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Whither the Proposed Elephant Reserve?

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Land grabbing in Hambantota

The following is a shortened version of a communiqué sent to us by the author on behalf of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform

2019 marked the worst year for human-elephant relations. With 405 elephant deaths at the hands of humans and 121 human deaths at the hands of elephants, the year saw a surge in a conflict which has dragged on for decades, if not centuries. Among the root causes are the eviction of elephants from their natural habitat, the fragmentation of their territory, and the use of that territory for development work and for illegal activities.

The recent surge in encounters between elephants and humans has been almost purely due to certain interventions by successive governments, in the Hambantota District, that has led to elephants intruding on human territory and humans encroaching on elephant territory. In that sense, we feel the present government ought to be held to account over two decisions taken by the Cabinet before and after the parliamentary election.

Two fateful decisions

As per the provisions of Circular No 05/2001, issued by the then Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife on August 10, 2001, areas categorised as “residual forests” were taken under the jurisdiction and protection of the Forest Department.

We have learnt from reliable sources that owing to pressures exerted by certain powerful Ministers, moves have been made to amend this Circular and to transfer these areas to Divisional and District Secretariats. This has facilitated the theft and plunder of those lands, among them those demarcated as the site of a Proposed Managed Elephant Rreserve in Hambantota which we will look at below.

Another key decision of this government, after the election, was Gazette Notification No 2192/36, issued by the Land Commissioner General, which sanctions the use of state lands for the purposes of investment and local milk and food production.

Accordingly, applications have been called from interested parties, and once they are received authorities will screen them before giving the green light for the transfer of these lands. We can verify that certain businessmen are, through powerful politicians, lobbying for the transfers of property which belong to the Elephant Reserve.

Some of the affected territories

We have identified four broad areas that these illegal activities have affected. Firstly, 2,000 acres extending from Gonnoruwa to Buruthankanda, encompassing Gal Wewa, Weli Wewa, Kurudana, Katan Wewa, and Galahitiya Wewa, have been marked for bulldozing and will be flattened completely. On the authority of a former Air Commander, moreover, 500 acres in this territory have been cleared to make way for a solar power plant.

Secondly, the Mahaweli Authority released certain lands between the Proposed Elephant Reserve and Madunagala to locals, resulting in the isolation of 18 to 20 elephants. This has considerably heightened the human-elephant conflict in the area.

Thirdly, around 20 elephants are isolated or trapped within a 2,500 acre territory that formed part of a 5,000 acres taken over for the Magampura Port Project. Again, this has led to a heightening of the human-elephant conflict.

Fourthly, the coridoor taken by elephants from Gonnoruwa to the Bundala Wildlife Sanctuary has been wiped off. The path has been obstructed mainly due to deforestation. Once again, it has only contributed to a heightening the human-elephant conflict.

The consequences of not opening the Proposed Preserve

Development projects throughout Hambantota until now has led to the loss of 20,000 acres, to say nothing of a spike in human-elephant encounters that have, in the last three years, caused the deaths of 31 elephants and 15 humans (with eight more villagers disabled for life). It was to remedy these issues that a proposal was made to the Department of Wildlife Conservation to construct a Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve. To date, no progress has been made on this, with the result that forest land ostensibly reserved for the purpose has been flattened to make way for illegal sand, rock, and clay mining.

The vacuum created by the failure to declare the area as belonging to the Reserve has been filled by an unholy trinity of powerful politicians, corporations, and local thugs. The previous regime, moreover, built villages and farms on lands in this area. That speeded the pace at which they were later taken over by various unscrupulous interests.

Authorities have thus far failed to declare the Proposed Reserve and start work on it. That has resulted in a proliferation in illegal transactions and a deterioration in relations between humans and elephants. We shall look at each in turn now.

A snapshot of some of the illegal activities

The ongoing construction of a solar power plant commissioned by various companies has resulted in the clearing of over 600 acres of land in Saddhatissapura and Buruthakanda. The ongoing construction of a “solar village” near Valaspugala and Divulpalassa has affected 300 more acres which elephants used to frequent.

A former Air Force Commander has, through the Mahaweli Authority and by his sanction, reserved around 60 hectares for the construction of the Solar Power Plant. Forty acres have been transferred to a company called Senok, while 20 acres of forest have been cleared. All that, by the way, in violation of the National Environmental Act.

