No tree in the Vilaththikulam forest reserve felled after 2015- Conservator General of Forests, Anura Sathurusinghe

Resettlement in the outskirts of the Wilpattu National Park:

A week ago, the controversy over the resettlement and deforestation taking place in the outskirts of the Wilpattu National Park, the largest wild life park inherited by the country came to the fore, after President Maitripala Sirisena, as per the media release issued by the President’s Media Unit, directed the authorities to issue a gazette notification expanding the forest area belonging to the Wilpattu National Park.

President Sirisena, apparently issued these instructions as an immediate solution to the ongoing controversy that jungles in the Mannar and Puttalam districts, especially, around the Wilpattu National Park are under threat due to resettlement taking place, clearing jungle patches.

According to the press release issued by the President’s Media Unit, following the meeting the President had with his Ministry officials, the President not only gave instructions to expand the boundaries of the Wilpattu National Park if necessary, but also directed the officials to investigate whether any deforestation was taking place in the area as pointed out by certain media institutions, and take action against those responsible for such activities, irrespective of their status or political affiliations.

But, the officials of the Forest Department present at the meeting presided by the President, insisted that no such jungle clearing was taking place in the Vilaththikulam forest reserve as pointed out by a certain electronic media.

The Conservator General of Forests of the Forest Department,Anura Sathurusinghe explaining the background told the Sunday Observer, there has not been any clearance of jungle in the Mannar district, after 2015.

Resettlement

He said, the media is highlighting the construction activities taking place in the forest lands released for resettlement purposes during the previous government, and what the media is highlighting now is about lands released from the Vilathtikulam forest reserve for resettlement purposes in 2013.

“We admit that in 2013 the Forest Department was compelled to release forest land in the Mannar district, because it was ordered by the then Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security in the North, in order to speed up resettlement of displaced civilians from the North”, he added.

He said, after the end of the war in 2009, the Forest Department was not operational in the North and some of the forests in the North were under threat of depleting, as Security Forces, on the directive of the then government cleared some of the forests for resettlement purposes.

At the time the Forest Officers started their operations in the North in 2011, some forest lands from different parts of the Mannar district had already been cleared for resettlement. To end this, the Forest Department issued a gazette notification declaring some forests as forest reserves, mentioning only GPS references of those forests, without any surveying.

Accordingly, the Forest Department declared eight forests in the Mannar district as forest reserves in 2012, increasing the number of forest reserves in the district from three to eight.

Vilaththikulam forest consisting of 2,108 hectares of forest lands, under gazette No 1759/02 issued on May 2, 2012 was declared as a forest reserve from June 10, 2012 .

The controversial issue of deforestation of the Wilpattu National Park was highlighted during this period as some of the forest lands had to be released for resettlement purposes.


Constructions coming up in Vilaththikulam area

The Conservator General of Forests, Sathurusinghe admits that the mechanism and the procedure they had to follow when releasing those lands was not the correct legal procedure. “But of course, we have done whatever we could, to protect the forest and also to release some forest lands for resettlement purposes because it was compelled by the Presidential Task Force ”, he said.

As the then government insisted that the forest land be released for resettlement purposes, and that it should be done speedily, the Forest Department had suggested to appoint a committee consisting of District Secretaries, Divisional Secretaries, representatives of the Presidential Task Force and representatives of the Forest Department to decide on the matter.

Following this decision then Forest Conservator General, K.P. Ariyadasa in a letter dated February 14, 2013, released 2,388 acres; thus, 1,080 from the Mannar district, 983 from Mullaitivu district and 325 acres from the Vavuniya district were released for resettlement purposes.

It included nearly 700 acres of land in Pichcheivanniyakulam from the Vilaththikulam forest reserve located 12 kms north of the northern boundary of the Wilpattu National Park.

However, the latest issue regarding the felling of trees and deforestation is centred around forest lands which have been released in Pichcheivanniyakulam area in the Vilaththikulam forest reserve, in 2013.

According to the Forest Conservator General, the forest lands were released in 2013 to the District Secretary, Mannar ,without removing the trees in the forest lands, though it was the procedure that had to be followed when releasing forest land for resettlement purposes.

Timber value

Therefore, Divisional Secretary, Museli Divsional Secretariat issued instructions to the State Timber Corporation to list out and remove the trees with timber value, from these lands. According to Forest Department officials, the State Timber Corporation from 2013 onwards fell most of the trees with timber value from land released for resettlement purposes and paid the due state share to the Forest Department.

