Marking Their Territory
By Risidra Mendis
It was declared a sanctuary on 25 July 1990 by the late President R. Premadasa, after a representation to declare Bellanwila-Attidiya as a sanctuary was made to the then Minister of State, Anandatissa De Alwis in 1988.
The Bellanwila-Attidiya Wetlands were declared a nature sanctuary owing to the biodiversity of the area and its contribution to controlling floods. The wetlands, which span over 930 acres, are a paradise for migratory birds. While fish species were identified in the Bolgoda River which flows through the wetlands, the sanctuary is also home to reptilian species, mammals, butterflies, damselflies and dragonfly species, and plant species.
However, over the years the Bellanwila-Attidiya Sanctuary has suffered due to illegal encroachment and illegal clearing of land for development. Today, many years after destruction to the sanctuary, plans are underway to once again clear areas of a private land to make way for development. Ceylon Today learns that around 10 acres of land within the sanctuary was illegally cleared by a private contracting company, on the instructions of officials from the Airport and Aviation Services Sri Lanka Limited recently.
A letter (a copy of which Ceylon Today has received) was sent to the Director General (DG)of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Battaramulla, Chandana Sooriyabandara, by the Airport and Aviation Services Sri Lanka Limited (AASSLL) by Acting Chief - Commerce and Property D.J.U. Purasinghe requesting permission for development activities inside the Bellanwila-Attidiya Sanctuary.
AASSLL in their letter dated 16 December 2020, states that this plot of land belongs to the Ratmalana Airport and the relevant parties want to fence out their private property for development activities and to broaden the runway of the Ratmalana airport. The letter also requests that the DG of the DWC clear all other property within the said area so that the officials can fence out the area required for development.
Another letter was sent to the Bellanwila Wildlife Office by the AASSLL, requesting permission for development activities inside the Bellanwila-Attidiya sanctuary on their private land. The letter dated 10 February 2021 (a copy of which Ceylon Today has received) states that this plot of land consisting of 25.3 perches, belongs to the Ratmalana Airport and they want to put a fence around their private property for development activities. The letter also states that the said land maybe inside the sanctuary or on part of the wetland.
Wildlife officials responding to the letter say if the area in question is within the sanctuary and will harm the flora and fauna, a decision cannot be taken without first checking on the areas that are protected by the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO). Clearing land and development activities within the sanctuary cannot take place without prior permission from the DG of the DWC. According to wildlife officials the contractor who had cleared the land had said a hut was put up for them to keep their equipment needed for development activities.
However, before permission could be given by Sooriyabandara, officials from the AASSLL sent a contractor to clear the land inside the sanctuary. Senior wildlife officials who visited the area say this area belongs to the AASSLL and the land was cleared to put up a fence around the private property. “There is illegal encroachment in this area. It is good that the AASSLL want to mark their area. We were told that the cleared area will be used to grow plants. The Wildlife Department will monitor the developments in the area,” senior wildlife officials said.
Meanwhile Secretary, State Ministry of Wildlife Protection Programmes, Adoption of Safety Measures including the Construction of Electrical Fences and Trenches and Reforestation and Forest Resources Development Retired Major General Palitha Fernando, in a circular to the DWC says, in future if legal action is to be taken against another Government institution advice has to be sought from the ministry prior to taking action.
The letter further states if the ministry cannot take a decision regarding the issue, then legal advice has to be sought from the Attorney General’s Department and then necessary action has to be taken regarding the issue and all employees of the DWC have to be informed regarding these details.
Cannot supersede the law
Commenting on the law Environment Lawyer Dr. Jagath Gunawardana says the ministry can’t supersede the law by a circular, but they can always make it an administrative gesture towards a fellow institution. “If they have a problem they can always contact the Attorney General for an opinion or assistance. This letter has two dimensions. One dimension is that it may try to supersede the law by interpretation by some departments and cause a big problem for law enforcement,” Dr. Gunawardana explains.
He says the second dimension is they can inform the Secretary and within a given period of time (one day or so), if there is no resolving then they can proceed. “But there is also a third dimension. If a department personnel has been caught doing an illegal activity they would consider this as a sort of immunity. For instance if some department people go poaching and the DWC catches them they would consider this as an immunity and try to field their way out. So that is the most dangerous. It depends on how various department heads and those down the line would interpret it,” Dr. Gunawardana says.
He adds that if they interpret it to say okay we will first inform the Secretary and if the Secretary doesn’t respond or if the other departments don’t give a positive response we will take action that is okay. “All Department officials are bound by their respective laws and the Establishment Code to uphold the law, and in this context they cannot chose between parties if there is an offence. According to Article 12(1) of the Constitution everyone has equal protection before the law and everyone in other words is equal before the law. You can’t grant special privileges to a person just because he is a Government servant,” Dr. Gunawardana says.
“According to Section 66 of the FFPO, the DWC Director General and the Police can take action when land is illegally cleared in a sanctuary. Under Section 67C of the FFPO Wildlife Officials and the Police can arrest those committing the offence without a warrant. Clearing or making use of the wetland for any other purpose should be done only after approval is obtained from the Central Environment Authority (CEA) under the National Environment Act (NEA),” Dr. Gunawardana explains.
He says it is mandatory to do an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) under Section 23BB of the NEA or an Initial Environment Examination to determine the possible and probable environment implication and the steps to mitigate them, and even if the said area is a private land or land belonging to the Government it cannot be cleared and filled.