Zoologists blow whistle on illegal hotel construction | Sunday Observer

Zoologists blow whistle on illegal hotel construction

An attempt by the Ministry of Tourism Development and Wildlife to release eight acres of land in Palatupana adjoining the Yala National Park to a private party, under a 50-year lease to build a holiday resort has been revealed by the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA).

Speaking during a recent media briefing YZA, Head Instructor, Mammal Studies, Pubudu Weerarathna said in its latest developments attempts have been made to obtain information in this regard from the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment on August 13. However, the Cabinet Memorandum on the subject was released by the Ministry of Tourism Development and Wildlife on July 30, he said.

“This company first attempted to acquire land in 2012 under the name Yala Adventure Park (Pvt) Ltd, which was later changed to Yala Holiday Resorts (Pvt.) Ltd. in 2019,” Weerarathna said.

The Cabinet Memorandum states the reason provided by the Owner of Yala Adventure Park (Pvt) Ltd, Abhayapala Perera to change the name is to obtain BOI concessions.

“The total land that is expected to be released for hotels is 50 acres, divided into seven plots to be leased to different private parties, which has been approved for tourism development purposes by the Cabinet in 2013. However, up to now no Environmental Impact Assessment has been conducted on the project,” Weerarathna said.

The Cabinet Memorandum also says that Yala Holiday Resort Pvt Limited designed and constructed staff quarters, an office for turtle conservation, roads to obtain high voltage electricity and three lakes.

The Memorandum further states that work on the project has been halted until the leasing agreement is signed.

“That means even before a leasing agreement was signed and legal approvals were obtained, the company had commenced work on the project,” Weerarathna said.

He further said Palatupana borders the Yala National Park and is home to a large number of bird species, elephants, leopards, bears, jungle cats, rusty-spotted cat and farmers involved in chena cultivation.

He added that this particular instance refers to releasing an eight-acre plot of land to a company, and more companies are involved in conducting similar activities in their respective plots. “In future, the entry to the Yala National Park will be surrounded by a large number of hotels which is not observed in any national park in the world,” he said.

Weerarathna further said the beaches adjoining Palatupana remain an important nesting site to sea turtles, including the Leatherback turtle, which is already disrupted by bicycle riding and barbecues held on the beach.

Environmentalist and Attorney at Law, Jagath Gunawardana said under the National Environment Act, if more than one hectare of forest land is used for a purpose not related to forestry, an Initial Environment Assessment ( IEA) or Environmental Impact Assessment ( EIA) has to be conducted to ascertain whether the project is feasible.

“However, the problem in these projects is receiving Cabinet approval prior to conducting an EIA. This results in officers conducting an EIA facing a dilemma whether to reject or not a project approved by the Cabinet,” he said.

Gunawardana said that this is a result of the conflict of interest created in assigning ministerial portfolios where currently both tourism development and wildlife are held by the same minister.