Different strokes for different folks at DWC as squatters refuse to budge
Reporting from Irudeniyaya, Kurunegala
Police restrain protesters belonging to the Irudeniyaya Farmers Associations. Inset: Wimaladasa (L) and Ranbanda (R). Photo courtesy The Sunday Leader. Photo credit Thusitha Kumara
Questions have been raised as to why the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) is following a double standard against the Kahalla- Pallakelle sanctuary encroachers.
Kahalla- Pallakelle was declared as a sanctuary through gazette notification no: 566/ 5 on July 1, 1989 and is 21, 690 hectares in extent spanning through Kurunegala and Anuradhapura districts.
Offence under the Law but politicians immune
According to section 7 of the Fauna and Flora protection Ordinance (amended) no: 22 of 2009 it is an offence to destroy wildlife habitat places and breeding grounds, destroy trees or to carry out any road or other permanent or temporary constructions within a sanctuary.
Apart from the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) rules and regulations, the gazette notification No: 859/ 14 of February 23, 1995 in accordance with the National Environmental Ordinance it is also an offence to carry out any development work within a sanctuary or 100 meters radius from the sanctuary boundary without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study.
Different strokes for different folks
Although the law is as such, it is clearly evident the DWC officials enforce law and order on squatters in two different ways in the two districts.
In order to protect the FFPO guidelines, the officers of the DWC has send an ultimatum to the sanctuary squatters in Irudeniyaya, Kurunegala to move out of the sanctuary in which they were living for the past 40 years. However interestingly, the same wildlife officials have openly allowed ruling party supporters to build houses within the same sanctuary but in a different place- Kalawewa in Anuradhapura district.
Sanctuary not for human but for wild animals
“Irrespective of party politics all encroachers have to be removed immediately as a sanctuary is not for humans but for wild animals. In this regard, as usual the wildlife officials have not only failed to take immediate action against the FFPO violators but on the other hand has allowed ruling party supporters to trespass a sanctuary to which legal action could be taken against such government officers who have failed to discharge their duties without any favourism,” said Director Environmental Conservation Trust Sajeewa Chamikara.
Sirimavo gave us these lands
The farmer families in Irudeniyaya who claim that they were settled in these forest lands by the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake to cultivate in order to find a solution to the import restrictions during early 1970s, at a time when the country faced food scarcities, meanwhile are not ready to heed wildlife department orders.
“When we were settled in nine villages- Madahapolayaya, Walagambapura, Irudeniyaya, Bambaragalayaya, Thelambuela, Mahapitiya, Rekewula, Erehepolayaya and Kattamberiya by the then Prime Minister we were given permission to live here forever although we were not given any title deeds. Even in 1986, the survey’s department surveyed our lands promising to give us deeds in writing. This was the time the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected to office and during his tenure these forest lands were given to DWC and without our knowledge this was gazetted declaring as a sanctuary,” said Ranbanda- who has settled Irudeniyaya in 1972 with his family.
Recalling his memories, Ranbanda said how tough it was for them to clear the jungle and made chenas and paddy fields to cultivate paddy and chillies to supply rice and dried chillies to the market.
Elephant corridor vs Village settlement
“As young men we were able to do all the hard work and bring these cultivated lands into what they are today. The wildlife officers are asking us to move away from here, claiming that this is an elephant corridor. All these years this was not an elephant corridor but all of a sudden this has become an elephant corridor. In order to scare us and chase away from these lands, we were told that wild elephants from other sanctuaries have been released to Kahalla- Pallakelle sanctuary. We have lost more than 10 villagers due to elephant attacks but we will control them from here without moving an inch from where we were settled in 1972,” he added.
Protests held against DWC
On Wednesday October 10, with the participation of Irudeniyaya villagers a massive protest was held against the DWC’s decision in front of the clock tower Kurunegala.
According to the protestors, although this area was declared as a sanctuary in 1989 by President Ranasinghe Premadasa, his successor President D.B. Wijetunge on the request of the then Chief Minister G.M. Premachandra made this the Irudeniyaya Scheme and allowed them to continue farming.
Mahinda Rajapakse gave orders to chase us away
“What made this regime chase us away from here? We came to know that it was President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a meeting held in Kurunegala recently who directed the authorities to chase us away from the sanctuary- which is meant for wildlife,” said Wimaladasa- one of the organizers of the Kurunegala protest.
Meanwhile Convener National Fisheries Solidarity Movement Herman Kumara accused respective governments from the past for their failure to stick to one plan when developing the country.
Herman Kumara agrees with DWC to a point
“I too agree that the sanctuary is meant for wild animals and not for humans. But if these lands were given then, why does the present government want to take them over. This happens continuously. The same happened in Karuwalagaswewa in Puttalam in early 2000. The then MP, D. M. Dassanayake got 200 houses built within a wildlife area for his supporters. When the UNP came into power, Range Bandara got them demolished claiming it is prohibited to construct within a wildlife area.
In regard to Irudeniyaya, it was Mrs. Bandaranayake that settled these farmer families there. Later President Premadasa and the then Chief Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perea wanted to acquire these lands. But due to strong protests had to stop and later President Wijetunge allowed these farmer families to stay there.
