existence has always been one of fear, intimidation, and uncertainty. The battles to save Sinharaja were many.
As our recent history reveals the biggest ever crime against Sinharaja was committed by the State, when in the early 70s it executed a tree felling project to produce plywood and chip wood,” Dr. Cooray reveals. He says the hitherto strongest ever environmental movement emerged in this backdrop when ‘Rukrekaganno’ was formed, heralding new heights in environmental activism in Sri Lanka. “My earliest involvement in the Sinharaja battlefront was somewhere around the turn of the millennium. I was mainly assisting my Green Party companion, late comrade Piyal Parakrama in the battles he had led from the front.
These were mainly against attempts to build roads and hotels in the immediate vicinity of Sinharaja and to protect it from encroachment. Looking back, sadly, many of these threats and intimidations still remain the same, if not bigger as they were 20 years ago. During 2004 - 2005 when Piyal was serving the Ministry of agriculture, Livestock, Lands, and irrigation as an Advisor to the Minister he played a pivotal role pushing the idea of annexing a ‘buffer zoneâ’ extending to 500 meters from the boundary,” Dr. Cooray recalls. The author says it was a reason for celebration when in November 2004 the Cabinet approval was given to annex all the Land Reform Commission (LRC)-owned lands within 500 metres from the Sinharaja’s boundary into it. However, “Sixteen years have passed and four Governments have come and gone since then but sadly, nothing has happened on this front. Only the intensity of the battles has been either higher or lower during the years intervening.
Since late 2018, I became active in the Sinharaja battle front again, when my colleagues Dr. Ravindra Kariyawasam and Ven. Wekadawela Rahula Thera for the Centre for Environment and Nature Studies (CENS) gave leadership to a campaign against a road-building project near the Kudawa entrance to Sinharaja,” Dr. Cooray reveals.
He says the World Bank-funded project was funnelled through the Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) and during this period he produced seven articles on different aspects related to Sinharaja rainforest, all of which were published in the counterpoint.lk web magazine. “The topics ranged from the immediate threats to the rainforest, the road projects and tea plantations to biopiracy, indigenous knowledge, and nature-based tourism. Three of these articles were produced through a research scholarship I received from the Earth Journalism Network (EJN). Even years after their penning, the issues that were discussed still remain relevant,” Dr. Cooray says.
(Pix courtesy Dr. Prasanna Cooray)