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Opposition accuses governing party-men of felling forests and violating sanctuaries

ECONOMYNEXT – The government is vehemently denying that there has been a spate of serious incidents where protected forests have been razed and sanctuaries violated since it came to power on August 6.

Wildlife and Forest Conservation Minister C B Ratnayake, who is in the firing line, blames the uproar on fake Social Media posts, while environmental activists said governing party politicians and their supporters are responsible for a number of violations.

Ratnayake told a Press Conference last night September 17, that “interested parties were trying to show that as soon as we came to power these incidents began happening.”

Hemantha Vithanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) however says “there has been a wave of incidents where trees have been felled, sanctuaries such as Anavilundawa were encroached on and other protected forests occupied.”

He says these incidents have accelerated since the new administration came to power.

The Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) has also joined the chorus raised by the activists blaming the government for what it says are four serious incidents.

Rasika Jayakody of the SJB Youth Wing claims that ever since the new government took office at least 7 acres of a protected area per day has been destroyed.

EconomyNext could not independently confirm this claim.

The government has given the green light for this road to be cut through the pristine UNESCO protected Sinharaja Rainforest

Jayakody is of the opinion that the police and other law enforcement are being cautious about arresting or taking action against anyone connected the government.

“This is because under the Yahapalanaya the Police were autonomous the officers took action without fear,” he said.

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“Now that the government wants to get rid of the Police Commission, they are worried,” he said.

He points to four particular areas which are protected by the law which were affected.

One of them is the Anavilundawa sanctuary which is protected by the International Convention on Wetlands commonly known as the Ramsar Convention.

Two acres within the sanctuary were bulldozed shortly after election-day and a court-ordered investigation led police and Wildlife department officials to the younger brother of State Minister Sanath Nishantha who is alleged to have ordered the clearing.

The brother is Jagath Samantha, a Pradeshiya Sabha politician from the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna who is a medium-scale prawn-farm-owner and had given the orders to clear the land for a Prawn farm, the report said.

The second is the Vanathavilluwa area where the SJB says they hear around 100 acres have been cleared and set fire to.

Some media reports quoted local activists, but the Conservator-General of Forests W A C Weragoda at yesterday’s Press Conference denied several aspects of the allegation.

He admitted that a section of forested land in the area had been set on fire but according to a survey done by his department the extent of forest destroyed was 29.6 acres, he claimed.

“This is also not forest land that has been Gazetted under our department,” he told reporters.

He said the land belonged to the Cement Corporation which had sub-let it to a company supplying clinker to the cement factory.

Environmentalist Vithanage, however, said the law has been broken because the overarching law, the National Environmental Act says the felling or burning or otherwise destroying more than a hectare of forested land needs authorization.

Minister Ratnayake said that he had ordered the Cement Corp to “reforest the area as soon as possible with the assistance of the Forest Department.”

The SJB also points to the alleged felling of 150 acres at the Ratmale forest reservation in Horowapatana. The Conservator-General told EconomyNext that they were investigating this incident.

Aadaderana.lk quoting locals said valuable timber had been trucked away by the outsiders who felled the trees.

The news channel quoted a number of residents of the area from the Ethabandiwewa and Kadawaka villages as saying the felling has been going on for several months.

Another incident that has been reported has been the destruction of 30 acres of Mangrove forest in Kirinde which the Conservator confirmed.

“When we went to check on this we found that there were only a few acres of Mangrove left as the rest has been built over,” Weragoda told the press conference.

People have built houses there and settled he said.

Vithanage decries this saying that “all Mangroves areas are protected under the law.”

Activists in Kandy also reported that a section of forested land was being cleared on Hantana, which SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella says belongs to him.

“This has been private land since 1947, and I bought it in 1990,” he told EconomyNext. He said the land is not being cleared of trees but the undergrowth.

Activists such as Vithanage say that local politicians have been promising voters land during the elections and that some of them had begun to clear forests ahead of the election to distribute tracts to villagers.

“We intervened in an area called Kandasurindugama near Buttala where such forest clearance was being done by a candidate of the governing party,” Vithanage told EconomyNext.

Police stopped the destruction of the forest and arrested those involved, he added. (Colombo, September 18, 2020)

Reported by Arjuna Ranawana

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