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Opinion: Treat roadbuilding in Sinharaja with caution

Army Engineers widening the Neluwa Road on August 2. The work has stopped on the President’s instructions

ECONOMYNEXT – The road that connects Neluwa to Deniyaya is mired in controversy, with many questions being asked about the development work begun recently; is the road just being repaired or is it being widened?  Is the directive from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to halt work on the road, only temporary or permanent? Is the road being developed on the request of villages or are there outside interests?

The specific issue involves a village known as Lankagama, described as an isolated village bordering the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Gin Ganga and the approximately 1.3 km of road that runs through the Forest Reserve.   A UNESCO world Heritage site, Sinharaja is also a National Heritage Wilderness Area and a Biosphere Reserve.

More than enough reason to ensure the site is protected from encroachers and those engaged in bio-piracy, the bush meat trade, and other illegal activities that could destroy the forest to the detriment of this country.  Says Jayantha Wijesinghe, Convenor of Rainforests Protectors of Sri Lanka, the National Heritage and Wilderness Area Act provides Sinharaja a high level of legal protection, and that the Act is far superior to the National Environment Act, the Forest Ordinance or the Flora and Fauna Act.

For environmentalists, alarm bells rang when they heard that the 1.3 km stretch within the forest reserve was to be expanded by the Military to whom development of this road has been handed over.  Acknowledging that some areas of the road, namely Warkandeniya, Lankagama and Pitadeniya etc., were not in the best condition, Wijesinghe explained, nevertheless that, while repairing the road was not the issue, it was the news that the 8 foot road was to be expanded which would involve encroachment of the Sinharaja that was causing concern. “In some areas, there were moves to widen the road to 12 and 20 feet.”

Initial inquiries from the military, says Wijesinghe indicated that they would not be touching the Sinharaja, though more probing had revealed that was not the exact picture. Environmentalists who visited the area had found the Army was in charge of the development, with the Road Development Authority only handling the concreting of the road. They also found that work had begun without the usual guidelines or reports from the Central Environment Authority, the Forest Department or the Irrigation Department. “There were many violations such as missing information regarding retaining walls to maintain drainage, culverts, soil conservation methods, and also how areas prone to landslides were to be managed.  There were no guidelines, but the army seemed all set to widen the road, that is what our inquiries revealed,’ he said.

It was during the inquiry, which the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha too had attended, that they had also found out that the push to widen the road was coming from outsiders, and not the villagers, who only wanted the road repaired.

Says Wijesinghe, the decision to escalate the matter was taken when their attempts to stop the widening of the road, and questions about environmental impact assessments etc. indicated that the project had commenced without such preparations.  Outside elements have the political and financial clout, he points out, and they seem to have plans for tourist hotels and cultivation of tea and cinnamon; that means further encroachment of the forest reserve.  ‘Most villages have lived here for several decades, and may just have a permit to the land, not deeds. But during the inquiry one of the areas shown to us was about 25 acres said to be privately owned.  That was just one.  It also raises the question as to how non-residents have obtained deeds for those lands.’

Indeed, this forest reserve, the last of the country’s virgin rainforests has been significantly reduced over the decades to make room for plantations, which mainly grow tea.

He explains that the decision to escalate the matter and take to social media was because their pleas not to widen the road had fallen on deaf ears.  It also led to the National Coordinator of the Centre for Environment and Nature Studies (CENS), Dr Ravindra Kariyawasam firing off a complaint to UNESCO.  He also started an online petition to get public support to halt the work

According to Kariyawasam, a similar attempt to develop the road had taken place in 2013, and it had been scrapped when he appealed to UNESCO.  This time around, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stepped in to call a temporary halt to the work.

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However, it is of interest to note that the Army website reports on August 3 that they are handling the road development on the instructions of the Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Army following a presidential directive (see below).  On August 18, responding to media reports on the matter, a release from the Ministry of Highways, states that while the development of the road had been initiated on the request of the villagers, the President has now instructed the Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation to hold off on the work, until a report from the Environment Authority is submitted.

Clearly, then, work had begun sans the required assessments.

