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‘New directive sidelining Forest Dept. will place 690,000ha of forest in jeopardy’

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Environmentalists, scientists and animals lovers protest

by Ifham Nizam

Environmentalists, scientists and animals lovers warned that the removal of small fragmented forests from the jurisdiction of the Forest Department by amending circular 5/2005 will place 690,000 hectares of forest in jeopardy and destroy wildlife habitats.

Rally For Animal Rights & Environment (RARE) cautioned the move will not only wipe out animals but also destroy endangered and protected species.

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) said it is disconcerted to note the downsizing of forest lands managed by Divisional Secretaries in terms of a circular issued by the Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation (rescinding previous circulars), which now authorizes the management of all other forest lands to the Conservator General of Forests.

The new directive permits the Conservator General of Forests to release lands for non-forest purposes, it said.

“The new circular has been issued without understanding the present laws, amendments, definitions and the mandate of the issuing officer,” a legal activist said.

Attorney–at-Law Ravindranath Dabare said under sections 1 and 2 of the circular MWFC/1/2020 issued by Bandula Harischandara, Secretary, Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation, the subject matter is Residual Forest, which does not exist in Sri Lanka under the Forest Ordinance or other ordinances.

The term used here is misleading as the amended Forest Ordinance 65/2009 considers some forest areas as “any other forest” or “forest other than a Conservation Forest, Reserved Forest or Village Forest”, he noted.

Section 2 of the circular also refers to “residual forest”, which doesn’t come under any law, regulation or other constitutional provision etc. There are no such forests/land in Sri Lanka as all lands/forests come under the law of the land or departmental regulations in the country, he asserted.

The new circular will allow releasing forest lands for non-forest uses subject to selected ad-hoc guidelines, Dabare warned.

“As we understand, the definition “any other forest”, which are other than nature reserves and conservation forests will now come under the jurisdiction of the Forest Ordinance amendment No 65/2009. Although, the Secretary has the power to cancel the previous circulars, the new law does not provide provisions to release the “other forests” for intended purposes”, the lawyer further said.

The circular outlines that forest lands will be “used for economic or other productive uses”. This means converting forest into non-forest uses, he continued. He added that the type of forests which the Secretary is willing to dispose of under the requires an EIA under the National Environmental Act.

CEJ Executive Director, Hemantha Withanage told The Sunday Island: “It’s very sad to see government officers being directed to deregulate forests, which will result in mass forest grabbing and environmental destruction and disasters. We vehemently oppose this undemocratic move and demand the cancellation of the new circular and respect the existing Forest Act (as amended) and the National Environmental Act (as emended).”

He said under the previous Rajapaksa regime, the Forest Department worked towards a the target of increasing the forest cover of the country to 35 per cent from 24 percent at the time. The coverage was then increased to 29 percent adding plantations as forests. As achieving 35 per cent forest cover target was not easy, it was reduced to 32 per cent by the next government.

This target remains unchanged. It is obvious that other forests play a key role in increasing the forest cover in Sri Lanka. If not, the Forest Department will have to declare grass lands also as forests, he added.



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Constitutional error could give Ranil and Parliament another year

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ECONOMYNEXT –Sri Lanka’s constitution could allow President Ranil Wickremesinghe to extend his tenure by almost a year due to a mistake in the constitution that has been overlooked since the 19th Amendment in April 2015.

The sweeping 19th Amendment sought to establish democratic reforms, ensure good governance, and shorten the terms of both the president and parliament to five years. However, it neglected to ensure consistency regarding tenure.

While all references to the six-year terms of both the president and parliament were changed to five years in line with the 19th Amendment, Article 83(b) was overlooked and left unchanged, giving President Wickremesinghe a loophole to extend his term.

Any bill to extend the five-year term of the president or parliament requires approval in parliament with a two-thirds majority, followed by endorsement at a referendum.

However, under Article 83(b), such a referendum is required only if the bill extends the term to over six (6) years, not five (5) years as it should have been.

