The silence in Sinharaja is punctuated by the heavy rumbling of the backhoe as it clears the path during a road expansion project
Pics courtesy : Jayantha Wijesingha
Road construction began in 2013 and was subsequently halted
Expansion work stopped from Lankagama to Pitadeniya following President’s orders
A number of threatened, endangered and rare species could be found within the Reserve
The ‘lungs of Sri Lanka’ are gasping for air. The Sinharaja Forest Reserve was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1988 and is arguably the most important biodiversity site in the country.
With over 11,187 hectares of land the Forest Reserve spans through Galle, Ratnapura and Matara districts. Back in 2013 the Neluwa-Deniyaya road construction project began in the borders of the Sinharaja Forest and due to pressure exerted by UNESCO the project was suspended. However, at the onset of the new cabinet assuming duties, work under the same project commenced on July 30; much to the fury of environmentalists. With petitions and complaints filed to UNESCO, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday ordered the suspension of this project. However, matters have not been settled as yet.
Banks cut at 90 degree angles
Two roads, one destination
“What is worrying is the fact that no regulator was consulted prior to the construction of this road,” opined Jayantha Wijesingha, Convener of Rainforest Protectors Sri Lanka. “The road being constructed connects Neluwa, Lankagama, Pitadeniya and Deniyaya and they are constructing it when there’s already a road that connects Neluwa and Deniyaya. Initially there had been a gravel road which was part carpeted and part concreted until Warukandeniya. From Lankagama onwards there’s a gravel road and a bridge to be crossed. After this road there’s another carpet road from Mederipitiya close to Gin Ganga and Sinharaja forest which is partly concreted. This road which had a breadth of 8 feet was initially cut in 2013 without approval from the Forest Department.
Since it was a gravel road they had developed it. This time they have started work again without any plan or document about where they are going to start or where they are going to stop. When inquired the Divisional Secretariat, Central Environment Authority or the Forest Department have not been consulted for approvals.” said Wijesingha.
The Army has been given eight roads to be constructed and one of them is the Neluwa-Deniyaya road
According to Wijesingha, apart from putting concrete, the road will be further expanded and a further 5 foot area will be cut inwards, thereby affecting the Sinharaja Forest. “The area of concern is a 1.2 km area that runs through the Forest Reserve. The entire road stretch from Warukandeniya to Pitadeniya is less than 10 km. When we visited the area we observed that the road has been widened between 12 to 20 feet. These are landslide-prone areas and the left bank has been cut at a 90 degree angle and all the soil has been put on to the right bank along the Gin Ganga reservation area. This will make it more vulnerable to landslides. There’s no proper environmental management here. For that they have to compact the soil on the right bank and include retain walls, do terracing and include culverts. Since the road goes across the Gin Ganga Reservation area the irrigation department too should have been consulted. So what we suggest is to add concrete to the road as it is without further widening it. In fact the part that runs through the Forest Reserve shouldn’t be touched at all.” said Wijesingha.
Speaking of the consequences, Wijesingha said that a shortcut through the Sinharaja Forest would make things easier for those involved in illegal activities. “There will be an increase in the bushmeat trade, they will have easy access to Wallappatta and pose a threat to endemic Flora and fauna living in the Forest. There are also two elephants that roam around in Sinharaja Forest and having a road that runs through it will pose a threat to them. There will be road kills as well. Apart from that air and noise pollution will increase. People will be able to encroach into the forest areas which have been demarcated as sensitive areas. Since the road is constructed on the banks of the Gin Ganga it will result in an increase in illegal sand mining as well. Already there are people encroaching into the borders of the forest to put up tea estates and private hotel projects in the disguise of eco-tourism projects. The road will also increase the land value in surrounding lands and eventually Sri Lanka will lose a UNESCO World Heritage site that it had been proud of all this while.” said Wijesingha.
A road running through Sinharaja Rainforest
Around 30 trees that coming under the purview of the Forest Department will have to be removed
Who’s lying to whom?
The construction work had begun since July 30 with military personnel under the supervision of the Road Development Authority (RDA). When inquired, Army Spokesperson Brigadier Chandana Wickramasinghe said that the area of concern lies outside the Sinharaja forest or the buffer zone. “We have been involved in many green initiatives and will not fell trees especially in forests. Besides, the Army is handling this project with much dedication,” said Brigadier Wickramasinghe.
