Call to stop destruction of forests | Sunday Observer

Call to stop destruction of forests

29 November, 2020

Environmentalists and social activists have strongly urged the authorities to take speedy measures to stop the large scale destruction to forests and protected areas of the country which have been the nerves of the country’s eco-system and an integral part of the economy.

Clearing forests for commercial gain are not new to the country which is home to some of the world’s endangered species and exotic plants. The country’s forest cover has dropped to around 29 percent and the government aims to increase it to 32 percent by 2020.  Of the 20 percent around 60 percent of the forest cover is concentrated in the North and East which shows that the cover is not uniform throughout the country.

The Centre for Environmental Justice in  a letter to  Central Environmental Authority, Mahaweli Authority and the Ministry of Environment has called upon the bodies take steps to stop the massive destruction of forests due to the  proposed Agriculture and Livestock Development Project at Pollebadda – Rambakan Oya in the Maha Oya area which goes against the provisions of the National Environmental Act.   Around 5,828 acres (2,359 ha) are to come under maize cultivation through this project and land parcels of around 500 ha are to be divided and given to a handful of people.  

“We have learned that around 500 ha has already  been cleared and the Central Environmental Authority has issued a letter stating that if the  development activities are within the land areas belonging to the Mahaweli Authority, there is no need for an EIA approval,” CEJ Executive Director Hemantha Withange said. 

Environment Ministry sources said that the issue here has been exaggerated and that all environmental safety measures have been taken to protect the forest in line with the National Environmental Act.

The CEJ notes that if the proposed development activities are using a forest cover exceeding 1 ha for  non-forest  uses or clearing a forest cover more than 50 ha, an EIA process must be followed.

CEA has provided Terms of Reference (TOR) to the Mahaweli Authority along with the said letter to submit only an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE). The CEJ believes that IEE is not adequate and EIA must be done before starting the project.

Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance No. 16 of 1907, as amended lists out the prohibited acts in any forest other than a Conservation Forest, Reserved Forest or Village Forest. As per sub section 20 (f) of this Ordinance, making any clearings in such forest is illegal and according to the sub section 20 (k) of the same, clearing or breaking up soil or digging any land for cultivation or  any other purpose or cultivate any land already cleared shall be guilty of an offence.

According to the recent judgment  (Centre for Environmental Justice v. Anura Satharasinghe, Conservator General) given by the Court of Appeal regarding the deforestation of Wilpattu National Park and its forest complex highlighted that the powers vested in public authorities are not absolute or unfettered but are held in trust for the public and their exercise is subjected to judicial review by reference to those purposes.