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Over 200 acres of forest in Ampara destroyed Radalla and Kumbukkan forest reserves near Pottuvil and Lahugala at high risk

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10 November 2020 12:10 am - 2     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • After the court order, those who were clearing forests discreetly began to use dozers and engage in large-scale deforestation
  • Evidence points to an officer of the Security and Law Division of the Forest Department being complicit in the destruction of the Radalla forest reserve

 

While the country focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic, reports of large-scale deforestation are emerging from Pottuvil in the Ampara district. Deforestation has been continuing in the area since 2000 and the Department of Forest Conservation has been unable to stop it due to interference from politicians and officials. Furthermore, all Governments have turned a blind eye to the issue for political gains. 


Local residents have continued to clear forests for cultivation and settle on protected lands. The Radalla forest reserve, brought under the Kumbukkan forest reserve by gazette in 2009, is at risk. The Kumbukkan and Radalla forest reserves had been cleared for chena cultivation, and Local Government officials had issued land ownership permits to those who had settled on these lands. 


On October 26, 2017 Forest Department officers arrested 17 persons who had attempted to cultivate land in the Radalla and Kumbukkan reserves. They were produced before the Pottuvil Magistrate on November 10, 2017. Despite objections from the Forest Department the court issued an order allowing cultivation to continue until the case was concluded. The order blocked the Forest Department, Agriculture Department, Wildlife Department and the police from taking action against persons cultivating on protected land. Furthermore the order warned legal action against any officer who interrupted cultivation activities. The Forest Department appealed against the order and the Magistrate was interdicted.


After the court order, those who were clearing forests discreetly began to use dozers and engage in large-scale deforestation. Land ownership was claimed by obtaining permits and settlements began to grow. Cultivation within the Radalla reserve of the South Eastern ecological zone bordering Pottuvil and Lahugala in the Ampara district thereby increased and some 62 acres were cleared for settlements. According to Forest Department sources by 2017 some 200 acres of the Radalla forest reserve had been destroyed.

 

 


Evidence points to an officer of the Security and Law Division of the Forest Department being complicit in the destruction of the Radalla forest reserve. He had reportedly written to the District Forest Officer of Ampara seeking permission to cultivate land in the reserve. Furthermore, a fraudulently registered farmers’ association had obtained permission to cultivate lands in the Irakalathemiku and Palliyadwattei villages. A few years ago these lands had belonged to the Kumbukkan forest reserve, but they have now been cleared for cultivation.
No settlements had existed in the Kumbukkan forest reserve before. But cultivators are trying to claim human settlements have existed during the past 30 years. Furthermore, no legal action is being taken against them. The Forest Conservation Ordinance says illegal trespassing in a forest is an offence liable to a fine before the courts. But to date this law has not been applied. 


The Kumbukkan forest reserve borders the Kitulana and Lahugala national parks. On April 8, 1927 the Forest Act of 1907 named 37635 hectares as a nature reserve. In 2009 a total 38274 hectares was declared as belonging to the reserve. This included the Radalla reserve as well.

 


In addition to deforestation in Radalla, a 20-foot road has also been constructed. Although there are boundary poles to mark the forest reserve area, these have reportedly been removed to make way for more environmental destruction.

 

Only a handful of Forest Officers are there to protect over 1000 hectares of forest land and just 22 officers are assigned to protect the Pottuvil and Lahugala areas. Lahugala Range Forest Officer Kapila Ariyarathna said it was difficult to deploy each of these officers on field visits


The Lahugala Forest Department office confirmed people were entering the Radalla reserve at night and felling large trees with saws; 7-8 km inside the forest border. Due to the prevailing dry climate, tree felling and burning have increased. These activities happen mostly after 7pm and continue till dawn; by which time almost two acres of forest are destroyed. 

 


Permits have been given for protected lands in the Pansalgoda Grama Niladhari (GN) Division of the Lahugala Divisional Secretariat where the Darampalawa forest reserve is located. After cultivating forest lands, requests are made through the Pottuvil Divisional Secretary to the Survey Department for land mapping. However, according to Circular 5/2001, the Department of Lands is responsible for all lands. If lands are to be used for a development activity approval is first needed from the Forest Conservation Department before they are released. But the Pottuvil Divisional Secretary has made no such request. 


The Forest Conservation Department charges that the Divisional Secretary has distributed lands and permits on his own will. Strangely, he has also reportedly issued land permits in Lahugala, despite it being separate from Pottuvil. Forest Officers charge that these actions taken by officials on behalf of the people have prevented the department from protecting forest land.

 

Trees that are felled and burnt in the Radalla forest are transported openly

 

Only a handful of Forest Officers are there to protect over 1000 hectares of forest land and just 22 officers are assigned to protect the Pottuvil and Lahugala areas. Lahugala Range Forest Officer Kapila Ariyarathna said it was difficult to deploy each of these officers on field visits. As there is a high density of elephants in the reserve, officers cannot be sent out on their own as it is unsafe. There have also been cases where tree fellers have attacked forest officers. So their safety should be considered as well, Ariyarathna said. 


When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently said land permits would be given to those without permits, the Pottuvil GN had informed area residents he would provide them with permits. Ariyarathna charged that the GN had also asked people to build houses and settle in them. However he added that compared to the deforestation that took place in 2001, the current situation is relatively under control. The support of the Army and the Special Task Force was well received, Ariyarathna added.


Trees that are felled and burnt in the Radalla forest are transported openly. A road has been built through the reserve and about 10-feet of forest on either side has been cleared. The road goes as far as Akkaraipattu through Addalachchanai, Thindur. Akkaraipattu residents have moved to Pottuvil and settled there. Some 1500 families have obtained permits and 3000 more families have occupied lands. Houses and agricultural wells have also been built inside the forest. 


Archaeologically valuable monoliths, stone inscriptions, moon-stones and palace ruins are found inside the Kumbukkan and Radalla reserves. Many of these ruins have not yet been discovered by the Archaeology Department. Ven. Udalamatte Rathanapriya Thera of the Muhudu Maha Viharaya said some groups, led by a minister from the Colombo district, were treasure hunting on the pretext of tree cutting. The Thera said that he had reported the matter to Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne. The Thera had information that the minister was preparing to continue with excavating activities in search of treasure and had also transferred the Lahugala Range Forest Officer who opposed his attempts.


In addition to forest destruction, the Pottuvil lagoon is also vulnerable to environmental harm. For example houses have been built less than 40m from the lagoon, although legally they must be built 200m away from the water. The Coast Conservation Department has reportedly marked new boundaries by indicating a distance of 40m from the sea as the boundary limit. Ven. Udalamatte Rathanapriya Thera urged the authorities to pay attention to these issues, or the forest and lagoon would be lost forever.


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  Comments - 2

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  • RP Tuesday, 10 November 2020 07:03 AM

    What is our government officials or crooks are doing, nothing, absolutely nothing for these wanton destruction. Gota lived in US and witnessed first hand the preservation of the environment is utterly useless to STOP this menace. In our country, the guardians are the perpetrators of our precious forests!

    Umar Perera Tuesday, 10 November 2020 03:50 PM

    It will be too late to appreciate our forests (in a world that's heating up) and our culture (archaeology) and our unique flora abd fauna after it's all gone. GR and his lot are permitting this - after all, they are only here to milk our land for all it's worth. Traitors!


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