Former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has alerted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the threat posed to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve in Sri Lanka.
In a letter to Ms. Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, Samaraweera says the Sinharaja Forest Reserve in Sri Lanka which was recognised as a World Heritage Property by UNESCO, in 1988, is under threat.
Samaraweera says there had been several attempts to construct roads bordering the Forest Reserve on previous occasions which were stopped, and by Gazette Extraordinary 2150/31 dated 20 November 2019, the former President authorised the expansion of the Forest Reserve to quadruple the protected area to counter the fragmentation of the forest. This measure of demarcating new boundaries commenced as far back as the year 2000, and it was meant to increase the size of the protected area to 36,000 hectares.
However, while the expansion of the Forest Reserve remains pending despite its authorization in November 2019 by Extraordinary Gazette 2150/31 of 20 November 2019, it was revealed on 10 August 2020, that the Sri Lanka Army had been entrusted with, and had commenced constructing a road from Lankagama to Deniyaya located on the border of Sinharaja.
The construction involves heavy machinery and cutting down large trees causing immense short and long-term damage to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. While construction was temporarily halted on 19 August 2020 in the face of protests, on 29 August 2020, it was reported that the President, having visited the area, had ordered the road from Lankagama to Neluwa, through the Sinharaja Forest Reserve to be built within 90 days “without harming the environment”.
The specific issue of constructive this road is said to involve an isolated village known as Lankagama, bordering the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Ginganga (river) and the 1.3 km of road that runs through the Reserve. The 8 foot wide 1.3 km stretch of road within the Reserve is to be expanded by the Army, and this would involve encroachment of the Forest Reserve. It is said that in some areas, the road is to be widened to between 12 to 20 feet.
Environmentalists who visited the area had discovered that the Army has been entrusted with the widening of the road, while the Road Development Authority has been placed in-charge of concreting the road. Moreover it had been discovered that the usual guidelines and reports that are necessary to be obtained from the Central Environment Authority, the Forest Department and the Irrigation Department when undertaking projects of this nature,
had not been obtained in this instance; and that the Army had not been in possession of essential information and guidelines regarding retaining walls to maintain drainage, culverts, soil conversation methods, and managing landslide-prone areas in
respect of the road that they have been tasked with expanding and developing. Another matter of serious concern is that although the impression given is that the road is being developed at the request of villagers, some allege that the actual parties calling for the
building and enhancing of the road are not the villagers but parties with certain vested interests such as tourist hotels, and cultivation of tea and cinnamon, that would lead to even further encroachment in the future.
Environmentalists in Sri Lanka including the Centre for Environment and Nature Studies (CENS) have complained about this development to UNESCO. They have also launched an online petition to get public support to halt the work on the construction of the road.
Environmentalists point out that building the road would lead to hotels and shops being constructed along the way, and the Forest Reserve being encroached upon further including for cultivation purposes, and result in increase of vehicular traffic including at night time, increase in illegal activities including bio-piracy, and pollution of the river (Ginganga).
Considering these reasons, Samaraweera urged that UNESCO calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to halt construction of this road with immediate effect and provide to the Government of Sri Lanka, expertise to study the current status of Sinharaja and the possible short and long-term impacts of the current road construction project.
He says it would be helpful if such expertise includes knowledge of examples from other countries as well as expertise on holding consultations with the affected populations and providing alternatives that would help Sri Lanka and the world conserve the Sinharaja Forest Reserve for the benefit not just of Sri Lanka but the region as well as the Planet. (Colombo Gazette)