Politics not development
President Rajapaksa recently at a District development Committee meeting held in Kurunegala wanted to take back this land from the farmers. This is politics but not development. This method will go on forever. The fishing village within the sanctuary was given by President Rajapaksa when he was the fisheries Minister. In future when another leader is elected, this particular land too would be taken back pulling the people from pillar to post,” said Kumara.
200 fishing families settled in Kalawewa
Although the farmer families in Irudeniyaya, Kurunegala are not allowed to carry out any development work in their lands by the wildlife officers, at Kalawewa in Anuradhapura district more than 200 fishing families have been settled in a fishing village which too is within the same sanctuary.
However, according to Wildlife Ranger, Kalawewa fishing village has been taken out from the Kahalla- Pallakelle sanctuary on instructions.
“On the request of the then Fisheries Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Chandrika Kumaratinge allowed 50 acres from Kahalla- Pallakelle sanctuary to separate for a fishing village through a cabinet paper. Since there is a cabinet approval, lands were distributed amongst the fisher folk. That was why we do not take any action against the fisher folk. In regard to Irudeniyaya, had there been a cabinet approval, they too would have allowed them to live there forever,” he added.
Although the wildlife officials claim that this 50 acre land was distributed amongst the fisher folk legally on a cabinet approval, environmentalists argue how this land which was declared as a sanctuary through a gazette notification could be given away merely on a cabinet decision.
“Without de-gazetting the 1989 gazette no one has the power, even the executive to give away sanctuary lands to their whims and fancies. We know how the former Chief Minister North Central Province Berty Premalal Dissanayake too obtained lands to construct a large hotel within the sanctuary overlooking the Kalawewa tank. It is surprising how the DWC officials are not aware that their lands cannot be given to any other party without de-gazetting the former and,” said Chamikara.
Last week The Lanka Standard exposed how the DWC officials are turning a blind eye while two large buildings overlooking Kalawewa and Balaluwewa by two government heavy weights in the North central Province- the former Chief Minister Berty Premalal and Deputy Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife S.M. Chandrasena are being constructed illegally.
Going after the minnows and letting the big fish slide
Even though the wildlife officers have failed to take any action against these two powerful politicians, all building materials including the tools have been removed from Sriyalatha’s house by the wildlife officers for constructing a small house in Irudeniyaya recently.
“While the construction was going on, a wildlife jeep with two officials took the building materials and masonry tools in the jeep and never returned. Later they filed legal action against my husband in Mahawa Magistrate Court for illegal constructions within the sanctuary. The next hearing date is October 31 and we have to find Rs.2, 000 for lawyer’s fees,” said Sriyalatha.
We will not move an inch from where we are- Ranbanda
According to Ranbanda it was the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake that wanted them to settle in Irudeniyaya and cultivate more and more paddy and chillies since there was a severe food shortage in the country. “Although we were given permission to live here forever, we were not given any title deeds. Even in 1986, the survey’s department surveyed our lands promising to give us deeds in writing. This was the time the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected to office and during his tenure these forest lands were given to DWC and without our knowledge this was gazetted declaring as a sanctuary.
“As young men we were able to do all the hard work and bring these cultivated lands into what they are today. The wildlife officers are asking us to move away from here, claiming that this is an elephant corridor. All these years this was not an elephant corridor but all of a sudden this has become an elephant corridor. In order to scare us and chase away from these lands, we were told that wild elephants from other sanctuaries have been released to Kahalla- Pallakelle sanctuary,” he added.
There is a cabinet paper for Kalawewa but not to Irudeniyaya- Wildlife Ranger
There is a cabinet paper the DWC have allowed the fisher folk to build houses in the fishing village in Kalawewa but the Irudeniyaya villagers have to vacate their lands soon as they do not have such a permission.
Cannot comment- Deputy Director DWC Kurunegala
Deputy Director DWC, Kurunegala Mr. Sumanasena said that he cannot make any comments in regard to the Irudeniyaya issue but to speak to Director Operation DWC.
“Please don’t ask anything in regard to this as I cannot speak to the media. Speak to our Director Operations in head office,” said Sumanasena.
Have to give alternate lands before re-locating- Director Operations DWC
Director Operation DWC, H.D. Ratnayake however claimed that a final decision would be taken this week to discuss what action would be taken.
“According t o the FFPO, no one can be allowed within a sanctuary. But the Irudeniyaya issue is different to that. They have been living in these lands before Kahalla- Pallakelle was declared a sanctuary. The issue has become not with the original encroachers but with some new encroachers who have damaged the elephant fence and gone further inside the sanctuary for cultivation,” said Ratnayake.
However Ratnayake said that in the event if all encroachers have to leave sanctuary lands, it is up to the respective Divisional Secretary to find out alternate lands for the farmers.
“We cannot send them without providing alternate lands. The main issue is that these farmers encroach more and more lands towards the middle of the sanctuary damaging the elephant fence. That is the start of human-elephant conflict,” added Ratnayake.