By Nirmala Kannangara
“National and provincial UPFA politicians in the Uva Province are accused of acquiring and distributing state lands as if they are their private property.
They are causing destruction to the forest and even the irrigation reservoirs have been given to large agriculture projects depriving the villagers its water,” one voter said on condition of anonymity.
Startling revelations have now come to the limelight as to how the Forest Conservation and Wildlife Conservation Departments have allowed these politicians to encroach these lands without taking any action.
It is alleged that Coconut Development and Janatha Estate Development Minister Jagath Pushpakumara, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sumedha G. Jayasena, Wildlife Resources Conservation Minister Vijith Vijayamuni Soyza, Badulla District Parliamentarian Udith Lokubandara, Buttala Pradeshiya Sabha member H. R. N. Premaratne, Chairman Monaragala Pradeshiya Sabha R. N. Ratnaweera who is also Minister Jayasena’s Media Secretary and Monaragala Pradeshiya Sabha member Sanath Piyasoma have grabbed thousands of acres of forest lands, in this manner.
Meanwhile, Director Environment Conservation Trust, Sajeewa Chamikara said that several thousands of forest lands have been given to the infamous American Company – Dole Lanka for banana cultivation by these politicians.
“Over 6,000 acres of forest lands have been given to Dole Lanka and the water resources around this land are not allowed for the villagers but only for this company for its agriculture purposes. In addition, another 2,000 acres of lands have been given to Nelna Group for a mango plantation. All these lands have been given without obtaining the approvals from the respective government institutions. It is alleged that Minister Jagath Pushpakumara is behind this land allocation,” Chamikara claimed.
According to Chamikara, plans are afoot to acquire about 30,000 acres of more forest lands spanning in the villages of Thenagalanda, Kahambana, Marawa, Kaludiya Ella, Eththekatuwa, Upaliya, Niyadella, Rathri Wewa, Kotiyagala, Ethimale and Waththegama facing the northern boundary of the Yala National Park by a senior most politician of the area and Minister Jagath Pushpakumara.
“Him and Jagath Pushpakumara together with a few of their friends have drawn plans to take over these forest lands. Apart from them, few lucrative businessmen in Monaragala too are involved in this racket. Meanwhile Buttala Pradeshiya Sabha member H. R. N. Premaratne has obtained 100 acres of these forest lands and have sold them to businessmen in Colombo,” Chamikara alleged.
Meanwhile, reliable sources who wished to remain anonymous accused senior politicians of acquiring around 1,600 acres of lands that belongs to the State.
“Out of these 1,600 acres, 800 acres are from Bodagama in Thanamalwila. This land is to be developed under the Uma Oya project. Another 650 acres and 150 acres respectively that are adjoining Kumaragama Wewa and Naiwala Wewa have also been given,” the sources alleged.
The sources further added, “They have given these valuable lands on a 30 year lease agreement. One such beneficiary is Jewelex Kumaragama (Pvt) Ltd of 16, De Fonseka Road, Colombo 5. By lease agreement No. 615, Palugas Yaya, Nuge Yaya, Divulgas Yaya and Godegawa Yaya lands to the extent of 306 acres, 2 roods and 10.7 perches have been given to this company for Rs.153, 375. However the market value of this land is Rs.7.65 million. Another land from the Kataragama town to the extent of one acre and 31 purchases have been given to J. V. K. Holdings of No: 5, Pitakanda Road, Kandy on a 30 year lease agreement (Deed No: 643).”
Meanwhile Sajeewa Chamikara further accused Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sumedha G. Jayasena and her allies for the land grab at Maragala mountain range in Monaragala.
“Five hundred acres from Maragala mountain range have been given to one of their enterprises – Olvin. These lands belong to the Land Reclamation Board and this land has been given for a rubber plantation. They have already cleared 100 acres by now and have planted rubber saplings. In addition Minister Jayasena’s Media Secretary R. N. Ratnaweera who is also the Chairman Monaragala Pradeshiya Sabhawa and Pradeshiya Sabha member Sanath Piyasoma have encroached 20- 50 acres of lands from the same mountain range for their personal use,” alleged Chamikara.
According to Chamikara, the catchment area of the Weli Oya project has been acquired by Haputale MP Uditha Lokubandara to be given for a golf course and for a large hotel project.
“In addition, Lokubandara has earmarked yet another 100 acres in Balaharuwa which is to be developed under the Uma Oya project. Wildlife Resource Minister Vijith Vijayamuni Soyz too has taken over 1,000 acres of forest lands from Wilamba Wewa in the Lunugamvehera National Park. He is further in the process of encroaching into the Nilgala forest as well,” alleged Chamikara.
Chamikara further stated that the ruling party politicians have not stopped from grabbing state lands and accused the government for their attempt to deprive the Uva people of their water resources which are to be diverted to Mattala in Hambantota.
“From the Uma Oya project, the water resources in Uva are to be diverted to Hambantota while under the Udamavuara project water in the Walawe River is to be diverted to Mattala putting the Udawalawa project in great danger. All these illegal projects are to be carried out bypassing the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), Forest Conservation Ordinance, National Environmental Act, Land Ordinance and Land Acquisition Ordinance.
