Illegal Seizure Of Lands

by Hafsa Sabry -Sunday leader
The conservative wetlands of Sri Lanka have been grabbed legally and illegally for several purposes threatening the natural habitats of many creatures of the wild and the livelihoods of people who rely on it. These lands were used for various purposes such as agriculture and the tourism industry by international companies.
One such activity that vastly effects the environment was reported from the Moneragala district as one of the international companies in Sri Lanka ‘Dole Multinational Company’ was alleged to have used the conservative lands for cultivation of Cavendish Banana, a hybrid variety of the plant the environmentalists claimed.
The lands used by the villagers for cultivation purposes are now being used by the company without even a valid permit from the government bodies alleged the environmentalists. Even though the government authorities were informed about the illegal land encroachment they did not take action against them as the lands were already used for large cultivation.
Nevertheless, the Director of the Centre for Environment and Nature Studies (CENS) Ravindra Kariyawasam said that the company is now using a large number of lands where they cultivate Cavendish bananas.
Lands granted to Dole Company for Cavendish cultivation – Monaragala district are as follows:
The lands located in the watershed areas of Kirinidi Oya and Menik Ganga feed Lunugamwehera and Weheragala reservoirs respectively. However, these catchment areas are mostly lost due to illegal land grabbing by the Dole Multinational Company. For example, water in Kiridi Oya is being used for the banana cultivation along the Kuda Oya while, water in Menik Ganga is used for the cultivation lands in Wandama and Wekada.
As a result, farmers from the downstream areas, particularly those under Lunugamwehera reservoir and Ellegala face a shortage of water and irrigational purposes for their crops and plants that led to some of them abandoning their cultivation and working for the company. In addition the five tank system and Veheragala tank are also in need of water as the company uses the resources for their cultivation.
Meanwhile, the wild elephants and the animals in sanctuaries like Yala and Lunugamwehera in the downstream areas are also threatened as the company uses most of the water Kariyawasam added.According to Kariyawasam as the electrical fences have been setup for the protection of this cultivation, wild elephants roaming in the jungle areas have lost access to their routes and started entering into villages creating hitherto unknown level of human-elephant conflicts.
Kariyawasam further stated that these areas are some of the places where people are threatened by the wild elephants damaging their crops and households as the cultivation lands in the reserved areas and elephant corridors are expanded.
The catchments areas of Menik ganga and Kirindi Oya are Mahaaragama, Pubudugama, Ulkanda, Thalakolawewa, Handapanagala, Nelugala, Weherayaya, Randeniyaya, Thelulla, Siripuragama, Adawelayaya, Anapallama, Weliara, Dambeara, Balaharuwa, Hambegamuwa and Thanamalwila where the company has expanded the cultivation harming the wild animals.
As the wild elephants damage the village farmers’ crops some of them have given up cultivation as their expenditure for repairing the damage is higher than their income. “It is unfortunate that this large scale land grabbing for banana cultivations is made with the blessings of a few politicians in the area creating chaos for people, animals and nature while violating the laws applicable to National Environmental Act (NEA),” said Kariyawasam.
However,Moneragala is not the only district where this particular international company has encroached into the reserved lands for cultivation purposes but also in MaiyanganayaUlhitiy nearly 1500 acres from the 4th km post at Maiyanganaya- Giraduru Kotte Road up to Ulhitiya tank catchment and 3000 acres in the Polonnaruwa Somawathiya Forest Reserve. The company is also alleged to have encroached into approximately 15,000 acres in the Chunnakkadu forest reserve. Adding insult to the damage of the environment the company have cleared the forest lands to cultivate Cavendish bananas. Nevertheless, the land used by the Dole Company in Ulhitiya in Maiyangana area is one of the reserved lands and the catchment of Ulhitiya Reservoirin Sri Lanka that belongs to the Mahaweli Authority prior to being used by the Dole Company.
The elephant corridor that crosses this path is also disturbed causing the elephants to enter into the villages. Even though the company has obtained approval from the Wildlife Department Conservation for the banana cultivation in 3000 acres of the Somawathiya Wild life Reserve it cannot be done even by the authority as it is not authorised to give away the reserved lands but to protect them. As the Flora and fauna Act notes that the entry to the areas declared as conservatives is strictly prohibited for the general public, in such a backdrop clearing the forest reserves for cultivation purposes is against the laws applicable to the protection of environmental laws of Sri Lanka.
It is reported that the Dole Company has grabbed 165,000 acres of land in Sri Lanka for the cultivation of Cavendish banana for exporting with the support of politicians and officials who have been bribed for this purpose. “The company has begun cultivating Cavendish banana as the normal banana cultivation was ruined by the Fusarium wilt fungus that has affected the banana cultivation in Asia and Africa,” Kariyawasam stated. It was reported that the fungus has reached some of the banana cultivation regions in Australia as well he added.
Kariyawasam also alleged that the Dole Company apart from its own cultivation has implemented Cavendish banana cultivation activities through the local farmers who use excessive fertilizers, agrochemicals and pest controllers without a proper knowledge of harming the water resources of the country. These results in damaging the environment, human-elephant conflict and damaging the soil and causing floods in the areas as well, Kariyawasam lamented. It was also reported that the human elephant conflict is on increase in the Girandurukotte area due to the deforestation.
Nonetheless, the forests are being cleared violating the paragraph 7 of the Forest conservation Act No.65 amended in 2009. It is an offence to enter a forest without permission, stay therein, fell timber, clear forests, cultivate crops in forest areas, construct roads and buildings in them. Agencies like the Mahaweli Authority helps implement deforestation activities irrespective of the legal measures provided in country’s legal acts Kariyawasam alleged.
According to provisions provided in the Forest Conservation Act, a person committing offences under the Act or supporting can be fined an amount not less than Rs.10, 000 and not exceeding Rs.100, 000 or imprisoned for a period not exceeding five years. The court also can order offenders to compensate for the damages caused to the forest area through offensive activities.
In case of the Government Forest lands falling under Paragraph 20 of the Act, offences such as forest clearing etc. are punishable offences. The Mahaweli Authority implements its settlement and other so called development programmes violating the law related to preservation and conservation of forests in the country. It is unfortunate that the Forest Conservation Department does not take any legal action against the Mahaweli Authority for the damages being done to the valuable forest resources in the country.
However, the Department of Forest Conservation Sri Lanka (DFC) claims that the lands were already taken and were used for large scale cultivation therefore the Company will be subjected to pay compensation to the government. The forest department will be vigilant in arresting such illegal activities in the reserved areas of the forest and the wild preventing any international or local companies from intruding the reserved lands of the island

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