CA (Writ) 51/2018
The Wilpattu National Park (WNP) is the oldest and largest national park in Sri Lanka. It was declared as a sanctuary in 1905 and was given status as a National Park on the 25th of February, 1938. Upon granting the above legal protection status to the area in 1938 and again in different stages till 1973 under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), all private tenements, rights, privileges and entitlements seized to be operational over the said land except anything recognized by law as a traditional practice/usage. Hence, the said land declared ‘Protected’ was not privy for any human presence/cultivation/any trade or business or any other activity that used to take place in the said land prior to such declaration.
According to available information, there was a small jungle shrine in the Pallekhandal/Pomparippu area within Block V of the WNP, which was built over a few centuries ago. Over the years it has been recognised as a Catholic place of worship, which included a small chapel placed in an area less than a quarter of an acre, and the fishing communities who reside around the Puttalam lagoon would occupy this chapel for an annual feast.
Recently however, it has been observed that this shrine has been expanded to a greater size than the original status of the former jungle shrine; additional structures have been added with the forest cover being cleared beyond boundaries of the shrine. Development of roads for vehicle access in and out to the premises inside along with a set of new permanent structures have been added. The permanent structures within the national park include a water tank used for drinking water, accommodation facilities and a church bell.
It is pertinent to note that this was not an ancestral practice. Back in the day, temporary structures were used and dismantled subsequent to the feast, a conservative method of observing this religious festivity. The current setup has caused several detrimental consequences and is in violation of several laws of the country, including the FFPO.
The above mentioned clearings and continuous human activities within the National Park have resulted in an irrecoverable damage to the biodiversity of the WNP. It is imperative that immediate measures are taken to rectify the damage that has already been incurred to prevent the occurrence of any further damage.
EFL together with the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPS), instituted legal action on the 25th of January 2018, in the Court of Appeal, challenging the unlawful and unregulated religious festivities taking place at the Pallekhadal Church within WNP. For a very long time, there has been a small jungle shrine in the Pallekadal/ Pomparippu area recognised as a Catholic place of worship. However, once WNP was re-opened after the war, there has been a rapid expansion of a large church with permanent structures within the national park. Moreover, there is increased human intrusion into the national park as a result of large-scale festivities of the church. EFL is challenging the unlawful/ unregulated activities taking place inside the national park resulting from the religious festivities.
This case was supported and subsequently called for Notice Returnable on 06.03.2018. The 4th Respondent argued that the church is not within the national park and the festivities happen only with monthly masses and annual feast. The Mannar and Puttalam congregation wanted to intervene in this matter and was allowed intervention subject to objections. The Attorney General’s Department was strongly opposing to the activities of the church, in particular the large scale camping sites.
The case was up for mention on the 1st of June 2018 where the 4th respondent was going to file his objections in the Court of Appeal.
However, the Counsel appearing for the 4th respondent mentioned that, they have not filed objections since the caption amended recently for the Minister of Wildlife, who ceased to hold the portfolio. Therefore, he requested further time from Court to file objections.
As a result, the court directed the respondent to file his objections by the 25th of June 2018 following which, the petitioners will be directed to file counter objections on 4th of July 2018.
The case is fixed for argument on the 12th September 2018.