New Amendments to the Act that Provide for Auctioning of Government Forests should be Stopped Immediately

New Amendments to the Act that Provide for Auctioning of Government Forests should be Stopped Immediately

Drafting of the amendment bill to amend the relevant sections of the Forest Conservation Ordinance in order to provide for the allocation of state forests for investment projects, which is a critical need of the present government, has already been completed with the intervention of Nishantha Edirisinghe, Conservator General of Forests. A large number of forests, that are not reserved forests or conservation forests and that are proposed to be declared as reserved forests in future, had been protected as other forests belonging to the state under Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance No. 16 of 1907 last amended by Act No. 65 of 2009. These are unique forest systems that connect the reserved forests, that act as water catchment areas for lakes and reservoirs, that provide habitat for many rare and endemic species that are endangered or threatened, and that serve as key habitats and corridors for elephants. The proposed amendment has been drafted with the key objective of amending Section 20 of this Ordinance, which ensures the protection of the said forests, so that those forests can be made available for commercial use.

It was on 21st August 2018 that Cabinet approval was obtained for amending the Forest Conservation Ordinance. Through the Cabinet Paper submitted for the said purpose, approval has been obtained for amending this Ordinance for the preservation of forests for the benefit of future generations, for the protection of the mineral resources in the reserved forests, for further strengthening of the powers of the forest conservation officers to preserve forests with special focus on biodiversity, soil, water, and cultural, religious, historical and aesthetic values. The proposed amendment bill has been drafted based on that approval, however the amendments have been made in contravention of all the objectives stated in the approved Cabinet Paper.

It has been stated in the proposed bill that a new Section 20(a) is added following Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance in order to add Sections providing for the declaration of other forests owned by the state as multiple-use management forests. Accordingly, the proposed amendment bill introduces a process that gives powers to the Minister in charge of the Subject to empower and manage non-governmental sectors to gain economic benefits through the generation of renewable energy, implementing eco-tourism projects and other identified activities in a multiple-use management forest. What is apparent from the inclusion of such clauses in the bill is that the proposed amendments to the Act have been drafted in complete contravention of the objectives stated in the Cabinet Paper through which approval has been obtained for the amendments.

The proposed amendments have violated the Constitution of the country, too. Article 27(14) of Chapter VI of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka entitled 'Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties' provides that the State shall protect, preserve and improve the environment for the benefit of the community, but what has been done instead is to create a process of destroying state forests by turning the such forests into a commodity for generating revenue.

There is mention of a similar amendment to the Act in the "Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project - ESCAMP" report prepared by the World Bank in 2016. As per the said report, reserved forest areas in this country cannot be used for income generation as such forests are controlled under a complex set of laws that prevent the use of such areas for commercial purposes, and therefore, attention has been drawn to the need for focusing much on the use of reserved forest areas for implementing tourism related projects by liberalizing this complex system of laws.

Under the loan assistance programme that was implemented based on this report, construction of new access roads for tourists, development of the existing roads and development of infrastructure for tourists were done in the reserved forests such as the Sinharaja National Heritage Forest, Knuckles Conservation Forest and Kanneliya Forest Reserve. The objectives of this project were to establish elephant-human coexistence through landscape planning and management and through sustainable use of natural resources. However, the key, hidden objective of this project was to amend the Forest Conservation Ordinance in order provide for turning of reserved forests into a revenue generating commodity.

Measures for achieving the said objective have now been implemented by President Ranil Wickramasinghe, Minister of Wildlife and Forest Resources Conservation, Pavitra Wanniarachchi, and Conservator General of Forests, Nishantha Edirisinghe. However, the fact that they have not paid attention to the massive destruction that will be caused by this is a paving way for a large-scale destruction. Therefore, they should take full responsibility for the destruction that will be caused.

While these amendments to the said Act were under way, the Cabinet of Ministers has decided on 4th March 2024 to establish a Land Management Trust for the proper disposal of state lands and the lands owned by statutory bodies for investment projects. Prior to this, Cabinet approval was obtained on 26 June 2023 to give 72,000 acres of land in the Vavuniya District to Sutech Engineering Company Pvt. Ltd., Thailand, on long-term lease basis to cultivate sugarcane. Apart from that, Cabinet approval was also granted on 30th August 2021 to give 104,000 acres of land in the Anuradhapura District to Aura Lanka Herbal Private Ltd.

In order to enable the implementation of all these activities, laws have to be made so that the state-owned forests that are managed under Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance can be given to companies or businessmen. Steps have been taken to get the powers required for carrying out all these activities through the proposed amendment to the Act.

Various measures were attempted recently to implement all these activities without amending the Act. First, an attempt was made through the Circular No. MWFC/01/2020 issued by the Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation on 04th November 2020 to place all the state forest lands that are not reserved forest under the custody of the Divisional Secretaries and District Secretaries. Thereafter, as the Divisional Secretaries can survey and demarcate the state lands that are allocated in terms of the abovementioned circular under Section 8 of the Land Development Ordinance subject to the General and Special provisions of the Commissioner General of Lands, it was due to survey and demarcate those lands for various development activities, expansion of villages and for protecting them for future development activities. However, since these these circulars have been issued illegally in violation of Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance, steps were taken through judicial measures to prevent the implementation of those circulars. Therefore, the present government has taken steps to amend the Forest Conservation Ordinance in order to get the state lands allocated. However, it is a pity that neither the government nor the higher officials of the Department of Forest Conservation have any feeling or understanding about the massive destruction that would be caused by this.

According to the last census of forests conducted by the Department of Forest Conservation in 2010, the total forest cover in the country is 1,951,473 hectares, which is 29.7% of the total area of the country. This forest cover includes dense forests, open forests, thorn forests, mangrove forests and grasslands in the Wet, Intermediate, Dry and Arid zones in the country. Out of these forests, the percentage of the available lowland rainforests is only 1.9%, which is 123,302 hectares in extent. The percentage of the high mountain forests is 0.7%, which is an extent of 44,758 hectares. The percentage of sub-montane forests is 0.4%, which is 28,513 hectares in extent. The extent of dry mixed evergreen forests is 1,121,392 hectares or 17.1% of the total forest cover. Mangrove forests account for 0.2% or around 15,670 hectares in extent.

As per the statistics of the Department of Forest Conservation in 2015, the land area of the forests controlled under Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance, known as proposed reserves to be declared as reserved forests and other forests owned by state is about 345,811 hectares or 854,155 acres. The Department will be deprived of all those forests through the proposed amendments to the Act, which is a plan to destroy 18% of the remaining forest lands in Sri Lanka.

If the country loses these forests, people of this country will have to face many serious issues such as escalation of the human-elephant conflict, increase of crop damage caused by wild animals, extinction of rare, endemic species, worsening of the agricultural and drinking water crisis, heightening of disaster situations and climate change, collapse of agricultural and aggravation of food crises. Therefore, we, the citizens of this country, have to take the lead role to immediately stop the amendment of the said Ordinance which has been proposed on wish of President Ranil Wickramasinghe in order to destroy the forest systems of the country.

Sajeewa Chamikara

Land and Agriculture Reforms Movement