Property developers have managed to transfer to themselves 6,000 acres of prime land encircling Maginkaliyapura,

Gonnoruwa, Katan Wewa, Pahala Andara Wewa, and Kada Idi Wewa. As usual, the most discernible and immediate outcome of this has been a surge in encounters between elephants and humans.

Oil remains a lucrative field, and the localities of Lolugas Wewa, Matigath Wewa, Parenhi Wewa, Lin Wewa, Swarnamali Wewa, and Mayiyan Wewa encompassing some 1,500 acres have been isolated to make way for an oil tank farm. Among other problems, this will affect 90 acres of paddy land adjoining Swarnamali Wewa.

2,000 acres adjoining Hamuduru Wewa, between Sooriya Wewa and Pahala Andara Wewa, have been felled for banana cultivation; eight persons have been identified as running the plantation. The illegal enclosure has been fenced off electrically, disrupting the lives of elephants who used to frequent the area. The villagers of Andara Wewa, Valaspugala, Karuwala Wewa, Tissapura, and Ranamayapura complain of these beasts encroaching into their lands and destroying their livelihoods.

 

Meanwhile, the waters of Andara Wewa are being rapidly drained, leaving precious little for cultivation by resident farmers: a significant threat to an entire way of life.

Can we lay aside the sand, clay, and rock mining operations these illegal land transactions have led to? By no means. In addition to the unauthorised cultivation of crops, forest land in Veheragala which belonged to the Department of Wildlife Conservation has been allocated for stone mining, in addition to areas such as Mayurapura, Seenikkugala, Katan Wewa, Ihala Andara Wewa, Kuda Idi Wewa, Galahitiya, and Gonnoruwa.

What has caused all this?

Two reasons can be pointed at for what’s happening in Hambantota District: the apathy of relevant authorities, especially the Mahaweli Authority, and the spurt in mega-development projects. We shall look at each briefly now.

Regarding the apathy of relevant institutions and authorities, all that needs to be said is that the silence of the Wildlife Conservation Department, the Central Environmental Authority, the Divisional and District Secretariat of Hambantota, and of course the Mahaweli Authority continues to be deafening. Certainly, it is on their doorstep that we lay the blame for what is happening today, not just to the people but also to the environment.

Take the Mahaweli Authority. Around 40% of the land concerned belongs to this institution. As per Section 3(1) of the Mahaweli Authority Act of 1979 and Gazette Notification No 137 dated April 16, 1981, it took over land in the Walawa Division. At no point was forest land in the vicinity taken over to release them later on for development work.

The continued felling of trees and isolation of elephants are in clear violation of the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980. According to Gazette Notification No 772/22 of June 24, 1993, clear, unequivocal permission from authorities is needed for deforestation of land in excess of 2.5 acres. Laws are generally more honoured in the breach than they are in the observance, and as far as these laws, gazettes, and circulars are concerned, there has been very little observance, much less enforcement.

Regarding the mega-development work in the region, we have already noted that it has led to the deforestation of more than 20,000 acres. Three projects in particular have aggravated the problem: the Magampura Harbour, the Mattala International Airport, and the Southern Expressway from Matara to Hambantota. No proper Environmental Impact Assessments have been conducted for them. In the absence of an environmental audit, we are forced to conclude that the beneficiaries of these initiatives, in particular certain Chinese firms, have chosen to ignore their impact on wildlife. We need not add that it has served to aggravate not just deforestation, but also human-elephant encounters.

The need to open the Elephant Reserve

A total of 25 reservoirs belonging to the relevant area in Hambantota come under the purview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, while 17 more come under that of the Mahaweli Authority. The forest area bordering these reservoirs comprise a flourishing ecosystem, preserved for centuries despite the encroachments of colonisers. They contain some of the most diverse hotspots in this part of the world, populated by more than 450 elephants and other birds and beasts. We cannot let them be destroyed at the whims of politicians, corporations, and thugs. They must be preserved.

The road ahead

It is clear that the most immediate solution to these problems is to commence work on the Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve. If not, the illegal transfers of and transactions over land belonging to it will continue, pitting elephants against humans at a level unparalleled in recent history. The protection of natural habitats and areas populated by elephants should thus be our number one priority.

