Discussions are underway to remove 05/2001 circular issued by the Environment Ministry which gave provisions for the Forest Department to develop and protect state forest patches.
“This circular was issued back in 2001 at a time when state lands inclusive of forest patches were also under the purview of Divisional Secretaries and government agents,” said Rainforest Protectors Sri Lanka Convener Jayantha Wijesingha.
“During that time, government agents misused these areas and issued various permits for people to settle and for other purposes that in 2001 this circular was issued. With that it prevented Divisional Secretariats from transferring ownership of these areas to non-state entities at their own discretion. If this circular is removed it allows the clearance of over 500,000 hectares of forest land across the country. Sri Lanka has an abundance of dry zone forests, rainforests, savannahs, forest patches and various other sensitive ecosystems which would be destroyed eventually. When forest lands were used by government agents and were under the purview of divisional secretaries these areas were used for paddy, coconut, sugarcane, cotton and were even given away for the Gam Udawa programme.”
He further said that vast areas of forest land in areas such as Moneragala, Puttalam and Anuradhapura are under threat of being misused as Divisional Secretaries are issuing agriculture permits. “By removing this circular it allows illegal occupants of state lands to legally continue their activities. Some of them have ongoing cases pertaining to illegal land use and if this circular is removed there will be no cases. On the other hand government agents can promise lands to those who campaign which could be used for large scale chena cultivations.”
The Daily Mirror also learned that forest officers have been requested to demarcate areas that could be given away.
However, when contacted, Conservator General of Forests W.A.C Weragoda said that the matter is still at a discussion stage. “It was the Divisional Secretaries who have requested the Environment Ministry to remove this circular.” When asked if forest officers have been requested to demarcate areas that could be given away he said that surveying of forest lands is done annually. However he agreed that there would be environmental hazards if these areas are given away for developmental purposes. “The circular was issued to protect these lands from being misused and destroyed. If it is removed things would go back to square one. But everything depends on the Ministry’s decision.”
Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Resources secretary A.H.S Wijesinghe said that it’s too early to comment. “The matter has been discussed at the cabinet meeting held on Wednesday but I’m awaiting meeting minutes.”
The Daily Mirror learned that the matter was taken up at a cabinet meeting held on Wednesday (July 1) where several concerns pertaining to farmers utilizing these lands were raised. One of the concerns were that farmers cannot utilize the lands for any other cultivation purpose or any economically productive activity as they fall under the 05/2001 circular.
Therefore, the cabinet of ministers have requested the Minister of Environment and Wildlife Resources to propose a plan to give authority to Divisional Secretaries / Government agents to allow these farmers to temporarily utilize these lands for other commercial purposes while they continue to remain as state-owned lands without causing any damage to the forest patches and other ecosystems. (Kamanthi Wickramasinghe)