Pallekhandal Church within Wilpattu National Park

CASE NUMBER

CA (Writ) 51/2018

Overview

The Wilpattu National Park (WNP) is the oldest and the largest national park in Sri Lanka. It was declared as a sanctuary in 1905 and was given status as a National Park on the 25 February 1938. Upon granting the above legal protection status to the area in 1938 and again in different stages till 1973, all private tenements, rights, privileges and entitlements ceased to be operational over the land, except anything recognised by law under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, as a traditional practice/usage. Hence, once the Wilpattu National park was declared and granted its protected status, no further cultivation/trade or any other activities could take place within the declared land area, honouring its status as a national park, ensuring that all human activity within the declared area is controlled in a manner that protects its flora and fauna.

Built over a few centuries ago, there was a small jungle shrine in the Pallekhandal/Pomparippu area within Block V of the WNP. 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. The fishing communities who reside around the Puttalam lagoon would visit this chapel for an annual feast. However, later, it has been observed that this shrine has expanded to a greater size than the original status of the former jungle shrine. Additional structures have been added beyond the boundaries of the shrine while clearing the forest cover. Currently, there are permanent structures and roads in place for vehicles to access the church. The permanent structures within the National Park include a water tank used for drinking water, accommodation facilities and a church bell. Each year when the church feast is held, there is increased human intrusion to the WNP with over 300,000 devotees from all over Sri Lanka congregating at the Pallekandal church. During the festivities there are food stalls, loud speakers, campsites that are instituted within the boundaries of the WNP.

It is pertinent to note that this was not an ancestral practice. Earlier, conservative methods of observing religious festivities were adopted in which temporary structures were used and dismantled subsequent to the feast. The magnitude in which the church festivities currently take place is a direct breach of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance causing

The above mentioned clearings and continuous human activities within the National Park have resulted in irreversible harm to its biodiversity. It is imperative that immediate measures are taken to rectify the damage that has already incurred to prevent further disturbance at the park.

Court case 

EFL together with the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPS) (Petitioners), instituted legal action on the 25 January 2018 in the Court of Appeal, challenging the unlawful and unregulated large scale religious festivities taking place at the Pallekhadal Church within WNP. Mr. Kanag Iswaran PC and Mrs.Wardani Karunaratna appear for the Petitioners. This case was supported and Notice was issued on all Respondents. Currently, the Petitioners along with the Respondents are in discussion to seek an amicable manner to mitigate the impacts of the church festivities by regulation. This case will be mentioned on 22 January 2019.

This case was supported and subsequently called for Notice Returnable on 06 March 2018. The 4th Respondent argued that the church is not within the national park and the festivities happen only with monthly masses and an 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, particularly, 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 25 June 2018 following which, the Petitioners will be directed to file counter objections on 4 July 2018.

The case continued on 8 October 2018 where Mr.Kanag Iswaran PC with Mrs.Wardani Karinaratna appeared for EFL.

The Court of Appeal allowed intervention by the Parish Priest of ‘Our Lady Assumption Church’, Mullikulam with two others and the Parish Priest of St. Jude’s Church Wanathavilluwa with four others as Respondents.

On 3 January 2018, a multi-stakeholder meeting was convened by the Department of Attorney General upon the direction of the Court of Appeal to regulate the festivities of the Pallekandal Church. The proposed regulatory framework drafted according to the suggestions of all stakeholders were forwarded to the Respondents.
The case was taken before the Court of Appeal on 08.03.2019 and Court fixed the case for Support for Interim Relief on 28 May 2019.