Sinharaja Protecting What Is Left
By Faadhila Thassim
Proposed and ongoing development projects in and around Sinharaja forest, which is the last remaining viable area of primary tropical forest in Sri Lanka, has been one of the most debated topics that brought about several controversies over the recent past.
Concerns that arose were in relation to development projects that include roads and reservoirs within Sinharaja and its buffer zone and the construction of a new hotel.
The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) stated that in August 2020, the construction and expanding of an 18 km gravel road had commenced from Neluwa to Deniyaya through the Sinharaja forest reserve and its buffer zone.
While initially there was an eight foot-wide road built in 2013 without the approval of the Forest Department, the said road is being widened to 15 feet and paved with concrete. It was temporarily halted on 19 August 2020 in the face of protests; but now it has recommenced, CEJ noted.
They added that over 1,320 meters of this road would go through the land that falls within the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and through several subsidiaries of the Gin Ganga.
CEJ added that the construction involves heavy machinery, knocking down large trees in the area causing irreversible damage to the forest canopy and Sinharaja’s hundred metre Buffer Zone while the expansion would result in tree felling, soil cutting and dumping soil onto the slopes resulting in a loss of biodiversity, loss of aesthetic value/landscape degradation, soil contamination, soil erosion, deforestation, loss of vegetation cover and many other negative environmental impacts.
Further, the construction of a road from Lankagama to Deniyaya that was halted in 2013 as a result of UNESCO’s intervention has been re-initiated.
CEJ stated that these two roads thereby the Neluwa to Lankagama road (15 km) and Lankagama to Deniyaya road (14 km) are components of the proposed Gin Ganga- Nilwala Ganga diversion to Hambantota and therefore should be considered as a part of a bigger development project which will have negative impacts on the Sinharaja rainforest.
“As per Gazette Notification No. 772/22 dated 18.06.1993 any road construction within 100 metres from boundaries of the National Heritage requires an Environmental Impact Assessment” CEJ emphasised.
The Forest Department stated that there has not been any damage caused to Sinharaja by way of widening of the Neluwa to Lankagama Road.
Gin Ganga diversion project
CEJ further stated that there is a proposal for the construction of a reservoir covering a landmass of five hectares within the Sinharaja Forest, the proposed project would move water from Gin and Nilawala rivers to Giruwapattuwa and will provide water to Tangalle, Beliatte, Weeraketiya, Walasmulla, Dambarella and other areas.
They added that the construction of reservoirs at Madugate and Kotapola and construction of two tunnels from Madugeta to Kotapola and Kotapola to Ampanagala and the Neluwa – Lankagama road and Lankagama – Deniyaya road will negatively affect the biodiversity of the already fragile eco system while violating the existing laws.
The Minister of Irrigation, Chamal Rajapaksa however stated that only with UNESCO’s approval will a reservoir be constructed adding that the Government has sought the authorisation for the construction of the reservoirs which fall under the Gin-Nilwala Diversion project.
Rajapaksa added that the construction was only a proposal as the UNESCO will research into the sustainability of the project.
Meanwhile, the Central Environment Authority’ director general, Hemantha Jayasinghe stated that the Environmental Impact Assessment is being carried out for the proposed project.
Reported Hotel Construction
There were several concerns over the recent past of the construction of a Hotel within the Sinharaja Forest claiming that this would bring about an adverse impact on its biodiversity.
The Department of Forest Conservation denying such construction within the reserve stated that the reported land is located 3.5 km from the Sinharaja National Heritage Site and five km away from the Sinharaja World Heritage Site.
The Department further stated that there are three other constructions approved in the same area adding that the said plot of land was an unmanaged tea estate prior to the construction of the hotel.
The Minister of Environment, Mahinda Amaraweera however stated that an investigation is being carried out into the deeds of land where the Hotel is to be constructed.
Executive Director of CEJ, Hemantha Withanage stated that other factors that has to be taken into consideration in the reported construction of this hotel is whether the said land is an important area for forest connectivity.
CEJ stated that over the past 15 years, the promotion of low-country tea cultivation and the opening of new roads have set in motion dramatic changes in the Sinharaja forest reserve and its buffer zone.
“Settlers have flooded into the area and population density has increased. The high profit margin of tea has improved living standards, but it has also provided tremendous incentive for the clearing of natural rainforest. Today there are nearly 40 villages circling Sinharaja forest park,” CEJ added.
The absence of a clear official boundary demarcation prompts further encroachment of the forest for illegal logging, gem mining, cardamom cultivation and the current tea cultivation practices by smallholders threatening both the forest and the future of agricultural production in the area.
The need for land annexation
CEJ stated that there are significant forest lands surrounding Sinharaja Forest which belong
s to the Land Reform Commission (LRC) and has received Cabinet approval in 2004 for them to be added to Sinharaja Forest.
They added that the recently annexed forest areas of the reserve has not been connected to each other, as there are certain private lands in the boundaries which have fragmented the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. This has resulted in a difficulty in managing and protecting the reserve.
However, the Forest Department stated that these lands need to be first acquired by the Government before they can be declared as forests and be annexed to Sinharaja.
Why is it important to conserve Sinharaja?
According to UNESCO, more than 60 per cent of the trees in the forest are endemic and many of them are considered rare while the reserve is also home to over 50 per cent of Sri Lanka's endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many kinds of insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.
Further 90 five percent of Sri Lanka’s twenty endemic birds are present in the forest reserve, which is also home to threatened species such as leopards. In December 1988, the Sinharaja Biosphere Reserve became Sri Lanka’s first natural site to be added to UNESCO World Heritage list.
The Sinharaja forest is afforded the highest level of legal protection under the National Heritage and Wilderness Area Act No. 03 of 1988 and almost all the peripheral natural forests along the boundary have already been declared as Conservation Forests or Reserved Forests under the Forest Ordinance No. 16 of 1907 as amended.
According to Section 04 of the National Heritage Wilderness Area Act cutting down trees, to strip off the forest, pollute water and construct roads within a National Heritage Wilderness Area is prohibited
The level of legal protection the Sinharaja Forest is afforded and the fact that the Sinharaja Biosphere Reserve is Sri Lanka’s first natural site to be added to UNESCO World Heritage list makes it clear that this is a forest that should not only be conserved in general but should also be considered an environmentally sensitive area in which development should not be encouraged.