To that end the ongoing transfer of 15,000 acres for the construction of an Investment Zone must stop, at once. We cannot allow development projects to undermine of wildlife conservation. We say this because it is not just the welfare of our generation that we must look to but also that of generations to come. Otherwise, no matter what happens in the short run, in the long run the environmental costs of these projects will outweigh their economic benefits. That obviously does not bode well for anyone.

Sajeewa Chamikara

Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform

Translated by Uditha Devapriya



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Features

Mindset changes and the dangerous ‘Religious War’ rhetoric

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Israeli border police on patrol at the Damascus Gate in occupied East Jerusalem (Pic courtesy Al Jazeera)

Nothing could be more vital at present in the conflict and war zones of the world than positive mindset changes and the wish of the humanist is likely to be that such momentous developments would quickly come to pass in particularly the Middle East. Because in the latter theatre almost every passing hour surfaces problems that call for more than average peace-making capabilities for their resolution.

For instance, the Islamic Supreme Fatwa Council in Palestine has reportedly warned of a ‘Religious War’ in the wake of recent allegations that Israel is planning to prevent the Muslim community from having access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem in the month of Ramadan. If true, this development is likely to further compound the Gaza violence and take it along an even more treacherous track. This is on account of the fact that religious passions, if not managed effectively, could prove most volatile and destructive.

As pointed out in this column previously, peace movements on both sides of the main divide in the region would need to quickly activate themselves, link-up and work as one towards the de-escalation of the conflict. What the Middle East and the world’s other war zones urgently need are persons and groups who are endowed with a pro-peace mind set who could work towards an elimination of the destructive attitudes that are instrumental in keeping the conflicts concerned raging.

This could prove an uphill task in the Middle East in particular. For, every passing minute in the region is seeing a hardening of attitudes on both sides in the wake of issues growing out of the violence. Accordingly, if peace-making is to be contemplated by the more moderate sections in the conflict, first, we need to see a lull in the violence. Achieving such a de-escalation in the violence has emerged as a foremost need for the region.

Right now, the Israeli state is showing no signs of climbing down from its position of seeing a decisive end to the Hamas militants and their support bases and going forward this policy stance could get in the way of de-escalating the violence even to a degree.

On the other hand, it would not be realistic on the part of the world community to expect a mindset change among Israeli government quarters and their supporters unless and until the security of the Israeli state is ensured on a permanent basis. Ideally, the world should be united on the position that Israel’s security is non-negotiable; this could be considered a veritable cornerstone of Middle East peace.

Interestingly, the Sri Lankan state seems to have come round to the above view on a Middle East peace settlement. Prior to the Ranil Wickremesinghe regime taking this stance, this columnist called repeatedly over the past few months in this commentary, in fact since October 7th last year, for the adoption of such a policy. That is, a peace settlement that accords priority to also the security needs of the Israelis. It was indicated that ensuring the security and stability of the Palestinians only would fall short of a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East imbroglio.

However, in the case of the Ranil Wickremesinghe regime, the above change in policy seems to be dictated almost wholly by economic survival considerations rather than by any well thought out principle or a sense of fairness to all relevant stakeholders.

For example, close on the heels of the regime playing host to the Israeli Transport Minister recently, it accorded a reverential welcome to the Iranian Foreign Minister as well. From the viewpoint of a small country struggling to survive, this is the way to go, since it needs every morsel of economic assistance and succour.

However, if permanent peace is to have a chance in the Middle East it would need to be based on the principle of justice to all the main parties to the conflict. Seen from this point of view, justice and fairness should be accorded to the Palestinians as well as the Israelis. Both parties, that is, should live within stable states.

The immediate need, though, is to at least bring a lull to the fighting. This will enable the Palestinian population in the Gaza to access humanitarian assistance and other essential needs. Besides, it could have the all-important effect of tempering hostile attitudes on both sides of the divide.

The US is currently calling for a ‘temporary ceasefire’ to the conflict, but the challenge before Washington is to get the Israeli side to agree to it. If the Israeli Prime Minister’s recent pronouncements are anything to go by, the US proposal is unlikely to make any impression on Tel Aviv. In other words, the Israeli Right is remaining an obstacle to a ceasefire or even some form of temporary relief for the affected populations, leave alone a political solution. However, changing their government is entirely a matter for the Israeli people.

Accordingly, if a stable peace is to be arrived at, hostile, dogmatic attitudes on both sides may need to be eased out permanently. Ideally, both sides should see themselves as having a common future in a peacefully shared territory.

