Environmentalists, Conservationists and the political opposition are strenuously objecting to the decision by the government to hand over the management of “Other State Forests (OSF)” to Divisional/Districts Secretaries alleging the move would be disastrous for the forest cover and biodiversity in the country.
It was in July this year that the Cabinet first mooted the idea of handing the management of these lands earlier referred to as “State Residual Forests” by abolishing circular 05/2001 which had transferred the management of these lands from the Divisional/District Secretaries to the Forest Department.
The July Cabinet decision was forwarded to the then Minister of Environment to study the matter and present a mechanism that could vest such lands back with the Divisional/District Secretaries, so they could be released for “economically productive purposes.”
Fears were raised at that time that Divisional/District Secretaries would come under undue pressure to release these forest lands for purposes that would harm the environment.
In a letter dated July 3, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna wrote to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa urging him to revoke the planned abolition of circular 05/2001.
The letter said that the management of the forests had been given to the Forest Department owing to “gross mismanagement and abuse of these forest reserves by giving portions of these lands to their friends as well as politicians who intervened and used their influence to grab large areas of land which led to deforestation and destruction.”
The letter also said that it is the opinion of “Senior Environmentalists that this decision could cause extensive damage to the environment, largely reduce the extent of forest cover and potentially destroy the endemic fauna and flora specific to different regions of the country.”
Nevertheless, on November 4, the Ministry of Wildlife & Forest Conservation by virtue of a cabinet circular MWFC/1/2020 assigned District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries the power to utilise these lands ‘for economic and other productive uses.’
The new circular does mention, however, that any such activity should be carried out ‘without harming the environment, wildlife resources and forests other than the Conservation Forests managed by the Department of Forest Conservation, Reserve Forests, Proposed Forest Reserves and National Reserves managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sanctuaries, Wild Elephant Management Reserves and Other Forests not belong to a government department, an agency or Ministry dealing with the environment through a certain law, regulation or any other circumstance.’
Signed by the Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation, M K Bandula Harischandra, the circular lists ten categories, amongst which are land areas with rivers and streams, catchment areas, higher gradients, elephant corridors, places of historical, archaeological and cultural value, enhancing forest cover, biodiversity and earmarked for future development activities etc. that should not be released.
Circular MWFC/1/2020 effectively cancels all other circulars such as 05/2001, 02/2006. While circular 05/2001 placed the management of all state-owned forests with the Forest Conservator, 02/2006 moved non-forest lands from amongst the OFS back to the Divisional Secretaries.
Explaining the government’s position, Environmental Engineer Arjuna Perera states that the move would help implement President Rajapaksa’s plan to eradicate poverty amongst the rural population.
For decades rural farmers have been tenancy farmers, he points out, adding that the Forest Department has been mandated to grow and manage forests to support the Timber Corporation. With 05/2001 and 02/2006 the Forest Department took over any land it assumed fell under its mandate. Though Sri Lanka’s farmers have had no titular claim to the property, they have continued to farm the lands, first through slash and burn (chena) methods and in later years as stationary farmers, he points out.
Perera says farmers who have cultivated the lands for generations accuse the Forest Department of having stolen their land.
Though the OSF land will now be under the Divisional and District Secretaries, they will not have the freedom to parcel out the plots as they please, he says. “Anyone who wants to utilise such land will have to obtain approval from both the Regional and the District Land Use Committees, which will have representatives from various bodies such as environment, water, archaeology etc.’ While acknowledging that despite all of these safeguards there could be corruption, he believes that even so, the negative impact on the environment would be negligible.
Perera claims that 2 million acres of land need to be re-forested and that the Forest Department does not have the finances to do so. With the new circular in effect, the State will continue to own the land, while private individuals or entities will plough in the cash to grow a mixture of hardwood, softwood and underbrush. Rural farmers, he explains could work on these lands. “A farmer family could very well earn at least Rs. 50, 000 per month, and could channel that income towards improving their homes or educational opportunities for their children.’
Perera added that Gyrinops walla (Walla Patta) which has a high commercial value is one such tree that could be grown on these lands.