“As a result of this these activities, Lunugamvehera and Weheragala reservoirs have faced great threat and the agriculture industry in the Uva province is to collapsed further due to lack of water. This province that was able to produce rice for the entire country, has now failed to cultivate paddy for Yala and Maha season due to lack of water. They cultivate only when there is adequate rain – Yala season,” alleged Chamikara.
Chamikara further said that the wildlife in the sanctuaries too have had to suffer because of these unscrupulous projects and added that hundreds of animals in the Yala National Park died during the past few months due to the severe drought.
“Earlier, during a drought spell, these animals knew where to go in search of water. But this time all these tanks and rivers have gone dry and the animals died in vain. Also the encroachment in elephant corridors in wildlife and forest reserves have increased the human-elephant conflict in the Uva Province,” Chamikara said.
Although the Forest Conservation Department and the Wildlife Conservation Department is in deep slumber when the ruling party politicians are in the run to acquire more and more state lands, villagers in Rideemaliyadda in Mahiyanganaya – the second most poorest village in the country – complained that they have been deprived of entering the adjoining forest for chena cultivation.
“From the past we were engaged in chena cultivation and since recently we are not allowed to enter the forest to cultivate. We are not mass scale farmers but cultivate maze and a few crops for our consumption but not to sell. Recently the forest officials came and earmarked the boundaries and warned us not to enter the forest. Despite these warnings we still entered and cleared the shrubs to cultivate maze and green gram. The forest officers came and took us into custody. They also took away our agriculture gear and never returned them. We have been asked not to enter the forest even for firewood,” the villagers said.
When contacted Media Spokesperson DWC, Hasini Sarathchandra to find out whether wildlife lands in Uva have been given for politicians, Sarathchandra said that lands belongs to the DWC have not been given to any private party.
“We have not given any of our lands for any politicians,” she added.
However, inside sources from DWC, on condition of anonymity said that although the Wildlife Department has not given any of their lands officially to these politicians, the department is aware of these land grabs but does not take any action against the law breakers.
“It is a punishable offence to encroach state lands. Thousands of acres of wildlife lands in the Uva Province have been forcibly taken over by the politicians. We are helpless to act against these illegal grabbing. These lands are for the wildlife but not for the humans. This is one reason why human-elephant conflict is raging in the province as humans have encroached elephant corridors,” the sources said.
Meanwhile Conservator General Forest Anura Satharasinghe, when contacted said that his department has not given any forest land in Uva to any politician.
“We have not given our lands for any politicians. In fact, to my knowledge none of our lands have been encroached by politicians,” said Satharasinghe.
Although rampant land grabbing in Uva by the ruling party politicians is reported, the residents in Karavile, a hamlet in Badalkumbura in the Monaragala district, are to lose their lands for the proposed Kumbukkan Oya Project which is to be diverted to Hambantota.
The villagers accused the government for drawing secret plans to divert the Kumbukkan Oya, where over 11,000 acres of their lands are to go under water for the reservoir.
“We were told that once the dam is constructed to divert the Kumbukkan Oya to Hambantota, more than 11,000 acres of agriculture lands and our houses are to go under water to pave the way for the reservoir. Although the Irrigation Ministry has planned this project over the past few years, we were not told about this. It was only on February 5 we came to know about this when the surveyors came to survey our lands,” one of the villagers said.
Meanwhile, Chief Incumbent of the Karavile Sri Pungyasethraramaya, Ven. Waradola Ananda Sagara Thero too expressed concern.
“This is a village where all the villagers work hard for their living. When the prices of rubber and pepper went up, they planted rubber and pepper and now get a good yield – which means a good income. During the pepper season, the daily income of these villagers as a whole is more than Rs.10 million. A person who has a small plot of land will earn around Rs.4-5 lakhs a year from the pepper yield. What made the government to immerse this village when there are many state lands in the area which have now been encroached by the ruling party politicians. In order to save their encroached forest lands, the irrigation department is to take over our property,” Sagara Thero alleged. According to the Thero, it is said that once this Oya is diverted and a reservoir made, drinking water will be given to Siyambanduwa, Monaragala, Ethimale, Kotiyagala, Kahambana, Vedi Kumbura, Buttala and Okkampitiya and take the water to Hambantota.
Accusing the government, Sagara Thero also expressed concern over the repored likelihood of re-locating them in Ampara.
“The villagers have built their future in Karavile and if they are to be re-located in Ampara district, they will have to start to build up their future from the beginning. These people live on pepper and rubber businesses but when they are forced to leave, what would be their future,” asked the Thero.
According to Sagara Thero, the Badalkumbura Police have filed a case against the villagers for staging a protest against the government for their plan to take over the lands for the reservoir.
“There is a pending case against us at the Monaragala Magistrates Court. When this issue cropped up in January and February this year I first spoke to the Divisional Secretary and then the District Secretary. To our utter surprise, none of them knew about the proposed plan to divert the Kumbukkan Oya to Hambantota by submerging our lands. Then I met Minister Sumedha Jayasena and later the former Chief Minister Shashendra Rajapaksa. They too said they do not know anything about this,” Sagara Thero alleged.
The Thero meanwhile has wanted the Malwathu Mahanayaka Thero to intervene and has also asked help from Wildlife Minister Wijith Vijayamuni Soyza and Ministers Jagath Pushpakumara, Wimal Weerawansa, Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa and finally President Mahinda Rajapaksa.