Monday, May 11, 2015

Wilpattu Encroached (2014 article)

Introduction: Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, then Minister of Industry and Commerce, was accused of encroaching Wilpattu National Park in April 2014. He took a 'fact finding' team of journalists to the region, and some of them, including this writer, found some funny facts. Has anything changed after the change of government? One can only wonder.

The ‘battle’ which has erupted between Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen and Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) over the alleged clearance of land belonging to Wilpattu National Park for settling displaced Muslim people has grown in intensity within the last few weeks.

It began earlier this month with BBS General Secretary Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera accusing the government including President Mahinda Rajapaksa for ‘keeping silent’ on the large scale housing complex constructed in the Wilpattu National Park. His accusation was directed at several ministries in particular, including the Environment and Renewable Energy Ministry and the Wildlife Resources Conservation Ministry. Gnanasara Thera also said that there were some elements within the government who were backing the alleged activity. Accusations were being leveled at Bathiudeen for this activity.
Photo: Amila Prasanna Sumanapala

Several days later, a tense situation occurred when the BBS made a trip to the area where the alleged resettlement is being carried out. In return, Bathiudeen also took a group of media personnel on a ‘fact finding trip’ of the area on April 22. However, BBS described this as merely a ‘media circus’ stating that the Minister showed only what he wanted the media to see.

Wilpattu National Park

Declared in 1938, the Wilpattu National Park (WNP) lies along the north western coast. The main topographical feature of the park is the concentration of “villus.” Although they appear as lakes, villus are in flat basin like fault depressions on the surface of the earth and contain only rain water. The villu feature is unique to this part of the island. There are many sandy paths in the WNP which connect some villus. The area of the park is 131,693 hectares, making it the largest national park in the island.

The northern border of the WNP lies along the Modaragam Aru (River). The Wilpattu Sanctuary lies inland from the coast and is entirely within the Northern Province. It is contiguous with the WNP and Modaragam Aru serves as the boundary of the two areas.

Fact finding

About 60 journalists representing local and foreign institutions took part in the ‘fact finding’ trip organized by Minister Bathiudeen. The group took the Puttalam-Mannar road, which travel through the WNP from Kala Oya to Modaragam Aru. Just across Modaragam Aru on the Puttalam-Mannar road, on the land side, were the squatters’ settlements.

These settlements were built around a common building built by the government some time ago. The people there gave various figures as to the number of families residing there. These numbers varied from 60 to 73. They said that they have returned to their lands which they abandoned in 1990.

The settlers told the journalists that they were originally from the Marichchukatti area. They had been evicted in 1990 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and had been unable to return for two decades. In 1990, there had been 150 families in the village and they claim that the village had a land of 300 acres. Today, there are 500 families of the original inhabitants and their descendents.

However, there were several discrepancies in the story of the people. When asked how they found a livelihood, some people said that they cultivated paddy lands. However, they failed to show any. Furthermore, they said that there was a burial ground in the area, which was on the sea side from the road. Although they produced what they called ‘deeds’ to their lands, there was no way of asserting that the documents were authentic. Furthermore, they accepted that only a few families had deeds.

Furthermore, there was a huge gender gap seen among the villagers. There were many men and a few women and most strikingly, there were no children to be seen. Not even toddlers. This was rather strange at a place which the people claim that they live in. Furthermore, there was evidence of cooking in only a few of the huts. It was obvious that some people did not know that the land was frequented by elephants. They claimed that elephants did not come to the area but there were elephant dung at places nearby.

Furthermore, on April 17, Minister Bathiudeen mentioned in a press release that “there are about 73 families whose original Marichchikatti area lands have been taken over by the Navy for security purposes and the families are unable to resettle in them as a result of this.” However, this is in contrary to the claims by some of the families who state that the lands they now occupy were their traditional lands.

National Park and Sanctuary

Speaking to The Nation, Environment Conservation Trust Director Sajeewa Chamikara stated that before the war, settlements were only on the sea side. He also clarified the confusion on WNP, Wilpattu North Sanctuary and the Buffer Zone.

With the passing of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in 1937, four categories of natural reserves were created. They are strict nature reserves, national parks, nature reserves and sanctuaries. A national park does not have private lands within it. A sanctuary can have private lands. However, new development work cannot be done even inside a sanctuary. A national park has a buffer zone of 1 mile, and a sanctuary has a buffer zone of 100m. Within this area, no development work can be done without an environment impact assessment.

In the above mentioned statement on April 17, Bathiudeen mentions that the families have put up “temporary huts on the borders of the Wilpattu National Park out of great necessity.” However, no one can make houses without proper permission within 1 mile of the border of a national park. The Central Environment Trust, in a recent press release once again criticized the violation of Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance No 2 of 1937 and the National Environmental Act No 47 of 1980.

This is a blatant encroachment of an environmentally valuable land which affects the eco-system balance. Furthermore, despite the claims by the so called ‘settlers’ the Elephant-Human Conflict will find a new front in Wilpattu North Sanctuary and the surrounding area. Therefore, if the settlement issue is not managed properly, it is in danger of creating both environmental and human catastrophes in the coming years.

First published in 'The Nation', April 27, 2014.