Sinharaja’s Downfall: Paradise Paved in Asphalt
By Ranmini Gunasekara
There are places on Earth that hold outstanding universal value to humanity – these are named World Heritage Sites and protected for the benefit of generations to come. One such World Heritage Site is the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, one of the last remaining virgin rainforests in Sri Lanka, which is home to over 60 per cent of the country’s endemic flora and fauna.
However, this virgin rainforest and its treasure-trove of species have come under numerous threats in the past decades, as selfish individuals and Governments alike try to stake their claim to this ecosystem under the guise of ‘development’.
The most recent of these ‘developments’ to cause outrage amongst environmentalists and enthusiasts alike was the construction of a road from the village of Lankagama, located on Sinharaja’s border, to Deniyaya. According to activists, while this road already exists as a small eight-foot road with 1.1km of it running through the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, the Engineering arm of the Sri Lanka Army had been tasked with paving the road in concrete and widening it to 20 feet.
After much controversy and public uproar, with an online petition in circulation – in addition to several complaints and letters being sent to UNESCO – the Road Development Authority (RDA) finally announced that no construction would take place in the 1.1km stretch running through Sinharaja. However, the rainforest is not yet in the clear – many of the road projects within Sinharaja have been stopped and started time and again.
According to the Centre for Environment and Nature Studies (CENS) National Coordinator, Ravindra Kariyawasam the road in question was first made in 2013, illegally, as there were plans for a hotel complex to be established in the Lankagama area.
“The further expansion of this road was halted in 2013 after we all intervened in the matter. But they restarted it in 2020, and although the Government now says that it has been temporarily halted, we never know when it will start once more.” Kariyawasam alleged that MP Nipuna Ranawaka was among the proponents of this road expansion.
“This area is Ranawaka’s seat; he is behind this. He has promised some people here that he will build this road. However, small business owners of the area are actually against this, because once this big road comes up and the area becomes more urbanised, they will lose their business to competition.”
He further added that while the Neluwa-Lankagama road can be repaired, the Lankagama-Deniyaya road cannot be widened, as it runs through the rainforest and endangers many of the endemic plants and animals in the area.
No prior approvals
Meanwhile, speaking with Ceylon Today, Convener of Rainforest Protectors, Jayantha Wijesinghe said that no approval had been taken from the relevant Government institutions for the expansion of this road.
“The military has not sought approval from any regulatory body. When we contacted some of these institutions, they were completely unaware of this expansion. The Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) told us that they were notified by a letter regarding the road construction project and they have not been updated on the ground situation. When we contacted the Central Environmental Authority at the time, they also said that they were unaware of the project. The same went for the Neluwa Divisional Secretary, Provincial Council Chairman, and the Irrigation Department. When we contacted the RDA, they told us they were not involved in the current phase of this project.”
He further added that if this road was to be expanded, illegal activities such as poaching, logging, sand mining and human encroachment would propagate within the Sinharaja Rainforest and result in further harm to the already-fragile ecosystem.
“A significant portion of this road goes through pristine primary forest that has a 60-degree slope, which is prone to massive landslides. This southern sector of the Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest contains the highest number of waterfalls and the last remaining patch of riverine rainforest bordering Gin Ganga river,” he said.
“The construction activities carried out without the knowledge or observation of the relevant approval agencies severely endanger the endemic species, which are already in danger of going extinct due to human activities surrounding the rainforest. The road will also bisect the existing corridor connecting the Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest and the adjoining Dellawa Rainforest to its south, which is yet to be annexed to the Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest.”
Not the first time
Meanwhile, Environmental Lawyer, Jagath Gunawardena said that two Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA’s) should be conducted before proceeding with this road expansion.
“There are two legal obstacles here. One is that they have to do an EIA because that project involves the clearing of a cumulative area of more than one hectare of forest. Any project that involves the clearance of more than one hectare of forest needs an EIA in Sri Lanka.
“The second thing is that they can’t build anything through a National Heritage Wilderness Area, declared as such under the National Heritage Wilderness Area Act. So any road construction that goes on within 100m of the Sinharaja boundary needs an additional EIA under the National Heritage Wilderness Area Act.”
Although the RDA has issued a press release that states that no construction will take place in the 1.1km stretch of the Lankagama-Deniyaya road that goes through the Sinharaja Rainforest, under the instruction of the President, environmentalists and activists alike expressed their doubt on whether the project would be halted permanently, as this was not the first road of its kind illegally carved within this primary rainforest.
According to Kariyawasam, there have been three roads illegally constructed within Sinharaja. “One of the first illegally-constructed roads was the Imbulakanda-Sooriyakanda road that was being made in 2009. Back then, I was with the Green Movement and we filed a case against it in Ratnapura, where the Court gave an order to stop it.
“In 2018, there was the Kudawa-Doranella entrance road to be built by the DFC as part of the World Bank-funded Ecosystems Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP). We complained about this to the World Bank and they sent an inspection panel. After they inspected this project they said the World Bank would no longer fund the project. Apparently the Sri Lankan Government had been the one to propose this project to the World Bank in the first place.
“Now there is this road from Lankagama to Deniyaya, which was first started in 2013, and they are trying to expand it once again.” Meanwhile, Army Spokesperson, Brigadier Chandana Wickramasinghe told Ceylon Today that the Army had no intention to develop any part of the road that runs through Sinharaja.
“The Army has been tasked with constructing about eight roads under a programme to develop 100,000km of road in rural areas. The Army has not yet even touched this area of the road going through Sinharaja Forest; we haven’t even neared that area. As the Sri Lanka Army, we are very sensitive when it comes to these things, and we are currently doing a lot of reforestation work in other parts of the country.”
While the expansion of the Lankagama-Deniyaya road has been halted in the 1.1km stretch running through Sinharaja, it is evident that this is not the Government’s first or last attempt to ‘develop’ roads within the country’s last virgin rainforest. It is vital that our leaders understand that, irrespective of its location, as a World Heritage Site, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve belongs not to any one person or community, but to all the people of the world.