After removing the valuable trees, the then President under section 19(2) of the Land Development Act 944, issued blocs of land on October 12, 2014 to people identified to be resettled in the area.

It was after the completion of this process, from 2013 to 2016, that 438 houses have been constructed in these lands with funds made available by different state agencies and Non Governmental Organizations.

“After completing the process with funds from the Government, the Forest Department took steps to have permanent boundaries for the Vilaththikulam forest reserve, putting up 150 concrete posts, leaving aside the land released for resettlement purpose”, the Forest Conservator General added.

What a certain media institution now highlights are the activities taking place in lands released for resettlement, as some trees with no timber value have been left by the State Timber Corporation.

He said, at present an NGO, Organization for Habitation and Resource Development has started constructing 147 houses in this land released for resettlement, from the Vilathtikulam forest reserve.

The Forest Department officials who visited the area subsequent to news reports highlighting the activities taking place in the area, observed that it was the timber stored for the construction of the 147 houses that have been highlighted as a ‘timber racket going on in the area’.

“We have seen the licence to transport timber for this store and they have timber, such as, mahogany, and coconut timber for the construction of the 147 houses”, Sathurusinghe added. “I can assure that not a single tree within the boundary of the Vilaththikulam forest reserve had been felled, after 2015, as highlighted by certain TV channels.

Therefore, no one can point a finger at the Forest Department for not taking action to protect the forests in the Mannar district. Any decision regarding the expansion of the boundaries of the Wilpattu National Park should be taken after considering all factors, and not on the report by a single TV channel”, Sathurusinghe said. The Forest Department officials also insisted that the morale of the Forest Officers will be affected if any decision is taken without considering the efforts they made to protect these forests, with such sacrifices. Pix: Rukmal Gamage


Ethnic face to Wilpattu issue

According to analysts, any decision to expand the boundaries of the Wilapttu National Park will bounce back as it needs the removal of settlements inside a National Park. This will also take an ethnic face as most of the lands allocated for resettlement is for the Muslim community who were evicted from the Mannar district in 1990.

The Muslim community has already taken the matter as a serious issue against the Muslims and many Muslim civil society leaders, and parliamentarians called on the government to intervene and solve the Wilpattu issue without further delay, and ensure national reconciliation.

Addressing a press briefing at Renuka Hotel, titled, “Our Stand on Wilpattu Issue” organized by the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum on 5 January, they alleged that the latest Wilpattu controversy is based on a political agenda, adding that even during the three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka, Muslims continuously sided with the government, but today, sadly, they are being targeted by the very-side they once supported.

Minister of Rehabilitation, Resettlement & Hindu Religious Affairs M.L.A.M.Hizbullah, Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen, State Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation, A. H. M. Fowzie, Colombo District MP Mujibur Rahman, and President of Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum, N. M. Ameen, and Leader of National Unity Front, Azath Salley, were among those who addressed the January 5 press briefing.

Minister Rishad Bathiudeen said, the latest controversy over Wilpattu resettlement is another “attack on the Northern Muslim IDPs.”

“There are no Muslim families living within Wilpattu reserves. The areas being talked about are out of the boundary of the reserve and legally taken” he said.

Explaining as to how Muslim people are found in these areas, Minister Bathiudeen said: “Muslims who have been living in Maruthamadu GS Division in the Museli Divisional Secretariat were among those who were forcibly expelled from the North by the LTTE. They were victims of ethnic cleansing in these areas. While they are displaced and living elsewhere, on October 10, 2012, the then government issued a gazette notice changing the name of Maruthamadu GS Division to Villathikulam. According to this, 2,800 hectare of forest land was acquired by the Forest Department, using GPS, and lands belonging to IDPs were also in this acquisition. Later, Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) allocated about 208 hectare of lands back to IDPs and the latest issue is created around some of these LLRC allocated lands, incorrectly showing them as being illegally used. This is an attack on the Northern Muslim IDPs. I request the government to resolve this issue.” “Minister Bathiudeen is one of the displaced Northern Muslim IDPs” said Colombo District MP Mujibur Rahman, and added: “Various people with their own agendas are portraying the resettling in LLRC land as an attempt of illegal jungle clearing. It is not true and is against the government’s reconciliation process. Therefore, we call upon the government to resolve this issue without delay.”

Minister Bathiudeen, who is also the Leader of the ACMC, was one of the displaced Northern IDPs fleeing Vanni with his family in October 1990.

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