Army Engineer Troops Begin Development Work along Kolawenigama – Lankagama Road

Army Engineer troops on the directions of the Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Army have undertaken one more road development project along Deniyaya- Lankagama road following a Presidential directive on Saturday (1).

5 Field Sri Lanka Engineers troops accordingly are currently attending to the repairs of the Deniyaya- Lankagama road by widening both sides of the road and continuing roadside clearing, necessary earth filling and excavations and compaction.’

While the importance of protecting the Sinharaja is not disputed, is it also not the right of area residents to enjoy better facilities and infrastructure?

Environmental Engineer Arjuna Perera points out that UNESCO and the United National Party government which was in power when Sinharaja was declared a national heritage should have known better and moved the approximately 12 villages that fell within the reservation to alternate locations. Or, he points out the boundary of the reservation should have excluded those villages.  Unlike the tribes living in the Amazon Rainforest who have not assimilated with the outside world, villagers in Sri Lanka have.

During the Chandrika Kumaratunga presidency, the residents of Lankagama got a model school.  ‘Once governments have allowed them to remain there, one cannot stop development taking place in those villages.’   He points out that several generations have lived in the village, and younger members have got accustomed to the facilities and technological developments of the modern world.  Many, he says, work outside the village.

He too agrees that if any outsiders are making claims on the land, then they may be encroachers, cautioning, however, that media and activists must first investigate the situation before making any allegations.

In the case of Lankagama, the President may have, during the recent election campaign received a request to have that road developed, he explains, adding that when a road is not maintained, it is the forest that encroaches, not the other way around.  In this case, quick-growing trees would be felled to provide for the required reservation.

Perera offers two possible solutions to the problem.  Either permit the villages to continue living at Lankagama and leave the road as it is, or accept that the villagers and their children too have a right to development and a knowledge-based education, and provide them land and the necessary facilities elsewhere.  However, it is their decision to make, he says, adding that the government must open up that discussion with the villagers.  If they choose to remain, then it should be on the understanding that they cannot expect any development within the village.

Wijesinghe concurs.   Conservation comes first, he says, adding that there are many examples of villagers being relocated; when the Moragahakanda reservoir was built, or the Kotmale Dam project, the latter involved resettling close to 500 families. In the Knuckles Conservation Forest, 1200 acres have been released and the people given alternate land to build homes and for cultivation. Rambukolowa, for instance, had been re-forested to serve as a catchment area for the Moragahakanda project.

Lankagama is home to around 300 families, much less than the numbers that have been resettled on previous occasions for various reasons.  In fact, in some instances, entire cities have been moved out to make way for large scale development projects.  As Wijesinghe states, if they wish to remain, then proper infrastructure such as a village hospital could be built in an area adjacent to the village and outside the reservation.

Widening the road, he points out will only result in hotels and shops being built along the way and the Sinharaja encroached upon for various cultivation purposes.  Furthermore, there is the threat of bio-piracy; Walla Patta and Veniwelgata for example. Currently, villagers are aware of any outsiders who visit the area, but if the road is widened, providing for more vehicular traffic, especially at night time, containing such illegal activities will not be easy.

Environmentalists also raise the issue of pollution of the Gin Ganga as a wider road will certainly entice more hoteliers and other entrepreneurs, and the river will end up more like the heavily polluted Kelani.

Sri Lanka’s forest cover is just under 30% and that too is shrinking. Even while we acknowledge that all Sri Lankans must have equal access to all facilities, it is equally or more important to protect our natural resources.  And as alleged, if outsiders have earmarked the area for their personal gain, then the government must be firm and apply the law equally.

The awaited environmental impact report may or may not clear the way for the expansion of the road, but what all Sri Lankans need to keep in mind is that Sinharaja is amongst the few remaining bastions of ecological importance in the region.  In fact just last year, outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena signed off on the proposed expansion of this Forest Reserve to quadruple the protected area as a counter to the many threats such as illegal logging, gem mining, spice and tea cultivation etc. it has faced over the years and its resultant fragmentation.

A good reason then, why widening of Neluwa –Deniyaya road must be approached with caution.

(Colombo, August 28, 2020)