Another land grab in Hambantota – in Village in the Jungle

By Dr Prsanna Cooray (The Island ,2017,01,15)

Close on the heels a move to hand over 15,000 acre land to the Chinese in Medilla in the Ambalantota Divisional Secretary Division in Hambantota District, come the news of a land grab comes from another corner of the same district––in the Suriyawewa Divisional Secretary Division. This time around, it is in a village in the jungle called Nabadegaswewa.

The Nabadegaswewa catchment reserve is a stretch of lush vegetation inhabited by a copious array of wildlife. This stretch of land has an exciting history to boost its vital environmental significance. It is home to two important watersheds of the Manamperi and Katuwewa tanks. These reservoirs provides the source of life – water – to the people in the nearby villages for their household and agricultural purposes. About 280 families are directly dependent on these two tanks for their livelihood. It is also a safe haven for the wildlife.

The two tanks and the thicket around also attract the roaming wild elephants, thus preventing them from frequenting the village and the farmlands around. The pachyderms are contented with the abundance of food available for them in the catchment reserve for the most part of the year. Thus, it also serves as an important buffer against the human elephant conflict in the area. The destruction of this interface, needless to say, will pave the way for a serious human elephant conflict in future opine the villagers.

Ven. Wekadawela Rahula Thera, spokesperson for Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies (CENS) and the Chief Incumbent of Kudabibula Raja Maha Vihara, spearheads the campaign to protect the Nabadegaswewa reserve observes. He says: “This reserve prevents a serious human elephant conflict in the area as generally elephants rest there without invading the villages. They find enough food there.”

The catchment reserve is also home to wildlife such as deer, mouse-deer (meeminna), porcupine, rabbit, peacock and jungle fowl. Many valuable trees such as kumbuk (Terminalia arjuna), mee (Madhuca longifolia), kohomba (neem/ Azadirachta indica), siyambala (tamarind/ Tamarindus indica), kos (jak/ Artocarpus heterophyllus) and magul karada (Pongamia pinnata) are also found in abundance in this stretch of land.

The Thera adds: “For the villagers this reserve is very precious. It is something they inherited, preserved and further enhanced over the years. This is also the watershed of the two tanks, Manamperi and Katuwewa, which are the main sources of water for the villages around.”

Part of this reserve was once planted by the villagers with the assistance of Mahaweli Authority (MA), a take home example of community forestry project. The stretch of land in the thick of controversy comes under the MA.

But, one fine day in December, the Road Development Authority’s (RDA) heavy machinery stormed the area in a deforestation frenzy. According to the villagers, the RDA already had cleared about eight acres of the thick catchment reserve.

The RDA’s involvement comes from the claim that the land clearing was done for the resettlement of the families to be displaced by the construction of phase III of the southern highway, the stretch between Matara and Hambantota. However, so far there haven’t been any notices issued to the families who are said to be losing their land, thus the RDA’s claim has raised many an eyebrow and it project is viewed with suspicion.

According to the MA’s letter dated 19.10.2016. it has issued permission to the RDA to acquire four acres of bare land “free of trees” from the lot B 6836 of the Nabadegaswewa area. Based on this letter the RDA has embarked on the forest clearing act. It further states it has cleared less than four acres, and that, too, was on a barren stretch of land free of trees. However, the truth could be ascertained only by visiting the location. The pictures of the site of controversy released by the CENS clearly show stumps of large trees, contrary to the claims of both MA and RDA. The Survey Department could determine the exact extent of the destruction of the forest.

Both MA and RDA maintain that the clearing of this particular forest stretch does not need an EIA!

The villagers were swift to act against the mindless destruction of forest by the aforesaid two authorities. Their do-or-die protests caused the RDA to halt jungle clearing and withdraw its heavy machinery.

The National Environmental (Amendment) Act No. 56 of 1988 clarifies the need to conduct an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to any development activity in such restricted terrain.

Director of Environment Conservation Trust, environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara points, “The government notification number 772/22 dated 18.06.1993. under the National Environmental Act, No. 47 of 1980, as amended by Act, No. 56 of 1988 clearly stipulates such clearing of forest land over 1 hectare in extent needs a prior Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).”

When the country’s laws are such, two governmental agencies, MA and RDA, hand in glove, have come together in this blatant forest destruction act, 250 km away from Colombo!

How come their crime has gone unnoticed?

And, are the people who live in far flung villages considered mere pushovers? If so, the humble villagers of Nebadagaswewa have shown it’s not gonna be the case. Let them be praised for their courage and love for the environment.

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