… will spell doom for farmers, forests……
By Rathindra Kuruwita
The Cabinet on 30 August 30 approved a proposal for handing over 6% of the total land area in the Anuradhapura District to a private company to grow aloe vera, and this will have a disastrous impact on the environment, climate and human elephant conflict in the North Central and North Western Provinces, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) says.
The Cabinet had approved a paper jointly presented by Minister of Finance Basil Rajapaksa and Minister of Lands S. M. Chandrasena for the handover of 104,066 acres (42,115 hectares) of Anuradhapura land to a private company on a long-term lease of 30 years, Chamikara said.
“Although the project was officially approved only a few weeks ago, the company had been illegally using large swathes of land, used by farmers of Rajanganaya Track 18 village as well as lands that had been under the control of the Forest Department for over three years. These lands have been illegally acquired without the approval of any state institution,” Chamikara said.
The 104,066 acres earmarked for the project include 2,000 acres in Rajanganaya and Nochchiyagama Divisional Secretariat areas, earmarked as a plant nursery, 102,000 acres from several areas of the Anuradhapura District for planting aloe vera and another 66 acres for a factory, a field office and storage units, Chamikara said.
“These lands are to be handed over on a 30-year lease as well as per the provisions of the State Lands Ordinance. The 102,000 acres, to be used as the aloe vera plantation, consists of cultivated lands belonging to families who had been living in these lands for a long time. These are farmers who have been given state land under various schemes. They hold various land titles. The total investment in this project is US $ 783 million. The Cabinet Paper states that US $ 300 million will come into the country as the initial investment,” he said.
Chamikara added that the total land area of Anuradhapura was 717,900 hectares. Out of this, 42, 115 hectares had been allocated to the aloe vera project. The project would make aloe vera the second largest cultivated crop in the district,after paddy, he said.
“However, is it correct to allocate such a vast land area for the cultivation of aloe vera for export? What is the land use pattern of Anuradhapura? It appears that the Cabinet has not considered this. According to the Land Use Policy Planning Department there are 88, 859 hectares of home gardens in the Anuradhapura District, which is 12% of the total land area. There are 6,494 hectares of permanent crops, banana and coconut cultivations in the district too. This is 1% of the total land area. There are 161,752 hectares of paddy land, 23% of the total land area. There are also 87,510 hectares of yearly crops and chena cultivations as well (12% of the land in the district),” he said.
Chamikara said that the total land used for agriculture in Anuradhapura encompassed 344,615 hectares, and out of this, 12% would now be allocated for the aloe vera plantation. Given the significant land use, the impact of the project on the food production of the country should be estimated, he said, adding that at least the revenue generated by exporting aloe vera must be compared to the loss incurred by the reduction in food production. Given that food prices were increasing across the world, the impact the project would have on the food security of the country must not be underestimated, Chamikara said.
“The water sources spread across the district is the foundation of agriculture in Anuradhapura. These water sources, i.e., tanks, rivers, streams, canals, marshes, etc., amounts to 67,630 hectares, which is 10% of the land area in the district. These water sources depend on surrounding areas that act as catchments. There are 175,627 hectares of thick forests in the district, which is 25% the total land area. There are also 116,889 hectares of shrub and open forests, 16% of the total land area. The remaining 13,139 hectares of the district consist of built areas, rocks and sand mounds. When compared to overall forest lands in the district, it is around 14% of such lands. Most forests are linked to the eastern, southeastern, and southern borders of Wilpattu National Park,” he said.
Chamikara said that if forest lands were not used for the project, the government would have to acquire land already used by farmers for the project. It in turn would force a section of farmers to clear forest land as land available for agriculture was reduced because of the project. The clearing of forests will in turn lead to a water scarcity in the district and many farmers will not be able to cultivate during both Yala and Maha seasons. That would start a vicious cycle, he said.
“As per the Cabinet paper, most of the land earmarked for the project belong to farmers settled under various land grant schemes. Most of the chena lands are cultivated only during the Maha season. These lands are left vacant between June and September. This is usually the dry season and these abandoned chena lands become feeding grounds for wild animals including elephants. When such chena lands are used for aloe vera cultivation, the human – elephant conflict of the region will worsen. This would also endanger more farms.
The human – elephant conflict prevails in Puttalam, Kurunegala, Mannar and Polonnaruwa districts, which borders Anuradhapura. Thus, any change for the worse in Anuradhapura would also spill over to these adjoining districts,” he said.
“While aloe vera is a plant with high medicinal value, planting aloe vera as a monocrop on a large scale would lead to many issues”, Chamikara warned, saying that if the company cleared land to plant aloe vera, there will be soil erosion. The eroded soil would find its way into the tanks, rivers, canals, and other water sources in the area. It would lead to diminished carrying capacity in those water sources, which would in turn have a devastating impact on farmers in the area. Moreover, given the severe soil erosion, the farmland would have to be continuously fertilised, and this would lead to other issues in the future.
“On the other hand, during the dry season there is heavy evaporation of water in the soil in an aloe vera plantation. This, in turn, will have an impact on groundwater leading to a serious lack of water for farming and drinking purposes. Aloe vera will be an excellent plant for mixed cropping in home gardens. However, the results will be less than optimal when one tries to plant them en masse as a monocrop,” he said.
Chamikara said, “During recent years, there has been a significant spike in the human – elephant conflict in the dry zone due to the massive expansion of maize and sugar cane plantations in swathes of cleared forest lands.
“The expansion of these large commercial agro enterprises have displaced elephants from their natural grazing areas and have obstructed their ability to move from one forest area to another. Thus, the elephants are compelled to invade human settlements. Small-scale farmers unable to cope with the increasing threat from elephants were selling their lands to big companies.
