(November 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Department of Forest Conservation has allocated 225 acres of forest land to expand the HVA Farm Project which has been in operation for years in a total area of 35 acre forest land belonging to Ralmaduwa‐Achchimale Archaeological Reserve, Thabbowa Sanctuary and Weerakkulichole‐Eluwankulama Proposed Forest Reserve in Puttalam District. In addition, an area of 75 acres of forest land has been grabbed and an electric fence has been erected surrounding this area. Instead of arresting this unwarranted project, a 225 acre land has been provided to the company from Weerakkulichole‐Eluwankulama Proposed Forest Reserve and Thabbowa Sanctuary disclosing to the whole world how feebly the law is enforced in the country under political influence and the lure of lucre. Despite the fact that there is no lawful transfer deed for these 75 acres which should have been crown land, a formal face has been given to the deed forged by the Wanathawilluwa Divisional Secretariat providing cover to the company. Well‐informed of the situation though, the deed has been acknowledged by the Land Commission Department.
Furthermore, the Environmental Authority of the Northwestern Province has granted permission to the expansion of this large‐scale project which is situated in the midst of a habitat of the Elephant in the Buffer Zone of the Wilpattu National Park.
This unwarranted Project of HVA Farms, is located near the left bank of the Kala Oya which marks the Southern boundary of the Wilpattu National Park. To be exact, it’s situated in the Achchimale village of the Ralmaduwa Grama Niladhari Division (No. 635) of the Wanathawilluwa Divisional Secretariat Division in the Puttalam District. This so called ‘Eco‐friendly Organic Farm’ which is named H.V.A. Farms (Pvt) Ltd. was operated as a pilot project of fruit farming in an area of 35 acres. The main office of this company which is owned by Mr. Rohan Fernando, son‐in‐law of Minister Sarath Amunugama is at No. 39 A, Linton Road, Kandana.
Boundary stones of the Proposed Reserve Installed by the Department of Forest Conservation
This 35 acre forest land, which was cleared for the project encompasses areas conserved by two Wildlife reserves. Better part of this project area is situated in the Weerakkulichole‐Eluwankulama Proposed Forest Reserve which has an area of 30,128.9 hectares and is in the custody of the Department of Forest Conservation. Boundary stones of the Proposed Reserve installed by the Department of Forest Conservation can be seen in the project area. Another portion of the land belongs to the Thabbowa Sanctuary which spans 2193.309 hectares and was declared a Sanctuary by Gazette Notification bearing No. 1245/31 dated 19th July 2002. Moreover, the area belongs to the Achchimale Archeological Reserve.
The relevant government officers pathetically remain deaf and blind to the issue allowing destruction of the resources of our future generations under the influence of politics and personal monetary gains.
It is important to uncover how location of these farm lands were facilitated in areas reserved for wildlife conservation. Crown lands in these areas are commonly grabbed and used for plantation of many crops. First, only 2 to 3 acres of land is cleared and crops are cultivated. Next, when the officers from the Divisional Secretariat Office inspect the relevant land, the culprits request for the one year license for utilizing these lands. H.V.A. Farms (Pvt) Ltd. has not been an exception. Initially, they had requested permission to cultivate in an area of 4 acres in 1997 and subsequently, 8 and 25 acres of land has been requested for a pilot project. Having considered this request the Northwestern Provincial Land Commissioner Department had granted license to use an area of 4 acres of forest land for a period of one year for plantation.
H.V.A. Farms has cleared 35 acres of forest land and cultivated crops of banana, papaya, orange and mango from time to time misusing this license. The natural forest cover has been removed completely in order to cultivate these crops. Water has been obtained from the Ralmaduwa stream which flows near the site. The company has requested the Northwestern Provincial Environmental Authority to grant a further area of 100 hectares (around 250 acres) of forest for cultivation on 24th March 1998 through the Board of Investment. In response, the Northwestern Provincial Environmental Authority has informed the company to produce an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report in order to obtain approval as per the Gazette Notification bearing No. 1020/21 dated 27.03.1998 published under the provisions of Northwestern Province Environmental Statute No. 12 of 1990. The EIA Report has been produced to the Northwestern Provincial Environmental Authority on 28.07.1999. Since the land area in concern belongs to the buffer zone of the Wilpattu National Park and the catchment area of the Kala Oya, the Wildlife Department refused to grant permission for development of this land.
The Land Use Committee which comprised of the District Secretariat and representatives from Department of Forest Conservation, Department of Wildlife Conservation, Department of Archeology, Northwestern Provincial Environmental Authority, Department of Irrigation, Land Use Planning Division and Divisional Secretariat Office decided unanimously that this land shall not be released for development considering the environmental and archaeological significance of the area after discussing the matter on 02.04.2003.
