Environmental Foundation (Guarantee) Limited together with the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society filed a Fundamental Rights application in the Supreme Court (SC (Ref) No. 130/2017- pending support) objecting to the illegal clearing of Reserved Forests in the Wilpattu Forest Complex, on the 31st of March 2017. The respondents for the case include, among others, the Forest Department, Central Environmental Authority, Department of Wildlife Conservation, and the District Secretariat of Mannar. The grievances highlighted in the petition include the unlawful release of forest reserve land for the purpose of resettlement as well as the irreparable and grave environmental damage caused to the Wilpattu Forest Complex due to the unlawful deforestation and construction activities.
The Wilpattu Forest Complex is composed of a diverse range of ecosystems including dry deciduous forests, thorny scrub jungles and wetlands. This designated Ramsar site is made up of 7 forest reserves, 2 sanctuaries and a national park, which is also the oldest and largest national park in the country. These protected areas, which fall under the mandate of the Forest Department and Department of Wildlife Conservation, form a contiguous flourishing ecosystem that sustains high levels of biodiversity, including species such as leopards, elephants and sloth bears.
Since 2011, deforestation has been taking place within the boundaries of the Maraichukkaddi-Karadikkuli (Kallaru Forest), Vilaththikulam and Veppal Forest Reserves, with land being cleared for the alleged ‘resettlement’ of IDPs. According to Google Earth images from 1984- 2015, 157 acres in Veppal, 700 acres in Vilaththikulam and 1351 acres in Maraichukkaddi-Karadikkuli Forest Reserves have been cleared. Site visits conducted in December 2016 and January 2017 by EFL, confirmed extensive forest clearing within demarcated boundaries of the reserves, along with the presence of completed and semi-completed housing schemes, makeshift roads and other infrastructure developments including electrical transmission lines stretching into the Vilaththikulam Forest Reserve.
In 2013, the forest reserve land was allegedly released for resettlement by the Forest Department who instructed that arrangements be made to transfer the land to the Divisional Secretary of Mannar. The clearing of forest reserves exceeds the initial extent, and has occurred without an Initial Environmental Examination or an Environmental Impact Assessment, which is a violation of the National Environmental Act No.47 of 1980 (as amended). The Petition also highlights the fact that as per Google Earth images available up to 1984, the clearing has taken place in pristine forest land, with no evidence of previous settlements to be seen, despite alleged settlements used to justify the forest clearing.
The Petitioners also noted that the declaration of a new Conservation Forest in Wilpattu on the 27th of March 2017 did not legalize the clearing, even if heavily deforested parts of the reserves were excluded from the Conservation Forest. Rather, this underscores the ecological value of the Wilpattu Forest Complex, which is a vital part of Sri Lanka’s natural heritage.