In 1988, the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) first filed action regarding illegal encroachment into Hakgala Strict Nature Reserve (HSNR) against the government department mandated to manage it – the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). At this time, the DWC claimed that they had been authorised to allow encroachments via a letter by the Secretary to the Minister of State. The Court duly ruled that this attempt to bypass the legal provisions that afford HSNR the highest protection should be disregarded completely, and that all squatters within the boundaries specified in the gazette of 1938 should be evicted. Despite DWC giving an undertaking in court to evict all squatters, they have subsequently taken no action.
During the period of 1988 to 2002, the prevailing political uncertainty and security concerns in Sri Lanka were used as an excuse to undermine the Rule of Law in general, and scant regard was paid to Protected Areas (PA) such as HSNR. Little progress was made in observing the earlier court decisions. After the 2002 ceasefire agreement, these excuses could no longer be upheld. Although the general public had for a long time been aware of the rapid degradation of the SNR, concerned citizens had until recently not been able to voice their worries or to seek redress for the environmental damage caused.
Early in 2005, EFL was once again in a position to respond to complaints received. Members of the communities who live around Hakgala and those dependent on its goods and services objected that the SNR had been encroached and that local politicians and government decision-makers were either directly involved in these illegal acts, or were allowing them to happen. EFL sent a small team from its Legal and Science Divisions to investigate these complaints and found that there was, indeed, a serious problem.
EFL, in July 2005, organised a national open forum on HSNR and the problems it faces. This aimed to take these local concerns to the national level, and to bring them to the attention of key decision-makers and members of the conservation community. A policy paper was subsequently published by EFL in English, Sinhala and Tamil that outlined in detail, the status, problems, consequences and required responses to the illegal encroachment of Hakgala and other protected watershed forests.
In response to the public calls for action, EFL has for the past two years been undertaking a programme for research, awareness-building and advocacy on the problems besetting Hakgala. A series of policy briefs and technical documents have been published, open forums have been convened, legal and mediation support has been provided, and court cases have been investigated which aim to halt illegal activities and bring offenders to book.
On the 23rd of March 2006, a landmark national case citing the DWC, Divisional Secretariats and other government institutions was filed in the Court of Appeal. This asked for further encroachments in HSNR to be halted immediately, and for the present encroachers in the HSNR as originally gazetted to be evicted. This case was successful, in that the respondents agreed by means of an undertaking in court to halt encroachments and evict the squatters.
However, despite escalating public concern about the state of Hakgala, and the court judgments in its favour, HSNR and the lands surrounding it continue to be encroached, deforested and degraded.
According to the Gazette notification of 1938, DWC was to demarcate the boundaries of HSNR. Since the year 2006, EFL has been trying to protect the reserve from the illicit felling of trees, large scale cultivation and encroachment of forest lands. 1175 acres of the HSNR is under strict protection. On the last court date – 23/07/2012 – it was stated by the respondent that steps are being taken to evict those residing in illegal dwellings within the SNR. The DWC has also taken satisfactory steps to demarcate the boundaries of HSNR. However, the boundaries that have been placed near the Ambewela Farm by the CWC, makes it appear that the farm is in fact, outside the boundary of HSNR when in actuality, the area of the farm itself belongs to the reserve. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has been instructed by the Court, not to provide electricity to the buildings within the reserve. The Divisional Secretary of the Nuwara Eliya district has undertaken the responsibility not to issue, renew or extend any permit in respect of HSNR. Since 2006, over 35 sign boards with laws in relation to HSNR have been fixed by the DWC along the exterior and interior of the reserve.
Update 07.02.2020: The case is fixed for argument on 20.02.2020.