Photo courtesy of PARL

Politicians, government officers, temple officials and business people are illegally acquiring hundreds of acres of forest land belonging to the Department of Forest Conservation in the Kataragama area and distributing them to their friends and relatives. These forest lands serve as water catchment forests and as habitats for wild elephants.

In addition to forest land that belong to the Department of Forest Conservation, some land that has been cultivated by farmers for a long time has been forcibly acquired, claiming that it belonged to the Kataragama Devalaya, and leased out to businessmen. Some of the farmers who lost their lands have been compelled to clear forest land managed by the Department of Forest Conservation in order to expand their fields.

The businessmen who obtained state owned forest land illegally on a lease basis have cleared the forests completely, constructed roads and built electric fences to prevent the entry of wild elephants and have established farmlands. After forcibly taking over land cultivated by farmers, the businessmen used bulldozers to uproot fields of groundnuts, green gram, cowpea, maize and lemon and destroyed wells used for cultivation. Some have constructed  permanent buildings and settled there.

Deeds are currently being processed for the distribution of 48 more acres of state forestland in this area, which were acquired with the support of government officials. Eighty acres of forest land had been taken over previously.

These activities are in violation of the Forest Conservation Ordinance, The National Environmental Act and the Antiquities Ordinance. They are also illegal because land has been leased out using forged documents.

The Forest Conservation Ordinance provides for the protection of state forest lands. It specifies the prohibited activities in state owned forests including cutting down trees, clearing forests, building temporary or permanent constructions and settling in constructions and the construction of and use of roads.

The penalty for these illegal activities is two years imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 5,000 to 50,000 or both. Compensation assessed by the court for the damages caused to the forest will also have to be paid as a fine. The Act also states that every forest officer should intervene in preventing the commission of a forest offence.

The existing laws must be implemented and the destruction of forest must be stopped immediately in order to control the decline of agriculture and the livelihoods of the famers caused by the loss of water catchment forests of the tanks and also to prevent the escalation of the human-elephant conflict caused by the destruction of the habitats of elephants.

It is also necessary to implement the laws promptly in order to create a country where every individual can live freely according to the rule of law.

Officials of the Department of Forest Conservation who have violated the Penal Code by omitting to enforce the law against the leasing out of and clearing of state owned forests must also be punished.

No government agency, including the police, has made any interventions against the destruction of the forests and violation of the fundamental rights of the farmers who have been displaced from their homes. Despite complaints made against the forcible acquisition of the people’s farmlands and the destruction of their cultivated fields, no action has been taken either by the Thanamalwila Police or by the Divisional Secretary, Thanamalwila. The police have even refused to accept complaints.