Photo courtesy of Wikiwand

In a rare victory for Sri Lanka’s environmental defenders, the government has decided to cancel the gazette issuing legal documents to people illegally occupying state lands. A concerted lobbying effort by individuals, environment groups and activists prevented a catastrophe that would have reverberated down the generations.

One of the main movers behind the push to stop the gazette from becoming law was the Rain Forest Protectors of Sri Lanka, led by founder member Jayantha Wijesingha. A former media and marketing man turned environmentalist, Mr. Wijesingha’s organisation is a society with 300 members registered with the Ministry of Environment and funded entirely by individuals with a passion to save the country’s natural resources. Its members include people from all professions and walks of life from school children to university students and retired businessmen and government officials. The society has no corporate funders or international donors.

There have been some major successes along the way including a victory in the battle to stop two new coal power plants being constructed in 2017. With a lobbying campaign and by creating public awareness and dissent through the media, the decision was  reversed.

Similarly, there was a concerted and united effort to cancel gazette 2192/36, which would have provided deeds to people illegally occupying state lands. The gazette said that in keeping with the government’s “Visions of Prosperity and Splendour” policy statement, state lands should be used for investment opportunities, to promote local dairy production and to cultivate local food crops.

To environmental defenders, the gazette was a major mistake and a bad precedent for people have occupied lands illegally and those seeking to occupy more land in the same manner. Mr. Wijesingha pointed out that within hours of the gazette being issued, illegal land clearing began in many parts of the country as people tried to capitalise on the fact that they would be given deeds to land they just took over at will.

The problem with giving over small parcels of land to individuals was that big companies and politicians were buying over the land from people with deeds and setting up large scale plantation projects, most of which should be subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment under the National Environment Act (NEA) No. 47 of 1980. Land was being cleared with heavy machinery and structures were put up in clear violation of the NEA Act.

Under the permit system, people illegally occupying state land, which accounts for 67 percent of all land in the country and coming under the Commissioner General of Lands, cannot sell it to others. However, if these same people had deeds, they could sell. For an example, a company cultivating aloe vera for processing bought up 100 acres in the Wilpattu buffer zone from smallholders, causing a loss of habitat for wildlife and plants.

Mr. Wijesingha pointed out that there was also a need to regulate permit lands, which were being used for illegal activities. In the area bordering the Sinharaja forest, the protected reservation area was being used to grow tea in a clear violation of the law. In Monaragla, permit holders were cultivating corn and sugar cane by fencing off land and blocking elephant corridors. As a result, the elephant-human conflict was intensifying.

“The benefits go to big businesses and politicians at the expense of the environment. They use poor farmers as a cover to merge plots of land and set up vast plantations that bring them big profits,” Mr. Wijesingha charged.

In the Puttalam district politicians, companies and individuals have large parcels of land. Owners of a popular TV station have 600 acres in Wanathavilu while two politicians have 100 acres and 150 acres and 1,000 acres belongs to a private company. Some of this land includes protected forests that are occupied by people without deeds and some who do not even have permits.

“It was a victory that we managed to stop gazette 2192/36 but cancelling it won’t stop encroachment and the government must review land that is illegally occupied. Public properties can’t be given to just anyone, especially those who have been misusing them,” Mr. Wijesingha said, asking how it would be possible to attain the government’s goal of increasing forest cover by 30 percent if the clearing of forests was taking place at an ever increasing pace.

Although the attempt to revoke circular 5/2001 handing over 500,000- 750,000 hectares of forest land to District Secretaries has not yet gone before Cabinet, it is lingering on the horizon. If accepted, it would be another disastrous move that would open the floodgates of corruption and political influence to the detriment of the dwindling forest cover.

These examples of continuing environmental degradation are in clear violation of the stated policies of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as set out in his policy document “Visions of Prosperity and Splendour”, the very same one used by the Lands Commissioner to justify legalizing illegal land grabs. The document has a chapter devoted to a sustainable environmental policy, which aims to increase forest cover by 30 percent, while identifying areas for reforestation.

The policy statement also said that when establishing settlements, areas would be selected that would have minimum environmental impact while no large scale developments would be allowed in identified environmentally sensitive areas. However President Rajapaksa himself allowed a road to be cut through the environmentally sensitive Sinharaja reserve area without an EIA and clearly against the law.

“When implementing government policy and strategies, we will focus on implementing environmental regulations in order to conserve and protect the environment. When developing the country, take into consideration consider not only the financial aspects but also the attainment of sustainable development goals,” said the policy statement. These stated goals are in direct opposition to moves such as gazette 2192/36 and circular 5/2001.

In the face of these contradictory stances and the ongoing exploitation and degradation of all the country’s natural resources, why do environmental defenders such as Mr. Wijesingha bother to waste their time, energy and funds?

He gave a one word answer: “Hope.” He lived in hope that President Rajapaksa’s habit of swooping down on government departments and whipping them into shape would change the way that public officers serve the people, and that their work ethic would change along with an increased respect for the citizens they are bound to serve in a prompt manner. He hoped that every official in a position of power would be empowered to take a stance against the destruction of the environment.

“What we expect is leadership when it comes to environmental protection; not development at any cost but sustainable development. Any financial loss can be repaired but losing natural resources is irreversible,” Mr. Wijesingha stressed. “We have to protect our soil, air and water; without these no one can live.”