Trees for Corn at What Cost?
By Faadhila Thassim
Deforestation in Sri Lanka has been such a common tragic irony that forest conservation and increasing the forest cover appears to be an unattainable goal. Cultivation is among the many reasons that individuals and entities engage in deforestation. One such incident is the clearing of the Wattegama-Kebiliththa forest reserve for maize cultivation. According to environmentalists, at least 10,000 acres of forest land in this reserve has been cleared for maize cultivation to date while according to a study, more than 60,000 acres of forest land surrounding the Kebiliththa have been destructed for the same purpose. Environmentalist, Sajeewa Chamikara alleged that a group of businessmen and lawyers has recently requested for forest land in the Wattegama-Kebiliththa forest reserve for the cultivation of maize adding that this would further add to the already destructed forest reserve.
The Wattegama-Kebiliththa forest reserve is a State Forest which has been under the control of the Forest Department since the inception of the Forest Conservation Ordinance and is a major catchment area for many water sources, inter-monsoon forest cover providing habitat for a large wildlife community including elephants. This Forest Reserve also connects the Yala National Park and the Kumbukkana Forest Reserve, and was declared as a forest reserve with forest areas of over 28,926 hectares by way of a Gazette Notification No.1789/9 in accordance with the Forest Conservation Ordinance. Chamikara said a decision to distribute land bordering the forest reserve for cultivation was arrived at in order to avoid illegal forest land clearing but was not implemented as it was distributed to businessmen paving way for continuous forest clearing for cultivation.
How did cultivation in this area begin?
Rainforest Protectors Convener and Chief Organiser Jayantha Wijesinghe stated that the Monaragala District is one of the areas with high amount of agricultural land grabbing under the guise of Chena cultivation, adding that all these areas were forests up until 2009. Chena cultivation was never occupying a same land for eternity, he added. After 2009, he said people started grabbing this land for cultivation and encroached the forest claiming that such land was to be used for Chena cultivation erecting electric fences to prevent elephants entering their cultivations and burn down big trees, adding that this is not limited to Wattegama but in several areas including the Kumana wildlife area, the Lahugala demarcations and several other areas.
Wijesinghe further said previous corrupt Forest Department officials permitted clearing forests for cultivation, not limited to this area which grew over the area paving way for increased reserved forest clearing for cultivation. What happens when forest land is cleared for maize cultivation? Chamikara stated that this could be viewed as the largest forest clearing adding that the use of forest land for cultivation would immensely affect forest land owing to the use of agro chemicals which will impact water sources including the Kotiyagala River and the Kumbukkanoya. He added that according to a survey carried out by the Forest Conservation Department, the fourth District with the highest number of HumanElephant conflicts and the property and crop damage caused by Elephants is reported from the Monaragala District, stating that continuous use of forest land for cultivation will aggravate this situation.
Wijesinghe said this forest reserve provides food and shelter for different species and when these lands are cleared for cultivation, wildlife is deprived of their source of food and habitat, it could result in human conflicts with several species not limited to human-elephant conflicts. He added that forest clearing for cultivation has also resulted in cutting down the river buffer zone and the catchment of the reservoirs and rivers resulting in soil erosion. Senior Advisor to the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) and Chairman of Friends of Earth, Hemantha Withanage added that converting forest land for maize cultivation will destroy the elephant habitat, pollination and the biodiversity in the reserve He further that the environmental benefits of the reserve has been overlooked for such purpose. He added that the electric fences have already restricted the movement of elephants leading to their deaths with no access to food sources.
Chamikara said Section 7 (1) of the Forest Conservation Ordinance provides for acts that are prohibited to be carried out in a Forest Reserve making it an offence for an individual to clear or break up soil or dig any land for cultivation or prepare any land for building purposes or cultivate any land already cleared. According to Section 7 (2) of the same Ordinance, any person who aids or abets in the commission of any such offence, or causes any such offence to be committed shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to the same punishment as is specified for the commission of that offence.
According to Section 49 of the same Ordinance, it is the responsibility of every Wildlife officer and Police to intervene and take actions against forest crimes and anyone who attempts to bribe any officer or interferes with his duties will be deemed to have committed an offence. CEJ Environmental Lawyer Ravindranath Dabare stated that while it is completely prohibited to clear a forest reserve, if an unreserved forest of more than one hectare is to be put into non-forest use, the project proponent has to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
Department of Forest Conservation
Media Spokesperson of the Department of Forest Conservation, Nishantha Edirisinghe said illegal clearing of forest land for cultivation has been taking place for a lengthy period adding that actions have been continuously taken while separate land has also been provided to farmers to avoid illegal use of forest land. Withanage however stated that the Department should be held responsible for the continuous forest clearing for forest conservation as the authority responsible for safeguarding forests in Sri Lanka and that it has faced severe shortage in staff along with several shortcomings, preventing them of carrying out their duties effectively.
Chamikara said alternatives have been formulated to avoid illegal clearing forest land for cultivation by which over 11,600 hectares bordering the Wattegama-Kebiliththa reserve has been provided to the Divisional Secretariat to be distributed for cultivation purposes by issuing a licence but added that the alternative has not been implemented due to the needs of certain businessmen to acquire forest land. He said this alternative will provide solutions to the land issues faced by farmers and that these lands should be handed over to farmers instead of businessmen which will in turn pave way to ensure that forest land is not cleared for maize production.
When Ceylon Today contacted the Siyamabalanduwa Divisional Secretariat, they stated that several accusations have been made against them for the increasing clearing of forests for cultivation adding however that the Divisional Secretariat is working closely together with the Department of Forest Conservation to ensure there is no forest destruction. Wijesinghe said there are currently over 3,500 famers occupying over 100 acres per person illegally in contradiction of the relevant laws pertaining to the limit to land that could be held by an individual for cultivation purposes, adding that the only way by which illegal forest clearing could be solved is by ensuring that the land is distributed to those who are eligible and genuinely require land for cultivation.
He further added that previously the Department of Forest Conservation and the Divisional Secretariat were subject to political pressure and gave away land for cultivation adding that this needs to be addressed and ensure that authorities vested with responsibilities of protecting state resources should ensure that they do so without being subject to any undue influence.
Withanage stated that President in his Vistas of Prosperity Manifesto pledged to increase the forest cover to 30 per cent with current forest cover is less than 17 per cent and further clearing of forest land for several different purposes will only result in this pledge being unattainable. Thereby it is crucial that the importance of conserving forest land irrespective of whether it is a reserved forest while providing for the livelihood of farmers has to be understood to avoid a conflict between these two crucial aspects as forest lands are already subject to several other modes of destruction in the guise of development and several other personal benefits.