Ehetuwewa Deforestation A dangerous threat to the environment

Published : 9:43 am  July 24, 2015 | No comments so far |  | 

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The Ehetuwewa forest located in the Kurunegala district belongs to the Nakolagama Purana Viharaya  and contains  a number of historical artefacts. It is also home to a variety of flora and fauna. It was recently found that this forest  was being cleared by the viharaya for the cultivation of cash crops without the submission of  relevant documents and official permission. A project proposal made by the viharaya in mid 2013 to lease out approximately 1000 acres of its land received approval from the Ministry of Buddhist Affairs. But this was only for the demarcation of land and to make survey plans. However,  it has come to light that without informing  the ministry, the chief incumbent of the viharaya Rev.Walathawewe Rahula, has given instructions to carry out the necessary work for the cultivation of cash crops.

Speaking to the Daily Mirror, the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) said that during their site inspection it was found that a road network of a width of approximately 15 feet had been established using heavy machinery, destroying a vast extent of afforested land.
EFL programme co-ordinator Milindu Tissera said that a road network of that size was not necessary to carry out the demarcation of land and the formulation of survey plans, suggesting that the development of  cash crops has begun.
He further said one could suppose that a decision to lease out the land was made to generate an income to the viharaya as the monk was not receiving enough benefits from the surrounding community, while unconfirmed reports suggested that he planned to go overseas.

“As no formal cabinet decision was made,  it is questionable as to who gave the authorization  to carry out these developments. Even though the land belongs to the Viharaya, developments of this scale cannot be made without the permission of relevant authorities,” Milindu Tissera said.


 Chairman, Centre for Conservation and Research Dr. Prithiviraj  Fernando, carrying out such developments will push the elephants to  small forest patches which would restrict their movement. He said that  this will lead to a huge human elephant conflict affecting the  surrounding villages in the area.


Meanwhile an official from Sadaharitha refuted claims that they were involved and said that they did not proceed with projects that did not have the relevant documentation.
Despite a number of attempts,  we were unable to get hold of an official from Delmo.

Project Details

 The land will be leased out to  two private companies  — Sadaharitha and Delmo — who will  cultivate cash crops such as mango and cashew, while unconfirmed reports suggest that land has been allocated for the cultivation of teak and sandalwood as well.  With its high requirement of water,  sandalwood is a rapidly growing plant that would reach its maturity in 30 years,  making the land area unsuitable for use afterwards. To meet the daily water requirements of these crops it has been proposed to sink 8 wells, each of a depth of 150 feet.

Threat to wildlife
 It was also found that an electric fence was to be constructed around the demarcated area. This would pose a threat to wildlife like the mouse deer, barking deer and a variety of other bird species. With large herds of elephants frequenting the forest, EFL said that the land being cleared was also on the path of an elephant corridor. According to the Chairman, Centre for Conservation and Research Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, carrying out such developments will push the elephants to small forest patches which would restrict their movement. He said that this would lead to a huge human elephant conflict affecting the surrounding villages in the area.

Damage to archaeological artefacts
 The EFL further revealed that the forest also has an archaeological site with nine artefacts of which eight have been destroyed. Meanwhile an official from the archaeological department said there were four stone caves dating back to pre-historic times and an ancient statue. Even though only the caves and the statue have been gazetted, the official said that there may be a number of ruins and other objects of historical importance scattered in the area. It was further pointed out that the department was currently formulating a report on its investigations done at the site last week and would take necessary action once completed.

Objections
 Farmers across both reservoirs expressed their displeasure at the deforestation, as it would threaten the catchment  areas. While a majority of the villagers are against it,  EFL said that some villagers have been given compensation and hence   favour  the project.


When Rev. Rahula asked for permission,   permission was given to clear  only 25 acres of the land. An official at the Wildlife Department said  the priest is using this as an excuse to clear a larger area.


No permission
Meanwhile the Commissioner General of the Department of Buddhist Affairs Chandraprema Gamage said that permission was not given to carry out this project. As the reports requested by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), the Forest Conservation Department and Wildlife Department were not submitted,  it was decided to send a written appeal to the Viharaya requesting a  temporary halt  to all activities. It has been decided  to have a discussion with the monk this week regarding the project.

 The Wildlife Department however said that when Rev. Rahula asked for permission, it was granted to clear only 25 acres of the land. An official at the Wildlife Department said the priest was using this as an excuse to clear a larger area. He added that this coould not be permitted  as permission from  official bodies like the CEA and Provincial Environmental Authority was required.

But  the official added that as the land was owned by the viharaya there was nothing the department could do about it. However the official pointed out that as the land has been functioning as a forest for a number of years, such developments could not take place without the permission of the relevant environmental authorities.

Not the responsibility of the Ehetuwewa Divisional Secretariat
As the forest belongs to the viharaya, the secretary of the Ehetuwewa Divisional Secretariat K.C.S. Fernando said that there was nothing they can do about it since it comes under the purview of the Department of Buddhist Affairs. However he added that  the relevant authorities have been asked to visit the area and  investigate and to take relevant measures to safeguard the assets.

Fernando said it was found that there was no privately owned land in that area and all occupants were rate payers to the Viharaya. It was further revealed that a decision to lease out the land was made as these occupants have  not been paying their dues to the Viharaya.

Measures taken
Adding that there are several valid reasons to halt the project,  the EFL said that a decision was taken by the Buddhist Affairs Ministry to temporarily halt the project till the relevant EIAs were submitted.

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