As per the regulations of the Land Ordinance, it is compulsory to obtain recommendation from all the relevant authorities before releasing a land exceeding 50 acres in area for agricultural purposes. Grabbing a crown land which is thoroughly protected with such legal provisions by a private company is a blatant display of contempt of the state legislation. During the course of excavation of the land in order to erect the buildings of the H.V.A. Farms, a two foot marble statue of the Lord Buddha has been discovered. Moreover, a granite slate and several granite pillars have been discovered from this area. All these have been placed in front of their building without proper protection. A total land area of 2.5 acres (which includes the site of this building) from where relics were recovered has been declared an Archaeological Reserve by the Department of Archaeology. It is essential to consider how fair it is to convert a land of such immeasurable importance into cultivation.
The H.V.A. Farm Project site is a haunt of the Elephant. The surrounding area contributes to form the forest ecosystem associated with the Wilpattu National Park. The company has taken substantial efforts to drive away the elephants frequenting the area. Even we have observed the damage caused by the elephants to the plantation. In 2003, the District Land Use Committee unanimously concluded that this project should be expelled from this location, having considered this situation. Since the company did not vacate the land, the Environmental Foundation Limited filed a case against persisting in the location. Later, the case (bearing No. 35/2007) was heard at the High Courts. Opening a new chapter in the judiciary realm, the former Chief Justice Mr. Sarath N. de Silva ordered an alternate land be provided instead of expelling the unwarranted plantation project. Making use of this court order, H.V.A. Farm has obtained a land area of 225 acres of forest in Weerakkulichole‐Eluwankulam Proposed Reserve from the Department of Forest Conservation. Even though the court order does not mention that this alternate land should be provided from a Forest Reserve or a Proposed Forest Reserve, with political influence, the officers of the higher echelons of Department of Forest Conservation has provided these lands.
Electric Fence Installed Around the Site
An elephant corridor that connects Wilpattu National Park to the Karuwalagas Wewa forest falls across this area. Installation of an electric fence disrupting this passage will cause an expensive damage to the Human‐ Elephant Coexistence in this area. The Ralmaduwa stream flowing near the margin of this plantation does not dry out even during the most severe droughts. Therefore, elephants travel to this area to drink water. But presently, this plantation has deprived them of access to their established water source. Challenge to the Forest Conservation Ordinance and Northwestern Provincial Environmental Statute This assignment of forest land is indisputably illegal. Lands in the custody of Department of Forest Conservation cannot be assigned in this manner. This unmitigated violation of the Forest Conservation Ordinance as amended by Amendment Act bearing No. 56 of 2009 by the Department of Forest Conservation itself providing forest land from Weerakkulichole‐Eluwankulama Proposed Reserve fills us with grief.
Further, disputing the Northwestern Provincial Environmental Statute and the unanimous decisions taken during the initial stages of the process, Environmental Recommendation has been granted to the project. According to the Gazette Notification bearing No. 1020/21 dated 27th March 1998 published under the provisions of the above mentioned Statute, it is compulsory to obtain written recommendation from the relevant authority prior to commencement of a non‐forest related developmental activity in a forest land exceeding one acre subject to the Environmental Impact Assessment Process. The Environmental Impact Assessment Report produced for this purpose is incompetent and the scope covered is inadequate. It surprises us that the Northwestern Environmental Authority could be so overtly arrogant as to recommend in 2011, a project unanimously denied by the Land Use Committee of the Puttalam District in 2003 which constituted of all the relevant government officers.
No Organic Certification has been obtained for this project which has been falsely introduced as ‘Environment Friendly Organic Agriculture’. According to the internationally recognized standards of organic certification (as recommended by IFOAM‐ International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement), organic agriculture cannot be carried out on cleared forest lands and organic certification is not granted for such cultivations. Our research on this project revealed that agrochemicals are being used for this plantation and that the produce is not meant for export purposes. Moreover, unlike in the case of real organic agriculture, no records have been kept regarding this plantation. We state, with responsibility, that this unscrupulous project is being carried out deceiving the government organizations using ‘Organic Agriculture’ as a title to shield its true nature. Instead of bringing the culprits to justice, the officers responsible for taking measures against keep their tongues tied abetting these activities. This situation facilitates and also, encourages, stepwise destruction of protected forests by private companies. Since the law was not enforced at the initial stages, 225 acres of land has been lost from the Weerakkulichole‐Eluwankulama Proposed Forest Reserve. It is not a mere loss of forest land, but, deprivation of Endangered Asian Elephant of its native habitat and an Elephant Corridor.
Electric Fence Installed Around the Site
We expect that the Department of Forest Conservation and the Northwestern Provincial Environmental Authority will boldly redeem themselves and prevent any further damage to the invaluable forests of the country. Or else, the 75 acres that has been separated by an electric fence by the H.V.A. Farms having obtained by forged documents and the 225 acres assigned by the Department of Forest Conservation through illegal means will be cleared shortly. We demand that these institutions attend to the matter urgently and with genuine commitment right away because there is no point in closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.