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Wilpattu burns

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Some of the houses which environmentalists claim are unauthorized constructions on protected forest lands Some of the houses which environmentalists claim are unauthorized constructions on protected forest lands

With the issue of unauthorized settlements in the region surrounding Wilpattu National Park now reaching boiling-point, Secretary to the President, P.B. Abeykoon has directed the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment to conduct an immediate investigation, The Nation learns.

When contacted, Secretary to the Ministry of Mahaweli Development Environment, Nihal Rupasinghe on Friday (May 8) confirmed that a directive had come from the Presidential Secretariat to probe the matter. Accordingly, a team of officials, under Secretary to the State Ministry of Environment, W.M.V. Narampanawa, is due to visit the region on Saturday (May 9). Rupasinghe said the team will also consist of officials from the Department of Forest Conservation.

The ministry had sent a separate team to the area last week as well and their report had also been received, Rupasinghe further stated.  In recent days, media reports and public discussion on social media has focused sharply on alleged land encroachments inside Wilpattu National Park. Meanwhile Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen, who is at the center of the controversy due to accusations of being directly involved in encouraging the land encroachments, last week pledged to resign from his ministerial post if the allegations were proved.

Bathiudeen also told The Nation that he wrote to President Maithripala Sirisena on Wednesday (May 6) calling for the appointment of a Presidential Commission to probe issue of unauthorized settlements inside forest reserves.

Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust (ECT) said Minister Bathiudeen is actually correct when he says he has not settled people inside the Wilpattu National Park or on its boundary. “The destruction is actually taking place inside the Kalaru Forest Reserve bordering Wilpattu and at the Madhu Forest Reserve. This is a continuation of the encroachments that began some years ago under Bathiudeen’s blessings.”

These areas come under the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC). Environmentalists say the pace of encroachment has also now accelerated.

According to Minister Bathiudeen, 1080 acres belonging to the DFC was released in February 2013 by its former Conservator General to the Mannar District Secretary to be cleared for resettling the returning displaced. However, Chamikara said this land release did not follow due process.

“Lands can’t be directly released to a District Secretary. They have to be first released to the Land Commissioner General’s Department, which has the power to issue land deeds. Even then, under the National Environment Act, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) needs to be done and approved if more than 100 families are settled in any place at once. An EIA is also mandatory if more than 2.5 acres of forest land is to be cleared for development purposes. These fundamental steps need to be followed and they have been completely ignored”. 

He also insisted that all those who were being resettled were not ‘displaced persons’ but were outsiders. “There is a clear effort by Minister Bathiudeen to increase his voter base by settling people this way,” he alleged.

Chamikara also warned that there was potential for a serious human-elephant conflict to develop in these areas, as some settlements had actually been built on either side of elephant corridors.

Boundary markers put up by the Dept of Forest Conservation uprooted by encroachers

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