By Rathindra Kuruwita
A group of lawyers and businessmen were attempting to take over large swathes of Wattegama – Kebilitta forest reserve for large-scale corn plantation, Sajeewa Chamikara of Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform alleged yesterday.
Chamikara told The Island that people with political backing had been attempting to encroach on land in the reserve for years. “However, officials and grassroots groups in the area have been able to thwart these moves. These racketeers now work with a group of lawyers to exploit the land use policy of this government. If they succeed, there will be an ecological catastrophe.
“This is a forest land protected for decades and in November 2012, the government declared it a forest reserve through a gazette notification 1789/9. The gazette declared 28,926 hectares as the Wattegama – Kebilitta forest reserve.”
The Wattegama-Kebilitta forest reserve is an inter monsoon forest, which is home to a large number of wild animals, including elephants.
This is also the main catchment area of several important water sources of the area including Wila Oya, Kumbukkan Oya, Kotiyagala Wewa and Wattarama Wewa.
Chamikara said that Wila Oya fed 47 tanks, while Kumbukkan Oya 93 tanks and 145 anicuts. The Ratmake Ara and Una Ela, which start from the Wattegama-Kebilitta forest reserve feed a number of tanks outside the reserve. Therefore, almost all farmlands in the area are dependent on this forest reserve. “The forest reserve is a part of a forest network that also includes the Yala National Park and Kumbukkana Forest Reserve,” Chamikara said.
“The Meethotakanaththa Wewa, the Lepolonara Wewa, the Mailla wewa, the Hansaweli wewa and the Warakanaththa wewa that are inside the Wattegama-Kebilitta forest reserve are important sources of water to wild animals. There are many elephants in the areas and they do not enter human settlements because of these tanks and the ample sources of food found inside the forest,” he said.
Research has found that Moneragala is the district with the fourth highest rates of human-elephant conflict. The district also reports significant damage to farms and property by marauding elephants.
“During the last decade, there have been 1,127 reported instances of human elephant conflict. Around 330 humans and elephants have died in the same period. The reason for the spike in cases is the destruction of elephant habitats and feeding grounds and the establishment of large farms that fragment forest areas,” Chamikara said.
According to the Land Use Policy Planning Department, the Moneragala District comprises 563,900 hectares, out of which 296,125 are forests and grasslands. This is 52% of the land area of the district. Although Siyambalanduwa, affected most by the human-elephant conflict in the district, has 41% of forest cover, this has been fragmented greatly in recent years due to large scale farms.
“These farms prevent elephants from freely travelling between forests. The establishment of these farms correlate with the increase in human-elephant conflict in the district. In the past, there was a lot of chena cultivations that only operated in the maha season. They were abandoned in the Yala season and acted as foraging areas for elephants. However, now, these lands are used for corn and sugar cane cultivation which are operational throughout the year. These farms are protected by electric fences, and these compel elephants to maraud villages. If large swaths of Wattegama-Kebilitta forest reserve are given for corn farming, the human elephant conflict in the surrounding areas will skyrocket,” Chamikara warned.
Chamikara said that the Wattegama-Kebilitta forest reserve was linked to a wider network of forests that had hundreds of elephants. The forest reserve was a part of a forest network that also includes the Yala National Park and Kumbukkana Forest Reserve. Lahugala – Kithulana National Park, Bakmitiyawa – Thimbirigolla forest reserve, Kudumbigala – Panama sanctuary and Kumana National Park were also a part of the forest network. Those forests reduced the human-elephant conflict to some extent and disrupting that network to please a few greedy individuals would place thousands of farmers in harm’s way, Chamikara said.
“Sri Lankans are already experiencing the results of deforestation. Even by 1961, we had about 44.2% forest cover (2, 898, 842 hectares.) By 1985, FAO research found that Sri Lanka had a forest cover of 37.5% (2,458,250 hectares.) The number reduced to 31.2% by 1992 (2,046,599 hectares.) By 2010, it was at 29.7% (1,942,219 hectares.) Thus between 1961 and 2010, 947, 370 hectares of forest land had been cleared. 124,992 hectares in the intermediate zone had been cleared between 1992 and 2010, which is half of the total intermediate forests in 1992. The result of this has been chronic water shortages for human consumption and agriculture in districts like Moneragala, a rapid increase in human-elephant conflict, changes in weather and climate patterns and the drop in productivity in agricultural lands. Given this context, the government must not allow large clearings of forest land to plant corn, mainly to feed animals,” he said.
Chamikara said that the Forest Conservation Department officials were desperately attempting to prevent the particular group of businessmen and lawyers from encroaching the Wattegama – Kebilitta forest reserve. Earlier, the government had planned to release 9,960 acres of land under the Forest Conservation Department to farmers of the area. The idea was to promote mixed cropping, which works well in climatic conditions of Moneragala. However, these powerful businessmen were not allowing the transfer of lands to the people as well, Chamikara alleged.
“In recent years, we saw corn being attacked by Sena caterpillars. Even this year thousands of acres of corn were destroyed. This is just an indication of monocropping being a bad system of agriculture and we really shouldn’t allow the destruction of a forest to encourage this unsustainable form of agriculture,” he said.