Deforestation goes on unimpeded

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By 2017-02-12

BY Cassendra Doole and Kavindya Chris Thomas

The controversial events that surround the deforestation within the Wilpattu National Park and its adjacent forest reserves generally find them being associated with a certain racist element.

The roots of the soupçon are based on the accusations made by environmentalists who have cried foul at the deforestation taking place. When the initial story broke out in the late 2010, claiming that a portion of Wilpattu was being cleared to return land to a section of the Muslim community, environmentalists who stood against deforestation were accused of being racist. Incidentally, a rather ill-informed social media campaign was kicked off spreading such sentiments. Yet, it is one version of the issue.

"As environmentalists, we should not talk only about displacement of a certain ethnic group, but everyone," said an environmentalist Thilak Kariyawasam last month. Kariyawasam was addressing a forum on Wilpattu at Ramada Hotel on 19 January, joined by Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen.

Facebook heroes

"Whenever the Wilpattu issue is raised there is no opportunity to highlight the other side of it. Facebook heroes who do not know where Wilpattu is located are promoting the issue. Wilpattu is important in Sri Lanka history. Sri Lanka's first king, King Vijaya landed in Arippu, which is part of Wilpattu. Then he carved out the first settlement, also in Wilpattu. According to the Mahavamsa too, by 1294, the pearl fishery industry was practised in the area – Marichchikatti – and it was the Arabs who were involved and were managing it using Muslim rituals," Kariyawasam said.

"The industry leader Aboo Bucker, the main buyer of another sea product, conch-shells, was a Muslim. Therefore Muslim settlements had been there in Wilpattu from ancient times according to the Mahavamsa. Colonial Secretary Sir Emerson Tennant visited Marichikatti in the 1880s to inspect the pearl fishery industry which generated much income for the British. More recently, at the end of three decades of war in 2009, several leading agencies such as the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), UN Environment Programme, Disaster Management Ministry, and UNDP mapped out and identified the area as suitable location for human settlement.

"When Muslims were evicted from the North during the war, they had to leave their settlements. Forest conservation officials mistook the abandoned settlements as part of the Wilpattu forest and also gazetted it by mistake. The officials who now admit that they have made a mistake released 1,080 acres back to the forest allowing timber to be removed by the State Timber Corporation (STC). The trees were removed not by Muslim settlers, but by the STC. However, Muslims have been blamed for removing the trees. As environmentalists, we should not talk only about displacement of a certain ethnic group, but everyone.

What we need to focus on is about resettling the displaced people and not about who removed the trees."

Minister of Industry and Commerce and Vanni District MP Rishad Bathiudeen said, "No government has come forward to resettle the Northern IDPs. Even when they returned after three decades of war, they found that their settlements had been overrun by the forest and there was no livelihood for them." However, Minister Bathiudeen has been accused of spearheading the deforestation activities in the Wilpattu and the nearby forest reserves. Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust (ECT) who initially revealed the Wilpattu encroachment was contacted to get the details of the controversial matter.

According to him, four forest reserves adjacent to the Wilpattu National Park have already been encroached and cleared of a significant amount of lush green land. Around 2,500 acres of the Marachchikatti- Karadikkuli reserve, 700 acres of the Vilathikulam reserve, 100 acres of the Veppal reserve and 100 acres of Maavillu forest reserve have been encroached by political forces that have started making human settlements in cleared areas. Chamikara said an organized gang led by Minister Bathiudeen is spreading false information with regard to the encroached areas and human settlements.

"There has never been any settlement in the area," Chamikara said. "These are all new settlements. At the moment over 700 acres of Vilathikulam have been cleared. Minister Bathiudeen is trying to make new settlements for political reasons. If there were settlements in the areas, why did he wait so long since the war ended?"

deforestation taking place

According to him, deforestation is taking place in several prominent areas adjacent to the Wilpattu National Park including the small coastal towns of Marachchikatti, Kayakkuli, Mullikulam and Silawathurai in the Mannar District. These areas were not green zones Marachchikaddi was home for a Tamil coastal community with 350 families. Their main occupations were fishing and agriculture. However, the area is currently occupied by the Sri Lanka Navy. The adjacent Kayakkulli is a Muslim town with not more than 150 families displaced during the war. They have returned to their original lands.

"What Bathiudeen is falsely claiming that the settlements were part of a larger community that existed before the war started.

This is not true. Resettling Muslims has been going on for several years. The families that lived in the areas are still living there and there is no need for resettlement. Bathiudeen is creating new settlements for families who had come there from somewhere else. He has already taken over so many acres in the forest reserve adjacent to the Wilpattu National Park. If the settlements are allowed to proceed unchecked, they would encroach the protected national park. The intrusion will have severe repercussions that would negatively affect the ecosystem of the national park and the forest reserves including the flora and fauna. Ultimately, it would even lead to a human-elephant conflict.

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