When inquired, Brigadier N.P.A Gunawardena, Engineer Brigade Commander, said that the project has followed a proper legal process prior to its commencement. “If someone says we are cutting through the forest then that’s a false piece of information. The maps and photos circulating on social media are wrong. The Army has been given eight roads to be constructed and one of them is the Neluwa-Deniyaya road. The area where the road is being constructed is the road to Lankagama and we have started work from the civilian side. There’s a one kilometre area running through Sinharaja forest and we haven’t touched it. The existing plan is to expand the 8 foot road to 12 feet. Following the President’s decision to suspend the project we have decided to stop work from Lankagama to Pitadeniya, but continue work outside the borders of the Forest Reserve,” said Brigadier N.P.A Gunawardena.
He further said that the technical work is being handled by the RDA and since people don’t like to work in forests, the Army was deployed. “We provide the machinery and logistical support. Prior to commencing the project I asked the Forest Department to show me the exact location and that’s how we started work,” said Brigadier N.P.A Gunawardena.
No recommencement without permission
Although the President has requested for a temporary suspension of the project, CEA Chairman Siripala Amarasinghe affirmed that the project has been permanently stopped. “There was no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) done. They haven’t sought approval from the UNESCO Sri Lanka office. What the CEA does is act on the information that we receive. Sometimes we do a physical verification as well. But if this particular project is to recommence then they need to obtain permission from UNESCO, Forest Department and CEA,” said Amarasinghe.
However Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation Secretary M. K Bandula Harischandra said that as per the discussion held with the President, the project will be temporarily suspended. “Around 30 trees that are coming under the purview of the Forest Department will have to be removed. So there has to be a scientific method to get rid of these trees. If the project is to recommence such concerns would have to be evaluated. After all this project is not for the constructing of a new road, but to expand a road that already exists,” said Harischandra.
But if this particular project is to recommence then they need to obtain permission from UNESCO, Forest Department and CEA
Why protect Sinharaja Forest
In a letter sent to UNESCO on the matter Ravindra Kariyawasam, National Coordinator at Centre for Environment and Nature Studies (CENS) explained how the construction work includes the buffer zone. When the same road was being constructed back in 2013, CENS filed a complaint to UNESCO and as a result the project came to a halt. He further called on UNESCO to initiate action against the illegal construction of the road. “Out of 830 endemic species, 217 trees and woody climbers are found in the low land wet zone, he said. “Of these, 139 (64%) have been recorded in the Sinharaja Forest reserve including 16 rare species. Faunal endemism is particularly high for birds with 19 (95%) of 20 species recorded in the property being endemic to Sri Lanka. Endemism among mammals and butterflies is also greater than 50%. A number of threatened, endangered and rare species occur within the reserve including: leopard (Panthera pardus), Indian elephant (Elephas maxiumus), endemic purple-faced Langur (Presbytis senex), Sri Lanka wood pigeon (Columba torringtoni), green-billed Coucal (Centropus chlororrhynchus), Sri Lanka white-headed starling (Sturnus senex), Sri Lanka blue magpie (Cissa ornate), ashy-headed babbler (Garrulax cinereifrons) and Sri Lanka broad-billed roller (Eurystomus orientalis irisi),” said Kariyawasam.
According to IUCN’s Conservation Outlook Assessment (2017), the conservation status of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is of ‘significant concern’. Some of its recent discoveries include several species of herpetofauna that are restricted to the Eastern region of the Forest Reserve. Apart from that Kariyawasam also observes threats to several other adjacent rainforests that contributes to the diverse ecosystem in this unique forest reserve. “The rainforest includes many streams and rivers including the Napola Dola and Kosgulana River from its Northern end, Mahadola and Gin Ganga from the Southern End, Kalundewa Ela and Pita Kale River from the Western end. However these sensitive ecosystems have been subject to large scale timber rackets, bio-theft, gem mining, illegal sand mining and many other illegal activities. The Forest reserve also includes adjacent natural forests that provide an added layer of the protection to the property. However places such as Walankanda, Thanabola for example have been used for large scale felling of trees to be converted to timber. Apart from that, areas such as the Kudumiriya rainforest belonging to the Ratnapura, Kalawana Divisional Secretariat too have been cleared during various occasions. People have also engaged in cutting down trees in Wallapatta due to its largely elaborated commercial value. Therefore, constructing roads through this sensitive ecosystem would only make things easier for illegal racketeers,” said Kariyawasam.