By Nalinda Jayatissa –
Right now, there’s untold deforestation taking place unabated in our country. Although, the incumbent government denies, these allegations, Buddhist clergy, Cardinal, Veddah community leader, like minded civilians, environmentalists along with the Government officers are up in arms and agitating against this mass scale destruction of forest reserves. Yet, the government rejects allegations and turns a blind eye to the damage caused to forest reserves. Government machinery dismisses the publicity given in mass media, as baseless and ignores the problem. It’s clear that damage to forest reserves are on the rise as the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visits more and more villages according to his program of meeting with the community in the villages. Therefore, it appears that there’s a direct correlation between deforestation and his visits to villages.
On what basis is President Gotabaya is selecting a village to visit? The “Meeting with Villagers” programme (Gama Samaga Pilisandara) took place in Kalutara district one month ago.Day in and day out people of Kalutara District are experiencing enough of problems. Among other things, the problem of drinking water, difficulties faced with tourism industry and the near bankruptcy of rubber industry are serious problems, just to mention but a few. Today the people of this District are facing a grave problem of shortage of pure drinking water. Specially, the people in Kalutara, Beruwela, Aluthgama, Wadduwa and Dodangoda are seriously affected by the shortage of water. They suffer the most due to annual intrusion of salt water to Kalu ganga from the sea, forcing the people in these villages to drink saline water during dry spells for a period 2 or 4 month stints.
Intriguingly, despite insurmountable burning issues at hand in Kalutara district, President, recently chose to visit the villagers in Yattapaththa in the Agalawatte seat. As you all know Yattapaththa is located on the edge of Sinharaja Rain Forest Reserve. Of course, I don’t deny that there aren’t problems in Agalawatte. Interestingly, if you carefully scrutinise the villages, out of all the 16 villages selected for the Presidential visit, quite a number of villages are located in close proximity to Forest reserves. President had visited villages in Meemure and Deraniyagala, both these villages are located near forest reserves and during his interaction with the people of the villages, he used to ask questions. It transpires that villagers are not free to ask questions as they wish for their genuine problems from the President. Conversely, a team of about 100 officers in vehicles, as a rule, visit the President’s intended place of visit in advance. Villagers are then selected for the question and answer session with the President and such villagers are given certain questions with readymade answers. For instance, in Pitabeddara, a youth belonging to Podu Jana Peramuna, who had worked for President’s victory, had been extended an invitation to take part in a meeting held in a village. Nevertheless, he had been categorically warned not to pose questions to President as already villagers had been selected for that purpose.
Usually, in such gatherings a school student is kept prepared to ask questions about the need for a playground to the school, need to repair a damaged school roof etc; for which the President would answer in the affirmative and would say that already funds are allocated for the job on priority basis. Other common question would be about the purported highhanded action of Forest department officials, who always stand in the way and oppose the villagers to stop engaging in clearing forest for chena cultivation and fending cattle in the jungle etc. Villagers will also make it a point to ask for a foot path or road across the forest. As an eye wash, for all these villagers’ allegations, President would then and there, blame and warn the Forest department officials to permit the villagers to engage in their activities. Thereafter, the following day itself, villagers start jungle clearing in the name of cultivation and start denuding the forest cover.
In Thanamalvila, after granting such permission, even the Police found it difficult to control the wanton damage to the forest covers in the eyes of the innocent Forest Department officials. This wanton damage to Forest had been photographed and videoed and extensively displayed in the media. Yet President never believes these incidents and brushes away saying that aren’t true. Recently, Miss. Bhagya spoke of her concerns and the damage caused to forest because she foresaw this as a wanton damage to Sinharaja forest reserve. However, according to the law of the land, it has been very clearly stipulated in statute books that even a private land with a forest cover cannot be cleared by the owner for any other purposes other than forest related purpose. If the land extent exceeds more than an acre, explicit approval has to be obtained from the Central Environmental Authority.
It was said that twelve backbenchers from the ruling party had visited the area where the damage is supposed to have taken place. The Ampara MP being a member of the visiting team, during his media briefing states that there are 8 folios. He knew very well about the extent of cleared land in question but when the media questioned about the ownership and as to whether authority has been obtained to clear the said land from Central Environmental Authority, the MP evaded answering the questions. Central Environmental Authority now declares that the oxygen level in Colombo and Kandy has plummeted to very low levels. Further, in this regard, Galle and Kurunegala are also facing a dangerous situation. In the Global arena, among the few countries that are endowed with a source of pure spring water, gifted by the nature, thus far, we have been boasting of Sri Lanka. Now it’s rather pathetic to understand the plight of our people purchasing bottled water. Who knows, at this rate, we may also be prompted in the future to purchase oxygen for our sustenance. 20 years ago we never heard of these happenings. For sure, these developments will not bode well for the future of our countrymen.
*Translation of former JVP MP Dr Nalinda Jayatissa’s speech on selecting villages adjacent to Sinharaja for his engaging with villages programme