“Between 1990 and 2000, on average, 150 elephants and 40 humans died per year due to the human – elephant conflict. However, between 2010 and 2018, elephant deaths have increased to 275 and human deaths to 80 per year. The situation became worse in 2019, when 406 elephants and 122 humans died in conflict. In 2020, 307 elephants and 112 humans died. With this project the human – elephant conflict in Anuradhapura District and adjoining areas will further increase,” he said.
All out attempts to contact the company concerned on the telephone number given on its website failed.
No immediate hike in fuel prices – Udaya
Finance Minister rules out bailout package for CPC
By Rathindra Kuruwita
Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has told Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila that the Treasury is not in a position to assist the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). However, there would not be a fuel price hike in the short term, the Minister of Energy told the media yesterday.
Minister Gammanpila said that if a fuel hike was on the cards, he would announce it publicly.
“This is what I did last time also. This time around, I have told the people that we are facing a serious problem. We incur a loss of Rs. 15 on a litre of petrol and a loss of Rs 16 on a litre of diesel. The Chairman of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) has asked for a price increase,” he said.
Gammanpila said he told the Chairman of the CPC that they should first seek assistance from the Treasury. Given that prices of all essential items had increased, a significant increase in fuel prices would cause great inconvenience to the people, he said.
“At the last Cabinet meeting, I asked the Finance Minister for assistance. He said it was hard to provide assistance and was non-committal. I will again take the matter up at the next Cabinet meeting,” he said.
The government was discussing the possibility of obtaining a 3.6 billion US dollar credit line for fuel from Oman. Sri Lanka spent around USD 300 million on oil imports per month and the credit line would allow for a year of fuel supply at concessionary rates, the Minister said.
“If we get this credit line, we should be able to weather this storm. Otherwise, I will ask the Cabinet for relief. While people are suffering, we can’t also let the CPC go bankrupt. If CPC goes bust, the People’s Bank and Bank of Ceylon will be in deep trouble too,” the Minister said.
Gammanpila added that there was no point in queuing at fuel stations because a decision to increase fuel takes a few months to be approved. For example the previous hike in June was first proposed in April. “If takes a few months for such a proposal to be approved and implemented. I was told that people were queuing at fuel stations last Monday and Wednesday.”
JVP calls for multi-agency probe into Rs. 4 bn. Gin-Nilwala scam
Ex Prez can assist inquiry
By Shamindra Ferdinando
JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake says a comprehensive multi-agency investigation is required to get to the bottom of what he called the massive Gin Nilwala scam perpetrated in 2012 and 2015.
In spite of disclosures in that regard, both in and outside Parliament, over a period of time, absolutely nothing had been done so far, lawmaker Dissanayake told The Island.
The government owed an explanation why over Rs 4 bn had been paid to a Chinese firm, in Dec 2012, and on January 7, 2015, as the project was yet to get off the ground, MP Dissanayake said.
The JVPer said that he felt the need to highlight the Gin Nilwala scam against the backdrop of the Pandora Papers exposure of former Deputy Minister Nirupama Rajapaksa’s husband, Thirukumar Nadesan, as the Chinese company, allegedly involved in the Gin Nilwala project had moved money to a foreign account, in Hong Kong, held by the businessman.
Asked whether the Gin Nilwala scam, too, had been dealt by Pandora Papers, MP Dissanayake said as far as he knew Pandora Papers’ disclosure didn’t include the Gin Nilwala project.
Responding to another query, lawmaker Dissanayake said that though the then President Maithripala Sirisena questioned the Gin Nilwala project, the yahapalana government never investigated the issue properly.
MP Dissanayake said it wouldn’t be a difficult task to establish the transferring to a foreign account of Rs one bn in Dec 2012 and the over Rs. 3 bn on January 7, 2015, the day before the presidential election. Since the release of Pandora Papers, the video footage of former President Sirisena, now an SLPP MP, on the Gin Nilwala project had gone viral, the MP said.
The JVP leader said that the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) should inquire into the matter as part of the ongoing examination of matters relating to Thirukumar Nadesan in respect of Pandora Papers.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Oct. 06 instructed CIABOC to inquire into Sri Lankans mentioned in Pandora Papers. Nadesan, too, also on the same day, asked President Rajapaksa to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations by appointing a retired Appeals Court Judge for the task. The CIABOC has recorded Nadesan’s statement in this regard.
MP Dissanayake alleged that successive governments had conveniently turned a blind eye to major cases of corruption. The very basis of parliamentary control over public finance was under threat, MP Dissanayake said, urging the government to take remedial measures or face the consequences. “Billions of rupees had been moved around, misappropriated and squandered. Those responsible for ensuring the proper practices are accused of exploiting the system. What is happening now is tragic,” MP Dissanayake said.
The JVPer said that examination of proceedings of the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), COPA (Committee on Public Finance) and COPF (Committee on Public Finance) since the last general election revealed a frightening situation. The reports before the last general election were no exception, the parliamentarian said, the level of corruption in the public sector and the private-public sector joint ventures was horrifying. The national economy was being mercilessly exploited by persons holding office, the JVP leader said, the CIABOC could examine proceedings of the parliamentary watchdog committees if it was genuinely interested in stamping out corruption.
MP Dissanayake said that the national economy was in such a desperate situation thanks to decades of waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence on the part of political parties in power. “Today, we are seeking finance assistance from various countries. Recently, Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris revealed he discussed ways and means to overcome financial crisis with the visiting Indian Foreign Secretary,” he said.
Inter-provincial travel restrictions extended to Oct 21
Inter-provincial travel restrictions have been extended to October 21, the Presidential Media Division (PMD) said issuing a press release yesterday.
The PMD added that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed the security forces to strictly enforce the inter-province travel restrictions during the weekend.
The decision was taken at the COVID-19 Prevention Committee meeting held Friday (15) morning.
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