BY Dinitha Rathnayake
Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) has alleged that a hotel named Sinharaja Green Eco Lodge is causing great damage to the Sinharaja environment through the development of a road leading to the hotel, and that the hotel project is linked to Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Lieutenant Commander Yoshitha Rajapaksa.
“Until recently, the hotel operated under the name Sinharaja Green Eco Lodge, which was the name given to the hotel by the first owner. However, the board has been removed now and a by-road leading to the hotel is being repaired. This is a 1.5 km stretch of road. Those constructing the road are excavating the forest for the soil used to expand the road. There are a number of species of lizards, geckos, amphibians, snakes and frogs that only live in this area and most of them face a severe threat of extinction,” he claimed.
“Moreover, many areas of the Eastern Sinharaja have not been bio mapped, thus we do not know the extent of the damage that can be caused by a road going through this stretch of the forest. The road construction through the area, which has a number of cloud forests, has also not adhered to any environmental guidelines.
“Also, the expansion of the Gongala road also poses a great threat to the forest network and its biological community. The Gongala Mountain is also connected to Panilkanda and is a vital catchment area for the Gin, Nilwala, Walawe, and Kalu rivers. The tea plantations of the area too depend on the Gongala Mountain as a valuable source of water.”
He also claimed that nothing has been done to minimise the damage done to the protection of the environment and that the Forest Department has not even carried out a cursory investigation.
The Morning then learnt that Wildlife and Forest Conservation Ministry Secretary Somaratne Vidanapathirana has called for a report from the Conservator General of Forests over the hotel project. Speaking to The Morning yesterday (3), Vidanapathirana said that the report would likely be ready today (4), and that he would be able to comment further on the issue once he receives the report.
Chamikara also alleged that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Yoshitha Rajapaksa have visited the hotel via helicopter, and that the recent constructions and repairs at the hotel have been carried out by Navy personnel, who are also in charge of providing security to the property.
“The hotel is situated near the Sinharaja Forest Reserve on the Eastern slope of the Gongala Mountain at the Boraluwage Aina Grama Niladhari Division in the Kolonna Divisional Secretariat in the Ratnapura District. The initial owner of the hotel, which spans around 12 acres, is a person called Roshan Wijesinghe, the owner of Asiri Cake, Deniyaya.
“The property was later bought by Ravindu Soyza, an employee of the Rajapaksa family. Wijesinghe apparently had to sell the property under pressure for Rs. 40 million. Soyza is currently in charge of the management of the property. Several other nearby lands too have been purchased by associates of Yoshitha Rajapaksa, on his behalf, following the acquisition of the hotel.
“Moreover, the Hayes Estate had donated 20 acres of tea land that adjoined the hotel. This donation followed moves by Rajapaksa to take over the entire estate. A director of the Mathurata Plantation Company had proposed the donation of 20 acres as a ploy to prevent Rajapaksa from taking over the entire estate.
“All the recent constructions and repairs at the hotel have been carried out by Navy personnel. They are also in charge of providing security to the property. Navy personnel are sometimes entrusted with providing very important person (VIP) security when Yoshitha Rajapaksa and his father Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visit the hotel. There is also a helipad at the hotel which is made using plastic,” Chamikara alleged.
On 1 March 2011, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, issued gazette number 1695/16, through which he took 1,000 acres out of the 2,200 acres given to the Hayes Estate under the Land Reform Law, No. 01 of 1972, and placed them under the Land Reform Commission. These 1,000 acres are now a part of the Sinharaja Forest Range.
“There is a chance that these lands, situated near the hotel, will be taken over by the Rajapaksas. A main danger posed by the hotel is its expansion plans. There is a plan to take over 1,000 acres of forest land that belongs to the Gongala Mountain Range and to execute a comprehensive tourism development initiative. Among the proposed constructions in the 1,000 acres land is a golf course and a cable car project,” the MONLAR claimed.
When contacted by The Morning, Sinharaja Green Eco Lodge Owner Ravindu Soysa claimed that this is just a personal and political issue created by the villagers and people involved in politics.
When questioned about his relationship with the Rajapaksa family, he declined to comment, saying that it is his personal matter and not the business of The Morning. He added that the developments in Gongala have no relation to the Sinharaja Green Eco Lodge and that they have other access ways to go to the place.
When contacted by The Morning, Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Lieutenant Commander Yoshitha Rajapaksa said that he has no connection with the Sinharaja Green Eco Lodge, adding that this case was brought by an environmentalist, one year ago, and that he had also sent a letter of demand against the same person last year, through his lawyers.
“Since this issue was not publicly raised after that, I did not take any action. I have no lands at Sinharaja and neither does the said lodge belong to me. I have no personal connection with the owner of the Sinharaja Green Eco Lodge Ravindu Soysa.”
He also said that he was dragged into this due to his political background.