Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL), a non-profit organisation dedicated to environmental conservation through public interest litigation, along with WNPS, an organisation aimed at preventing the destruction and harmful commercial exploitation of species of wild animals and plants and preserving wildlife intact in natural conditions in Sri Lanka, filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal (Bearing No. CA/Writ/51/18) seeking the issuance of a Writ of Mandamus to direct the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) to demarcate the boundaries of Pallekandal Church situated within the Wilpattu National Park (WNP) and to regulate activities of the Pallekandal Church according to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance No.02 of 1937 as amended (FFPO) on January 24, 2018.
The respondents for the case include, among others, the DWC Director-General, the Bishop of Chilaw andthe Tourism Development, Wildlife and Christian Religious Affairs Minister. The grievances highlighted in the petition include the violations in the provisions of FFPO and damages caused to the sensitive environment of WNP by activities of the Pallekandal Church.
A few centuries ago, a small jungle shrine was established in Pallekandal/Pomparippu. The entire village of Pallekandal comprised 445 acres and the tiny block of land with the shrine was acquired by the government in 1969 under the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Act No. 28 of 1964 as reflected in the gazette bearing No.14, 886 dated 1969.12.26 published by the Department of Government Printing. Pursuant to that, Block V of WNP was declared in 1973 by way of gazette declaration bearing No. 89 dated 1973.12.07 over the same area; thus the entire village including the church effectively became part of the Wilpattu National Park. By perusal of the boundaries of the aforesaid Block V of WNP, it is clear that the said village and church were not expressly and/or impliedly excluded during such a declaration.
"Two environmental organisations complain Wilpattu National Park severely affected by unregulated activities of church"
With the onset of the terrorist campaign of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE),WNP was subjected to a series of attacks and incursions by terrorists in the mid-1980s. As a result, in 1987, the park was closed to visitors for security reasons but was controlled by DWC and later taken over by the Armed Forces. During the civil war period in Sri Lanka, this chapel was not used and the building fell into disrepair with the roof caving in.
After the reopening of the National Park, there had been an expansion of structures and buildings transforming the jungle shrine into a well-constructed church encouraging more human intrusion and intervention of thousands of people into the national park without any regulation and/or control.
The expansion of festive activity relating to the church has been rapidly increasing due to unregulated access to the National Park, after the construction of the unauthorized road cutting across the National Park, connecting the southern and northern boundaries of the park which was unlawfully opened to the public in March/April 2010 (which is the subject matter of a Fundamental Rights application bearing No. 224/2010 pending before the Supreme Court).
In response, EFL made inquiries since 2016 and continuously contacted relevant authorities to enforce FFPO and to ensure the protection of WNP. During the site visits, EFL observed large expansions of permanent structures and buildings expanding the church premises within WNP and a massive growth of festive celebrations. The development of a motorable road in and out of the premises inside the park to facilitate human intrusion was also observed. EFL further noted that the scrubland and some of the areas surrounding the church have been cleared to facilitate the festivities/human activity. Furthermore, EFL observed that a set of new, permanent structures had been added to the jungle shrine (i.e. tank used for drinking water, accommodation facilities and a church bell were observed) and that the roadsides between Kala Oya DWC Regional Office and the road leading towards the premises was littered with plastic and polythene.
The rich eco systems and wildlife of WNP are severely affected, in danger of being harmed and endangered due to large numbers of people entering WNP with no regulation or control.
SEVERE IMPACTS RESULTED DUE TO FESTIVITIES WITHIN WNP
Clearing of forest area for campsites and food stalls have resulted in habitat fragmentation. Absence of adequate waste disposal systems has caused land-based, water and plastic pollution. Noise and air pollution due to the influx of visitors, vehicles and festival activities such as loud speakers, lights on tress, lighting crackers, burning wood to cook meals. Once an area of land is declared to be a National Park according to FFPO, its management should be the duty of DWC. The activities of the church relating to festivities, construction/expansion of new/existing structures, road development and clearing of forest land inside WNP amount to direct and severe violation of FFPO. Further, there is a detrimental impact on the National Park by uncontrolled and/or unregulated human intrusion for the festivities of Pallekandal Church on a weekly/monthly/annual basis which amount to an offence under FFPO.
Petitioners participated in a couple of multi-stakeholder meetings held at the Attorney General’s Department in order to arrive at a mutually-agreed arrangement under the direct supervision and control of DWC for the purpose of conducting the festival of Pallekandal Church, but no consensus reached thus far.
The DWC Director-General (first respondent), in his objection dated July 30, 2018, states that traditional/customary practices under Section 3 (3) of FFPO No.02 of 1937 (as amended) as permitted by the DWC Director-General, could only continue in WNP. He further stated that a large area had been cleared illegally and/or in an unauthorized manner and permanent and/or semi-permanent structures had been constructed in the Pallekandal Church area to the very detriment of WNP. Also, in his objection, he stated that any customary right exercised under Section 3 (3) of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance No.02 of 1937 (as amended), had not permitted any deviation and/or expansion of activities and/or places to be utilized. Moreover, the Director-General in his affidavit dated May 3, 2019 stated that Pallekandal Church was situated well within the boundaries of WNP and that when Block V of WNP was declared as a National Park in 1973, it was situated within Block V along with all other lands absorbed into WNP. He finally stated that several illegal structures were erected ever since the church commenced the feast in 2010.
"Chilaw Bishop underscores cultural heritage and religious importance of 17th century church"
In direct contradiction to the above position taken up by the DWC Director-General, the Wildlife, Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs Minister, in his capacity as the Wildlife and Christian Religious AffairsMinister (being the 2 (c) and 3 (b) respondents) appearing through private bar, in his objection dated June 14, 2019 states that Pallekandal Church does not form part of WNP and is not subject to FFPO. The aforesaid stance by the minister is contrary to the gazette bearing No. 14,886 dated 1969.12.26, according to which the entire village of Pallekandal comprised 445 acres and the tiny block of land of the church was acquired by the government and later was absorbed as part of the Wilpattu National Park by the gazette bearing No. 89 dated 1973.12.07. The minister further states in his objection that the rights of the Catholics who have worshipped at the church since the 17th century cannot and should not be affected by the creation of a National Park and that the activities of the church in particular services such as the Holy Mass must be continued, unabated and without obstruction.
The Bishop of Chilaw (fourth respondent), in his objection dated September 4, 2018, takes a similar position to that of the minister and states worshippers believe Pallekandal Church was built in the 17th century and emphasises on cultural heritage and religious importance of the church. In his affidavit dated June 9, he stated that the church was not within WNP since the land was released from proceedings under the Land Settlement Ordinance. Therefore, he states that the FFPO has no application to the church and in the said circumstances, that DWC has no statutory power to stop or restrict the activities of the church.
This case is listed for support for interim relief on 05.07.2019 in the event there is no settlement reached by the parties regarding the regulation of church feast pertaining to this year.