Outcry over illegal land take-over resulting in water contamination

Fishermen claim the Ulhitiya-Ratkinda twin reservoir is contaminated by a certain chemical substance that they suspect is released to the reservoir from a farm owned by a multi-national company located close to the area.

There are several farms operated by multi-national companies located close to the Ulhitiya-Ratkinda twin reservoir.

“A multinational firm known as Dole continues to dispose chemicals in to water sources,” alleged environmentalist Sajeeva Chamikara adding Dole Lanka (Pvt) Ltd which operates close to the Ulhitiya-Ratkinda twin reservoir had obtained land for the farm in an illegal manner.

Lands which were vested with the Department of Forest Conservation and protected by circular 05/2001 were seized by this company, alleged the environmental activist.

According to environmentalists, areas designated at “Other State Forests” are at risk in a backdrop of such events.

What are “Other State Forests”?

Forest areas that are not declared under any enactment (Forest Conservation Ordinance, Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance or the National Heritage Wilderness Areas Act), but are nevertheless forest areas that come under the purview of the Forest Conservation Department, are considered as “Other State Forests”.

Such areas include the Hambantota Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve, Gilimale Forest Reserve and the Kiribathgala mountain range.

According to circular 05/2001 which was issued in 2001 gives control of these “Other State Forests” to the Department of Forest Conservation and a mechanism was put in place to ensure lands from “Other State Forests” are not tranferred to other parties in an arbitrary manner.

Accoring to the circular, if lands from “Other State Forests” are to be used for any purpose, approval needs to be obtained from a Special Review Committee.

The Divisional and District Secretaries were stripped of the power with regard to making decisions on lands, and it was vested with the Special Review Committee.

What is the 2020 Cabinet Proposal?

On the 02nd of July, Joint Spokesperson Minister Bandula Gunawardena announced a Cabinet proposal to transfer lands, which are considered to be ‘residual forests’, to District and Divisional Secretariats.

The proposal, notes the administration of ‘Residual Forests’ have been brought under the Department of Forest Conservation in terms of the provisions of Circular No. 05/2001.

He said the Cabinet was briefed that these provisions have resulted in a ‘long procedure’ for the use of these lands for ‘other purposes’.

It notes in particular, Chena farmers are inconvenienced as a result of this and it also poses a barrier to economically productive purposes.

He said the Cabinet has discussed this matter and decided to request the Minister of Environment to look into this matter and prepare an ‘appropriate mechanism for vesting power in the District Secretaries to engage such lands temporarily for other purposes’.

No such thing as Residual Forest – Env. Lawyer

On the same day, Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena speaking to News 1st stressed there is nothing called residual forests because forests don’t have a residual area and it gives a totally mischevous connotation to the whole concept of other state forests because the moment you call it residual it means it has no value or less value in it.

There’s already a system in place for lands for farms

Further environmentalist said in 2006 a system was put in place to solve the issued of the farmer community and circular 02/2006 vests the power with Divisional Secretaries to release lands which do not have forest patches.

The circular was issued by Former Environment Secretary Jayalath Ravi Dissanayake, who said in order for lands to be released the matter should be reviewed by a special committee.

Present-day Environment Secretary Sarath Wijesinghe also shares the same thought adding the 2006 circular was put in place to control the irregular distribution of lands.

Why the sudden need to do away with the circular?

There are concerns being raised as to why the much important circular 05/2001 is to be terminated in its entirety.

Environmentalists allege the attempt to vest these lands with District and Divisional Secretaries is an attempt to release important forest lands to Multi-National Companies for Agricultural and Tourism purposes.

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