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Air Force Commander Lays Siege To A World Heritage Site

Aug 7, 2010 3:00:34 PM - thesundayleader.lk

By Gazala Anver

The bungalow which belongs to the SLAF commander

Air Force Commander, Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonatilake, is illegally constructing a house in Sudugalla, in the protected Knuckles conservation forest area. Sajeewa Chamikara, Program Manager of the Sri Lanka Nature Forum said they are convinced the house indeed belongs to the Air Chief.

The Sunday Leader drew a blank when we contacted the SLAF Spokesperson, Group Captain Janaka Nanayakkara. He refused to confirm or deny the story.

However, a fellow officer and close associate of the Air Force Commander, requesting anonymity revealed that the Commander is in fact building a house in Sudugalla.

The house is a two storied structure, with eight bedrooms and attached baths and is fully tiled, according to Sajeewa Chamikara, who says it has been built on 12 perches of land in Knuckles.

Chamikara, having visited the site said it has been built as a holiday bungalow. “It is built just like a hotel, so it has to be his holiday bungalow,” he said.

“We are aware of illegal constructions in Sudugalla,” says the Divisional Secretary of the Laggala-Pallegama area, P.H.M.M. Premasinghe, member of the committee appointed under the National Environmental Act. He said that after investigations, they found out that the land is under the name of a man called Rohitha Silva and that the environmental authorities have already contacted him.

Rohitha Silva, according to Premasinghe, owns the land but not the building. Silva is yet to respond to a letter demanding that he demolish the newly built structure on the land as it is illegal. Land can be bought and privately owned around the Knuckles Conservation Forest,  Premasinghe said, but special permission has to be secured before any form of construction can take place. In this case, Premasinghe asserted such permission has not been sought or given.  Under these laws, any construction has to be first approved by the committee appointed under the National Environmental Act.

This however, the Sri Lanka Nature Forum claims, has not been done. Furthermore, such illegal constructions are rapidly leading to the extinction of a few rare endemic and endangered species, some of them found exclusively in this region.

Premasinghe meantime added that they had also heard that the house is in fact owned by the Air Force Commander, but they don’t have proof yet. Central Environmental Authority Chairman, Charitha Herath, also said that Rohitha Silva has been contacted by the authorities but that he does not know if Roshan Goonetilaka is involved. Despite countless attempts to get through to the Air Force Commander, a male who answered Goonetilaka’s mobile telephone reiterated, “he does not want to talk to you.”

Knuckles was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has also been declared as a conservation forest in 2007 and as an environmental protection area in 2008. The area is under protection of the National Environmental Act as well as the Soil Protection Act.

The other law-breakers

Names of other people, who also illegally constructed in the Knuckles Conservation Forest area, have been revealed by the Sri Lanka Nature Forum.

Among those is that of a foreign researcher called Dr. Ditas for building in Giriswatte, Hafnin Musaji in Riwastan, the owner of Kottegoda Batik in Pathana and Upul Halangoda in Cobert’s gap.

The Central Environmental Authority meanwhile has been taking steps to stop these constructions.

Chairman, Charitha Herath said that they have a directive, which includes sending a warning letter to the offender and informing the police about this development.

They are currently also observing the situation from their Kandy office and if their directives don’t work out, they would take the matter to court.

He said that his inspecting teams are working on finding the owners and bringing this situation to a close. However, apart from Rohitha Silva, they have not been able to name any of the other owners up to date.