But environmentalists are not convinced. “The first policy document put out by the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation in 2020 is not about policy and conservation, but handing over State forests to Divisional Secretaries,’ charged Convenor of Rainforests Protectors of Sri Lanka, Jayantha Wijesinghe. It involves nearly 700,000 hectares, (approximately 1.3 to 1.7mn acres) and contravenes Presidents Rajapaksa’s recent speech to the UN and his election manifesto to increase the country’s forest cover to 30pct. (Various reports show the country’s forest cover to be less than 27pct.) The country is also violating the commitments made to the 2015 Paris Summit, land use policy and sustainable development goals, he points out.
This move is also a threat to the wild animals that inhabit the forests adds Wijesinghe, pointing to the destruction of the Nilgala catchment area, where alleged illegal felling of trees has negatively impacted animal habitats. These forests, he says, are an integral part of the country’s eco-system.
Almost 70pct of the Elephant population and 60pct of the Leopards, for instance, live outside the National Parks and protected reserves, he explains, adding that destruction of these forests will effectively cut –off even the elephant corridors.
But, argues Perera, there are no elephant or animal corridors in Sri Lanka. Elephant corridors, he states are found in Africa where these animals trek for long hours in search of water, while local pachyderms generally remain within their habitat if there is enough water. As well, he explains, Sri Lanka does not have large herds of other animal groups that use animal corridors. “There is only bird migration.’
Wijesinghe also states that while most Divisional and District Secretaries are not conservation focussed or have the technical know-how regarding such matters, they would also find it difficult to refuse to do the bidding of politicians, who could persuade them to release land for various activities, even if they fall within the criteria identified by the latest circular.
Circular 02/2006 was introduced to put in the checks and balances and resolve disputes over which lands could be released. The new circular will only pave the way for private parties and friends of politicians to grab land, “Farmers are only being used as a ruse,’ Wijesinghe said.
He also states that it’s a myth that there are no agricultural lands, as only around 12pct of such lands of a total of 62pct are productively used for cultivation.
The Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, (CEJ) Hemantha Withanage meanwhile explains that it is illegal to amend any ordinances without approval from parliament.
Withanage too believes that while poor farmers are being used as the excuse, the exercise itself smells more like land-grabbing. ‘This move places another huge responsibility with Divisional and District Secretaries. As well government officials such as Grama Niladaris will be powerless in the hands of politicians who want to bend the rules.’
Civil society must be more pro-active he says. Being literate is not enough. The public must make it their business to be aware of available policies and understand the implications of the exploitation of resources.
It is not, he says, the sole responsibility of environmentalists, adding that all of these moves are being conducted under cover of the COVID pandemic.
Addressing a media conference recently, environmentalist Rukshan Jayawardena claimed that OSFs, protected by circular 05/2001 contributed to connecting forest reserves managed by the Forest Department on the one hand and the National Parks that fall under the Wildlife Department. These are elephant and animal corridors, and cancelling that circular means further fragmentation of forests. “Even if no one cuts down a tree in a national park or forest reserve, the bio-diversity in protected lands will drop and forest lands will be isolated.’
Indeed, Wayamba University Lecturer and one of the Editors of the Sixth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Dr Sewwandi Jayakody explained, that the study had revealed that most of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity occurs in the OSFs.
While the most protected areas are gazetted under the Wildlife Department or the Forest Department, the study found that greater ecological connectivity is in areas that fall outside such protected sections. Jayakody explains that a substantial area that requires landscape conservations is found amongst the OSFs. The study calls for those habitats that do not fall within protected areas to be treated as ‘conservation priorities for a landscape conservation strategy.’
What is important in this country, says Jayakody is to understand what is exactly meant by a forest. Abolishing the circular is not the way to go. Instead, she advocates a coalition with the Ministries of Land and Environment and other stakeholders to identify what can be released, what can be utilised and for what purposes.
Certainly, economic development is important especially if the majority of the rural poor are to benefit. But should that be at the cost of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity? Could more of the unused agricultural land be harnessed for economic development plans?
After all, it seems that farmers will have no titular claim, but continue to only work the lands.