This Environmental Destruction of Wilpattu must stop!
BY UMESH MORAMUDALI AND RATHINDRA KURUWITA
This week our focus is on the continuous environmental destruction of forest cover near Wilpattu National Park which has been going on since 2009. Ceylon Today spoke to Sajeewa Chamikara who has been at the forefront to protect this ecologically sensitive area.
Following are the excerpts of the interview:
?: In the recent past the discussion regarding the environmental destruction that takes place in Wilpattu was renewed. The President had also intervened in the matter. As an environmentalist who continues to be involved in the struggle against the environmental destruction of Wilpattu, how do you see the current situation?
A: Forest Conservation Department had given a report to the President which has completely misguided him. Recently, a group of environmental activists met at the Presidential Secretariat. During that meeting we were shown the reports of the Forest Conservation Department. Officers of the Presidential Secretariat were thoroughly deceived.
I do not like to call this an issue regarding the Wilpattu National Park. This is an issue about the network of forests around Wilpattu National Park. First it was Marichchikatti and Karaduppuli forests that were destroyed for the purpose of establishing settlements. There were about 2,500 acres. Now they have started clearing Wilaththeekulam forest where about 700 acres are cleared. There have not been any settlements in these areas at all, in the past. These forests are pretty much connected to Wilpattu National Park although these areas do not fall under the park according to administrative policies.
There are also misconceptions spread by few parties. Minister Rishad Bathiudeen claims that these areas were residential areas in which people used to live before the war. Based on that argument, they attempt to reclaim the land. On the other hand, Forest Conservation Department claims that they provided permission to set up settlements in these areas due to the influence of former Minister Basil Rajapaksa. These are contradictory statements. If these were residential areas earlier, there was no need for permission. Actually, Minister Rishad Bathiudeen had requested permission from the Forest Conservation Department to set up residents in these areas.
So you see that the Forest Conservation Department are a part of this disaster and if it is proven that something wrong has been done, these officers will be penalized. Therefore, the officers of the Forest Conservation Department attempt to justify their actions for the sake of their careers. So they are submitting reports to mislead the President so that they can save themselves.
Furthermore for some weird reason, Forest Conservation Department does not like to hand over these forest areas, where settlements have been established, to the Department of Wildlife Conservation as instructed by the President. Officers of the Forest Conservation Department state that they have taken good care of these forests and that they have implemented a number of programmes to protect and enhance the quality of these areas. But we know that it was during their custodianship that these forests were degraded. So there is a lot of institutional resistance and this has thwarted President's attempts to protect the forest network around Wilpattu.
?: You said that you met with the officials of Presidential Secretariat regarding the matter. Have they informed the President and what is the response of the President?
A: The President is yet to respond to this matter. Hopefully, he takes decisive steps because there is a lot of institutional resistance to what he wants done, which is expanding the forest areas under the Department of Wildlife Conservation by taking forests under the Forest Conservation Department.
?: Minister Rishad Bathiudeen continues to claim that the area cleared was a traditional village and he even showed the photos of a mosque. What is your view on this?
A: Those pictures were continuously shown by Rishad Bathiudeen and those who support him. They are pictures of the village called Marichchikatti. We never claimed that Marichchikatti is not a traditional Muslim village. There were two traditional villages. One is Mollikulam, which was settled by Tamil Christians and there was Marichchikatti. At present, 90% of the land in Mollikum is controlled by the Navy and the residents do not have sufficient land. Near that there is Marichchikatti village. That was a Muslim village. There were about 125 families living there and the main occupation of those residents was agriculture. There is a mosque in this area. Bathiudeen uses this mosque to claim that there were residents in other areas that he is clearing for new settlements. Bathiudeen wants to promulgate this lie. We challenged Bathiudeen to come to an open debate. We debated him earlier and he admitted that what we say is factual. But once again he has started to spread his lie.
For us there is no racial issue here. This is an issue of destroying environment. Therefore, people should focus on protecting the forests instead of making this a racial issue.
?: We agree that there should not be a racial concern. However, it seems that all the environmental activists against these settlements are Sinhalese. Why don't you get some Muslim environmental activists on your platform as well?
A: I do agree with you on that. Although there are Muslim environmentalists there are no Muslim environmentalists speaking up on this particular issue. I do not know the reason, but people attempt to drag racism in to this.
?: Mannar is one of the most sparsely populated districts in the country. So why do politicians want to create new settlements near Wilpattu National Park when you can create these settlements in other areas of the district?
A: Well let me tell you an interesting fact. By now, all internally displaced people are resettled. Commissioner General of Lands had clearly stated, in 2013, that all the displaced person in North and East are resettled. He added that if more lands are needed, special requests has to be made. Therefore, what happens here is the destruction of the environment under the pretext of resettlement. Resettlement means giving back the land to those who lost that land due to a conflict, disaster or any other reason. But what is happening in the Wilpattu region is the creation of new settlements.
We wonder why the people in Mollikulam are not resettled. Why the Navy is not releasing the lands? No one is speaking about the injustice faced by the Tamil community in Mollikulam. All the attempts are to establish Muslim residents while no attention is paid to the issues faced by the Tamil people in Mollikulam. This is where the element of racism comes in. Real reconciliation means that everyone is treated in the same way. We are not against resettlements.
We believe that the elements of racism should be left out in resettling. Since 2009 we have supported Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim people who were internally displaced due to the war, we have fought for their right to land and we want everyone to have a good life. But some people who only care about one group of people accuse us of being racist; I think that is a big joke.
?: Do you think that things will get better in future?
A: Well. The situation that prevails at present implies that even the orders of the President will not be implemented. Clearly officers are ignoring his directives and attempt to mislead him. He must be firm, otherwise people will think of him as a puppet. I don't think this is the legacy he wants to create. So once again I urge him to be firm.
?: Recently, the government decided to provide 15,000 acres to Chinese for investments in Hambantota area. While a lot of people talk about such actions making Sri Lanka a Chinese colony, hardly anyone speaks of the environmental impact. Most of the areas that will be given are forests which elephants live in; this will lead to increased human-elephant conflict, will it not?
A: This will be a major problem. Lands are given from Hambantota as well as Moneragala districts. All the lands in Monaragala and Hambantota districts are owned by Wildlife Conservation Department, there are many water sources in these forests and elephants use these water sources. When these forests are cleared these elephants will have no option but to engage in marauding villages and this will lead to deaths at both ends, the elephants and poor villagers. Is this what we want? Is this the development we want? Is it development that hurts the poor and vulnerable?
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