This means that, technically, Wickremesinghe could extend his own term and that of parliament by 11 months and 29 days without breaching the constitution.

Political analysts note that this must also be read in conjunction with feelers put out by UNP’s General Secretary Range Bandara that Wickremesinghe should be given more time at the helm and the country was not ready to hold a presidential election later this year.

Here is Article 83:

(83). Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the provisions of Article 82 –

(a) A Bill for the amendment or for the repeal and replacement of or which is inconsistent with any of the provisions of Articles 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 or of this Article; and

(b) A Bill for the amendment or for the repeal and replacement of or which is inconsistent with the provisions of paragraph (2) of Article 30 or of paragraph (2) of Article 62 which would extend the term of office of the President, or the duration of Parliament, as the case may be, to over six years, shall become law if the number of votes cast in favour thereof amounts to not less than two-thirds of the whole number of Members (including those not present), is approved by the People at a Referendum, and a certificate is endorsed thereon by the President in accordance with Article 80.

This is Article 30 in full:

30. (1) There shall be a President of the Republic of Sri Lanka, who is the Head of the State, the Head of the Executive and of the Government, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. (2) The President of the Republic shall be elected by the People and shall hold office for a term of five years.

This is Article 62 in full:

62. (1) There shall be a Parliament which shall consist of two hundred and twenty-five Members elected in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.

(2) Unless Parliament is sooner dissolved, every Parliament shall continue for five years from the date appointed for its first meeting and no longer, and the expiry of the said period of five years shall operate as a dissolution of Parliament.

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The ‘duped’ Sri Lankans fighting in Russia’s Ukraine war

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Russian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Levan Dzhagaryan (L) with State Minister for Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya during a press conference in Colombo in May. Ishara S. Kodikara

by Amal JAYASINGHE

(AFP) When Sri Lanka’s economy crashed in 2022, people sought work abroad wherever they could find it — including ex-soldiers who joined forces fighting in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion.

Now the veterans — some of whom swapped their life savings for what they thought would be lucrative, non-combat jobs — are desperate to come back home.

“What we ask is to help bring back our husbands,” said Renuka Karunaratne, 49, who said her husband was duped into going to Russia by a devious agent.

Colombo’s parliament set up an inquiry last month to track at least 2,000 battle-hardened Sri Lankans who reportedly enlisted on both sides of the Ukraine war, including in the regular armed forces and mercenary groups.

With no communication for months, and reports of at least 16 Sri Lankans killed and 37 wounded, distraught families are pleading with politicians for help.

The government says around a dozen Sri Lankans are being held prisoners of war in Ukraine, after being lured there in pursuit of work.

Advertisements shared on WhatsApp groups of retired military personnel promised monthly salaries of more than $2,100, 13 times the average income in Sri Lanka.

Promises were also made of plots of land in Russia, where foreign fighters and their families could settle.

Karunaratne said she and her husband paid $10,000 to an employment agent to get the job.

“We have sold everything we owned, including jewellery,” she said while demonstrating outside the Russian embassy in Colombo last week.

“We have mortgaged a part of our house too.”

An unprecedented economic crisis in early 2022 saw Sri Lanka run out of foreign exchange to import food, fuel and other essentials — and ultimately default on its external debt.

Nilmini Chandima Dissanayake, 41, said hardship stemming from the downturn pushed her ex-soldier husband to go to Russia, more than 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) away.

“My husband was in the commando regiment for 22 years,” Dissanayake told AFP. “He had retired, he did some odd jobs, but found it was not enough to manage.”

She has not heard from him since May 1, one month after he arrived in Moscow to take up what he thought was a non-combatant role.

“His last call was to plead to get him back home, to save his life,” she said.

“Every passing day they lose hope of surviving.”

The war in Ukraine has taken a heavy toll on Russian troops, and Moscow has been on a global quest for more forces to fight.

Sri Lanka has maintained a large military relative to its 22-million population since the end of a decades-long civil war against the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009.

