The following is a shortened version of a communiqué sent to us by the author on behalf of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform
2019 marked the worst year for human-elephant relations. With 405 elephant deaths at the hands of humans and 121 human deaths at the hands of elephants, the year saw a surge in a conflict which has dragged on for decades, if not centuries. Among the root causes are the eviction of elephants from their natural habitat, the fragmentation of their territory, and the use of that territory for development work and for illegal activities.
The recent surge in encounters between elephants and humans has been almost purely due to certain interventions by successive governments, in the Hambantota District, that has led to elephants intruding on human territory and humans encroaching on elephant territory. In that sense, we feel the present government ought to be held to account over two decisions taken by the Cabinet before and after the parliamentary election.
Two fateful decisions
As per the provisions of Circular No 05/2001, issued by the then Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife on August 10, 2001, areas categorised as “residual forests” were taken under the jurisdiction and protection of the Forest Department.
We have learnt from reliable sources that owing to pressures exerted by certain powerful Ministers, moves have been made to amend this Circular and to transfer these areas to Divisional and District Secretariats. This has facilitated the theft and plunder of those lands, among them those demarcated as the site of a Proposed Managed Elephant Rreserve in Hambantota which we will look at below.
Another key decision of this government, after the election, was Gazette Notification No 2192/36, issued by the Land Commissioner General, which sanctions the use of state lands for the purposes of investment and local milk and food production.
Accordingly, applications have been called from interested parties, and once they are received authorities will screen them before giving the green light for the transfer of these lands. We can verify that certain businessmen are, through powerful politicians, lobbying for the transfers of property which belong to the Elephant Reserve.
Some of the affected territories
We have identified four broad areas that these illegal activities have affected. Firstly, 2,000 acres extending from Gonnoruwa to Buruthankanda, encompassing Gal Wewa, Weli Wewa, Kurudana, Katan Wewa, and Galahitiya Wewa, have been marked for bulldozing and will be flattened completely. On the authority of a former Air Commander, moreover, 500 acres in this territory have been cleared to make way for a solar power plant.
Secondly, the Mahaweli Authority released certain lands between the Proposed Elephant Reserve and Madunagala to locals, resulting in the isolation of 18 to 20 elephants. This has considerably heightened the human-elephant conflict in the area.
Thirdly, around 20 elephants are isolated or trapped within a 2,500 acre territory that formed part of a 5,000 acres taken over for the Magampura Port Project. Again, this has led to a heightening of the human-elephant conflict.
Fourthly, the coridoor taken by elephants from Gonnoruwa to the Bundala Wildlife Sanctuary has been wiped off. The path has been obstructed mainly due to deforestation. Once again, it has only contributed to a heightening the human-elephant conflict.
The consequences of not opening the Proposed Preserve
Development projects throughout Hambantota until now has led to the loss of 20,000 acres, to say nothing of a spike in human-elephant encounters that have, in the last three years, caused the deaths of 31 elephants and 15 humans (with eight more villagers disabled for life). It was to remedy these issues that a proposal was made to the Department of Wildlife Conservation to construct a Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve. To date, no progress has been made on this, with the result that forest land ostensibly reserved for the purpose has been flattened to make way for illegal sand, rock, and clay mining.
The vacuum created by the failure to declare the area as belonging to the Reserve has been filled by an unholy trinity of powerful politicians, corporations, and local thugs. The previous regime, moreover, built villages and farms on lands in this area. That speeded the pace at which they were later taken over by various unscrupulous interests.
Authorities have thus far failed to declare the Proposed Reserve and start work on it. That has resulted in a proliferation in illegal transactions and a deterioration in relations between humans and elephants. We shall look at each in turn now.
A snapshot of some of the illegal activities
The ongoing construction of a solar power plant commissioned by various companies has resulted in the clearing of over 600 acres of land in Saddhatissapura and Buruthakanda. The ongoing construction of a “solar village” near Valaspugala and Divulpalassa has affected 300 more acres which elephants used to frequent.
A former Air Force Commander has, through the Mahaweli Authority and by his sanction, reserved around 60 hectares for the construction of the Solar Power Plant. Forty acres have been transferred to a company called Senok, while 20 acres of forest have been cleared. All that, by the way, in violation of the National Environmental Act.
Property developers have managed to transfer to themselves 6,000 acres of prime land encircling Maginkaliyapura,
Gonnoruwa, Katan Wewa, Pahala Andara Wewa, and Kada Idi Wewa. As usual, the most discernible and immediate outcome of this has been a surge in encounters between elephants and humans.
