When Knuckles conservation forest, along with Sri Pada peak wilderness area and Horton plains, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010, the World Heritage Committee came up with a set of recommendations. The purpose of this was to ensure that the successive governments of Sri Lanka prioritized the protection of these three sites, which form the central highlands of Sri Lanka.
The recommendations read that “an overall management system for the whole property is required, to ensure consistency of management, monitoring and presentation of the property, in addition to that provided by the individual management plans (for three sites). Adequate and sustained budgets are required for the management of the property as a whole, and within each component”.
Getting the central highlands of Sri Lanka declared a global heritage site, beating other contenders, was a major achievement of course for the previous regime. After all only two heritage sites were declared at the 34th session of the World Heritage Committee held in July, 2010 in Brazil. The other wasPapahānaumokuāke a collection of atolls and islands in USA. Interestingly, it’s the present Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils Faizer Musthapha who as Deputy Minister of Environment in the then Rajapaksa government that lobbied for Knuckles, Horton Plains and Sri Pada forest at the Brazil conference.
However, even the previous regime failed to keep the momentum of the move by implementing the recommendations.
Today we hear strong allegations that two ministers of the present UNP led government have offered some 21,000 acres of land in the Knuckles reserve to their close associates for private projects. Such was the gravity of the situation that it saw the prelate of the Malwatte Chapter the Most. Ven. Thibbatuwave Sidartha Sri Sumangala Thera raising concerns over the allegations and Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera has sought a detailed report on the area ear marked for private development projects.
Of course predictably the two ministers have denied the reports and the audit report on the matter is pending.
Following the media exposure it appears the plan had been put on hold, for the time being
The news of the move to lease land from knuckles conservation forest area comes a couple of months after a move to alienate a 90 perch block of land of the Kandy Udawattakele forest reserve to a leading hotel in Kandy. Following the media exposure it appears the plan had been put on hold, for the time being. The sacred city of Kandy itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site declared in 1988.
Historic cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Galle, Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sigiriya and Sinharaja forest form the rest of the World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.
While successive Sri Lankan governments have managed to preserve the ancient cities and sites in the list it’s obvious that they have not given adequate importance and care to look after the forests. In the absence of a buffer zone, the boundary of the Sinharaja forest continues to come under the axe of tree fellers and private companies that have bought adjoining lands for businesses. It should be noted that 60% of the trees in this last primary forest of Sri Lanka are endemic. The UNESCO has mentioned poor staffing of the authorities tasked with protection, as a concern regarding the preservation of Sinharaja.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites are legally protected by international treaties given their collective interest to humanity. The list is maintained by the international World Heritage Program administered by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. It comprised 21 state parties which are elected by their General Assembly. The program was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16 November 1972. So far some 193 state parties have ratified the convention and some 1,073 sites are listed so far and Sri Lanka became a member in 1988.
While by listing Sinharaja and central highland forests, the UNESCO has made them a global responsibility successive Sri Lankan governments have failed to implement the recommendations by the UNESCO committee. This has put the future of both these forests in danger. In the interest of humanity it is high time that pressure is mounted on whoever is holding power in Sri Lanka to take better care of this heritage.