Moscow is believed to have hired thousands of foreign combatants, many of them from South Asia.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine will say how many foreigners are serving in their militaries or how many they are holding as prisoners of war.

In parliament, Sri Lankan deputy defence minister Premitha Tennakoon did not specify how many citizens were fighting on each side of the conflict.

Colombo has remained neutral in the Ukraine war, but reports that Russian authorities supported the recruitment of ex-soldiers from Sri Lanka have sparked tensions.

Police have arrested two retired Sri Lankan generals for illegally acting as recruiting agents for Russian mercenary firms, as well as six people who allegedly helped them with logistics.

tate minister for foreign affairs Tharaka Balasuriya said Sri Lanka was pushing Ukraine to release prisoners of war, and would send a delegation to Moscow.

“If Sri Lankans are in a dangerous situation, it’s the duty of the government… to ensure that they are safely returned,” Balasuriya said.

The Sri Lankan foreign ministry said Tuesday that Moscow agreed not to recruit anymore Sri Lankans to their military.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry raised the issue with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the BRICS ministerial meeting in Moscow on Monday, the ministry said.

“It was also agreed that no further recruitment from Sri Lanka will be done,” the ministry said.

Moscow will accept a delegation from Sri Lanka on June 26 to “review these issues in detail and take suitable action to arrest the situation”, the ministry statement said.

Russian ambassador Levan S. Dzhagaryan said “a lot” of visas had been issued to Sri Lankans, but insisted that they had not told the embassy why they wanted to go to Moscow.

“Why are you talking only about Russia?” the ambassador challenged reporters last month in Colombo. “Why don’t you talk about Ukraine?”

At least 22 Sri Lankans who joined Russian forces have managed to desert, escape and return home, defence officials said.

“They were duped,” defence ministry spokesman Nalin Herath told AFP.

Hotel driver Anil Madusanka, 37, is one of them.

“Many people have (economic) problems,” said Madusanka, now recovering at his home outside Colombo after seven terrifying weeks in Russia. “That’s why they go to Russia or Ukraine.”

He thought he would swap driving tourists for a promised job driving in Russia — but was handed an assault rifle instead and sent to the battlefront to face Ukrainian forces.

He was wounded by shrapnel that tore into both his legs.

From a hospital, he fled to the Sri Lankan embassy in Moscow, which arranged his repatriation last month.

“I am lucky to have escaped,” he said.

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IMF releases Sri Lanka loan despite restructure delays

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Washington (District of Columbia, United States) The International Monetary Fund released $336 million as part of a bailout loan instalment for Sri Lanka despite delays in the crucial restructuring of its foreign debt, including to China, the Washington-based lender said Wednesday.

The South Asian nation was starting to recover, but the economy was “still vulnerable and the path to debt sustainability remains knife-edged,” the IMF said after its latest review.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its external debt in April 2022 after the country ran out of foreign exchange to finance even essential imports such as food, fuel and medicine.

Months of protests forced then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down after being accused of corruption and mismanagement and pushing the island into its worst economic crisis.

The IMF board on Wednesday endorsed a staff-level agreement reached with Colombo in March to release the third tranche of a four-year $2.9 billion bailout.

The board welcomed Sri Lanka’s efforts to reach debt restructure deals, but said the country must swiftly finalize agreements with bilateral lenders, private creditors and the Export-Import Bank of China.

“Directors stressed the importance of seeking comparable, transparent, and timely completion of restructurings with external private creditors consistent with program targets,” the IMF said in a statement.

Beijing accounts for around 10 percent of the island’s total foreign debt.China had agreed “in principle” to restructure Sri Lanka’s debt in December, but neither Colombo nor Beijing had given details and the two are yet to strike a deal.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has raised sales and personal income taxes, cut energy subsidies and pushed reforms and austerity measures in line with the IMF rescue deal.Sri Lanka’s annual debt servicing is officially estimated at $6.0 billion with external debt, including government guaranteed borrowings, at $41.5 billion at the end of 2023, according to treasury data.

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