Oil remains a lucrative field, and the localities of Lolugas Wewa, Matigath Wewa, Parenhi Wewa, Lin Wewa, Swarnamali Wewa, and Mayiyan Wewa encompassing some 1,500 acres have been isolated to make way for an oil tank farm. Among other problems, this will affect 90 acres of paddy land adjoining Swarnamali Wewa.
2,000 acres adjoining Hamuduru Wewa, between Sooriya Wewa and Pahala Andara Wewa, have been felled for banana cultivation; eight persons have been identified as running the plantation. The illegal enclosure has been fenced off electrically, disrupting the lives of elephants who used to frequent the area. The villagers of Andara Wewa, Valaspugala, Karuwala Wewa, Tissapura, and Ranamayapura complain of these beasts encroaching into their lands and destroying their livelihoods.
Meanwhile, the waters of Andara Wewa are being rapidly drained, leaving precious little for cultivation by resident farmers: a significant threat to an entire way of life.
Can we lay aside the sand, clay, and rock mining operations these illegal land transactions have led to? By no means. In addition to the unauthorised cultivation of crops, forest land in Veheragala which belonged to the Department of Wildlife Conservation has been allocated for stone mining, in addition to areas such as Mayurapura, Seenikkugala, Katan Wewa, Ihala Andara Wewa, Kuda Idi Wewa, Galahitiya, and Gonnoruwa.
What has caused all this?
Two reasons can be pointed at for what’s happening in Hambantota District: the apathy of relevant authorities, especially the Mahaweli Authority, and the spurt in mega-development projects. We shall look at each briefly now.
Regarding the apathy of relevant institutions and authorities, all that needs to be said is that the silence of the Wildlife Conservation Department, the Central Environmental Authority, the Divisional and District Secretariat of Hambantota, and of course the Mahaweli Authority continues to be deafening. Certainly, it is on their doorstep that we lay the blame for what is happening today, not just to the people but also to the environment.
Take the Mahaweli Authority. Around 40% of the land concerned belongs to this institution. As per Section 3(1) of the Mahaweli Authority Act of 1979 and Gazette Notification No 137 dated April 16, 1981, it took over land in the Walawa Division. At no point was forest land in the vicinity taken over to release them later on for development work.
The continued felling of trees and isolation of elephants are in clear violation of the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980. According to Gazette Notification No 772/22 of June 24, 1993, clear, unequivocal permission from authorities is needed for deforestation of land in excess of 2.5 acres. Laws are generally more honoured in the breach than they are in the observance, and as far as these laws, gazettes, and circulars are concerned, there has been very little observance, much less enforcement.
Regarding the mega-development work in the region, we have already noted that it has led to the deforestation of more than 20,000 acres. Three projects in particular have aggravated the problem: the Magampura Harbour, the Mattala International Airport, and the Southern Expressway from Matara to Hambantota. No proper Environmental Impact Assessments have been conducted for them. In the absence of an environmental audit, we are forced to conclude that the beneficiaries of these initiatives, in particular certain Chinese firms, have chosen to ignore their impact on wildlife. We need not add that it has served to aggravate not just deforestation, but also human-elephant encounters.
The need to open the Elephant Reserve
A total of 25 reservoirs belonging to the relevant area in Hambantota come under the purview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, while 17 more come under that of the Mahaweli Authority. The forest area bordering these reservoirs comprise a flourishing ecosystem, preserved for centuries despite the encroachments of colonisers. They contain some of the most diverse hotspots in this part of the world, populated by more than 450 elephants and other birds and beasts. We cannot let them be destroyed at the whims of politicians, corporations, and thugs. They must be preserved.
The road ahead
It is clear that the most immediate solution to these problems is to commence work on the Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve. If not, the illegal transfers of and transactions over land belonging to it will continue, pitting elephants against humans at a level unparalleled in recent history. The protection of natural habitats and areas populated by elephants should thus be our number one priority.
To that end the ongoing transfer of 15,000 acres for the construction of an Investment Zone must stop, at once. We cannot allow development projects to undermine of wildlife conservation. We say this because it is not just the welfare of our generation that we must look to but also that of generations to come. Otherwise, no matter what happens in the short run, in the long run the environmental costs of these projects will outweigh their economic benefits. That obviously does not bode well for anyone.
Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform
Translated by Uditha Devapriya