Monk at the centre of sandalwood scandal

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The villagers of Nakolagane in Galgamuwa are up in arms against alleged moves by the chief monk of the Purana Raja Maha Viharaya to hand over large tracts of forested land to a multinational company.

Around 600 acres, believed to belong to the viharaya, are allegedly to be handed over to the multinational company to be cleared and developed into a sandalwood (handun) plantation over a period of three years, the Sunday Times learns.As hectic surveying activity took place and bulldozers allegedly rumbled into the area to cut roads, slogan-shouting and placard-carrying villagers held a protest near the temple on June 12.

The protesters were not only from Nakolagane but also from the neighbouring villages of Aththimale, Eriyawa, Palukadawala, Weheragodayaya, Badalgama and Divulwewa – villages coming under the Ehatuwewa Divisional Secretariat in the Kurunegala district.

In desperation, they have also banded together as the ‘Parisara Surakeeme Ekamuthwa’ to prevent the forest being cleared and protect the environment. The society which initially had around 30 members has now swelled to more than 700.

“The problem started about 15 days ago,” said W.M. Wije Kumarapala, president of this society, explaining that the monk summoned a meeting to inform them that he wished to give 50 acres of land to several families which did not have houses.

However, suddenly they found that surveying was being carried out and bulldozers were being deployed and there was massive destruction. The land was to be handed over to a multinational company, he alleged, describing what the disastrous consequences would be.

It would have a massive impact on all the wild animals in the area such as wild boar, deer, porcupine and more, according to him. While the villagers’ chena (slash-and-burn) cultivations would also be affected, the biggest issue is that the area has many elephants. The moment the jungles are cleared, the elephants will rampage through the villages and the chenas.

The presence of elephants in the area was confirmed by sources at the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Environmentalists are of the view that the destruction of the forests would greatly increase the human-elephant conflict.

“This area which is being cleared is also the catchment of the Palukada wewa which would be affected and, in turn, the cultivations too due to a scarcity of water,” says Mr. Kumarapala, adding that another danger would be the heavy use of pesticides for such commercial cultivations which would pollute this water body.

As the villagers have decided to seek the support of national conservation groups such as the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, an environmentalist pointed out that under the National Environment Act, No. 47 of 1980, Section 23 Y (772/22), if an area of forest of over one hectare is to be cleared, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) is mandatory.

Meanwhile, attempts to contact the chief monk on his mobile and landline proved futile.



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