SPECIAL REPORT : Disappearing Forests: Rambakan Oya, the latest victim

SPECIAL REPORT : Disappearing Forests: Rambakan Oya, the latest victim

Written by Zulfick Farzan

25 Feb, 2021 | 6:12 pm

Colombo (News 1st); State bodies in-charge of forest land management were not consulted when lands from the Rambakan Oya forest reserve were released for private investments, an investigation had revealed. 

The Rambakan Oya forest reserve is surrounded by the Hambe-Hela, Kabaragala, Nil-Gala, Manikkawel and Mal-Gaha-Ussa forest systems, and the ancient ruins dating back to the era of King Buddhasa add more historic value to the forest area.

It was on the 20th of August 2020, the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka approved the proposal that would change the fate of the Rambakan Oya forest reserve.

The proposal was made in the context of a streamlined release of lands from the forest reserve for investment projects.

According to information available in the public domain, eight (08) parties including land acquisition companies and private entrepreneurs are listed for the project.

Interestingly, the Director of General of the Mahawelia Authority released a letter on the 05th of October 2020 to the resident project manager highlighting guidelines that need to be followed when releasing lands, as per the investment projects.

One of the key conditions listed is, large trees and wild animals cannot be harmed when clearing the released lands and if the allocated plot of land is located within the forest cover zone, it should remain untouched.

Sadly, heavy machinery is being used even at present, to bring down trees that were standing tall in the Rambakan Oya forest reserve, through the sands of time.

‘The Director-General of Forest Conservation in a letter to the Director-General of the Mahaweli Authority had stressed the clearing of lands while the Environment Impact Assessment is in its preliminary stage, had led to complications,’ said former JVP legislator Wasantha Piyatissa.

According to the letter, the Department of Forest Conservation has clearly stated it does not agree with the proposal.

Wasantha Piyatissa claimed the clearing of forest areas in the Rambakan Oya forest area is taking place with the blessing of a political force, adding Department of Forest Conservation had urged the project be suspended until the necessary reports and evaluations are carried out.

In 2020, the Ramabakan Oya Special Mahaweli Development Zone was vested with the Sri Lanka Mahaweli Authority, however, the management of forests was vested with the Department of Forest Conservation.

According to the documentation available in the public domain, it is clear the Department of Forest Conservation was never consulted with respect to the cleating of lands in the Rambakan Oya forest reserve.

The Department of Forest Conservation is legally empowered to intervene when an act of deforestation is taking place, especially on state-owned forest lands.

Surprisingly, the Director-General of the Mahawelia Authority had reportedly told the respective officers-in-charge of forest conservation to step away from the project, over a phone call dated the 13th of November 2020.

The Cabinet of Ministers approved the proposal to grant 2,750 acres of under-utilized lands identified from the Rambaken-oya zone, for the large-scale production of maize locally, the Department of Government Information said on Tuesday, February 02nd 2021.

According to a statement from the Department of Government Information, these lands are those which come under the purview of the Sri Lanka Mahaweli Authority and do not come under any reserve.

They are to be released to investors with the objective of encouraging the local agricultural producers.

The Cabinet of Minister granted approval for the project, subject to conditions.

These conditions include that no harm should be done to the water sources and water-ways as well as to upgrade the forest cover.

Further, the Department of Irrigation is to be kept informed if any water system is located on the borders of the said lands or within them.

Sadly, these conditions have been disregarded and a result of the deforestation taking place in Rambakan Oya, many water sources nourishing the forest, have dried up.

Another important condition listed is that development projects cannot take place along an elephant pass or natural habitats of wild animals.

This too had been disregarded, and the people of Pellebadda are now experiencing the consequences of such ad-hoc development projects.

A herd of 32 wild elephants terrorizes the Pollebedda village on a daily basis, while loggers continue to take away the homes of the wild elephants.

As a result of these arbitrary and improper events, the people in the villages are facing a daily battle in saving themselves and the forests.

Locals in the area had made it clear, Sri Lanka needs more forest cover than maize cultivations.

The deforestation of Rambaken Oya not only takes away a segment of the all-import forest cover of the country, it also wipes out the remnants of a great historic civilization in Sri Lanka.

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