Peace groups and moderate opinion should be at centre stage on both sides of the divide in the region for the facilitation of such envisaged positive changes. The UN and democratic opinion worldwide should take it upon themselves to raise awareness among both communities on the need for a political solution. They should consider it incumbent upon themselves to work proactively with peace groups in the region.

The world is a vast distance from the stage when both parties to the conflict could even toy with the idea of reconciliation. Because reconciliation anywhere requires the relevant antagonists to begin by saying, ‘I am sorry for harming you.’ This is unthinkable currently, considering the enmity and acrimony that have built up over the years among the volatile sections of both communities.

However, relevant UN agencies and global democratic opinion could begin by convincing the warring sections that unless they cooperate and coexist, mutual annihilation could be their lot. Mindset changes of this kind are the only guarantors of lasting peace and mindset changes need to be worked on untiringly.

As this is being written, the ICJ is hearing representations from numerous countries on the Middle East situation. The opinions aired thus far are lopsided in that they do not present the Israeli viewpoint on the conflict. If a fair solution is to be arrived at to the conflict Israel’s concerns too would need to be taken into account expeditiously.

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Features

Dubai scene brightening up for SL fashion designers

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Sri Lankans are lighting up the scene in Dubai, not only as musicians, but in other fields, as well.

At the recently held Ceylon Food Festival, in Dubai, a fashion show was held, with Sri Lankan designers doing the needful.

The fashion show highlighted the creations of Pubudu Jayasinghe, Tehani Rukshika and Peshala Rasanganee Wickramasuriya, in three different segments, with each designer assigned 10 models.

The fashion show was choreographed by Shashi Kaluarachchi, who won the Miss Supermodel Globe International 2020, held in India, and was 1st runner-up at the Mr., Miss and Mrs. Sri Lanka, in Dubai.

Shashi says she was trained by Brian Karkoven and his know-how gave her a good start to her modelling career.

She has done many fashions shows in Sri Lanka, as well as in Dubai, and has worked with many pioneers in the fashion designing field.

The designers involved in the fashion show, in Dubai, were:

Pubudu Jayasinghe,

a 22-year-old creative and skilled makeup artist and nail technician. With a wealth of experience gained from working in various salons and participating in makeup and fashion projects in both Dubai and Sri Lanka, he has honed his talents in the beauty industry. Passionate about fashion, Pubudu has also acquired knowledge and experience in fashion designing, modelling, and choreography, showcasing his multifaceted expertise in the dynamic world of fashion.

Tehani Rukshika,

who studied at St Joseph’s Girls School, Nugegoda, says she went to Dubai, where her mom works, and joined the Westford University in fashion designing faculty for her Masters. Her very first fashion show was a Sri Lankan cultural event, called ‘Batik’. “This was my first event, and a special one, too, as my mom was modelling an Arabic Batik dress.”

Shashi Kaluarachchi

Peshala Rasanganee Wickramasuriya

has been living in Dubai for the past 21 years and has a batik shop in Dubai, called 20Step.

According to Shashi, who is on vacation in Sri Lanka, at the moment, there will be more Sri Lankan fashion shows in Dubai, highlighting the creations of Sri Lankan designers.

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Features

A mask of DATES…

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Yes, another one of my favourites…dates, and they are freely available here, so you don’t need to go searching for this item. And they are reasonably priced, too.

Okay, readers, let’s do it…with dates, of course – making a mask that will leave your skin feeling refreshed, and glowing

To make this mask, you will need 03-04 dates, and 02 tablespoons of milk.

Remove the seeds and soak the dates, in warm milk, for about 20 minutes. This method will soften the dates and make them easier to blend.

After the 20 minutes is up, put the dates in a blender and blend until you have a smooth paste. Check to make sure there are no lumps, or chunks, left.

Add the 02 tablespoons of milk to the blended date paste and mix well.

Okay, now gently apply this mixture to your face, avoiding the eye area. Use your fingertips, or a clean brush, to evenly distribute the mask all over your face.

Once the mask is applied, find a comfortable place to sit, or lie down. Relax for about 15-20 minutes, allowing the mask to work its magic on your skin.

After the mentioned time has passed, rinse off the mask with lukewarm water. Gently massage your face while rinsing to exfoliate any dead skin cells.

After rinsing off the mask, pat dry your face with a soft towel, and then follow up with your favourite moisturizer to lock in the hydration and keep your skin moisturized.

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