President Maithripala Sirisena has issued a Special Decree that prohibits clearing the area surrounding the Wilpattu National Park and allocating land. The decree comes into force with immediate effect and is applicable to the districts of Mannar and Vavuniya. The President has ordered the Secretary, Ministry of Environment to take the necessary steps to implement this immediately and also informed all State officials to give the programme their fullest support.
What is disturbing about the President’s decree is that he is merely reiterating the existing prohibitions. This is therefore a thinly disguised acknowledgment that there has been illegal activity. It indicates that there is a serious problem of encroachment in the area.
Admittedly, some of the allegations have been strong in objection but short on substantiation. For example there’s talk of a settlement in the Marichchikkatti area. These have been accompanied by satellite maps. However Google maps do not show signs of settlements within what could be ascertained as park borders. There are however settlements in Palugasthurai and Pookulam within the park. As one would expect the residents’ names are in the relevant electoral lists, along with addresses. In other words, what seems to have happened is the usual practice of politicians facilitating encroachment followed or accompanied by ‘registration’. Naturally this makes it easy to trump objections. Perhaps this is why Rishad Bathiudeen can confidently call for a ‘Presidential Commission’ to investigate the issue.
Also disturbing is the fact that the entire brouhaha has indicated that wrongs encouraged by the previous regime are continuing under the new dispensation. It would be unfair to expect things to change dramatically in the matter of a few months of course. Indeed it is encouraging that the President has put his foot down. What he has essentially asked is for officials to do their jobs. That’s a signal to all officials associated with all National Parks. If the spirit of the Presidential Decree is taken seriously then clearing has to stop in areas surrounding all National Parks.
After all, felling trees illegally is not something that has or is happening in Wilpattu alone. Typically local politicians in cahoots with other racketeers often with the tacit support of law enforcement agencies have seen Sri Lanka’s forest cover declining at an alarming rate. The President, then, has to ensure that resources are allocated to back the law and its enforcement.
The other serious allegation is that foreigners are among the ‘squatters’. It has been reported that there are persons in these areas who speak neither Sinhala nor Tamil. Given the sway that local politicians have, it is quite possible that these persons have been provided with the ‘right’ documentation. This needs to be investigated. Considering the possible complicity of local officials and law enforcement authorities, such investigations have to be carried out by a special team, ideally answerable to the President.
The multiplicity of issues surrounding Wilpattu requires action on multiple fronts. The President has issued a decree but this has to be considered a necessary first step. There’s much more to be done. What is done has to be effective and it has to be transparent. Politicians implicated, must be called out, regardless of possible political fallout. May President Maithripala Sirisena continue to have the courage to do what is right by all Sri Lankans and all generations yet unborn whose survival will depend on how well we protect our natural resources, especially our National Parks.