- Sri Lanka’s Forest Department has begun a 1 billion rupee ($5 million) program to reforest part of the Wilpattu Forest Complex, following a court ruling that ordered a top government official to pay for the effort.
- The government had declared the area a protected forest reserve in 2012, but the following year approved the development there of settlements for people displaced by the country’s civil war.
- Environmental groups said the process, and subsequent forest clearing, was illegal and took the issue to court in 2015; the ruling was handed down in November 2020, with the minister responsible for the resettlement program, found liable.
- In its judgment, the court cited the “polluter pays” principle from the Rio Declaration, as well as the government’s moral and legal obligations to protect the environment.
COLOMBO — As Sri Lanka’s Forest Department embarks on a reforestation campaign in an area previously cleared for new settlements, environmental activists and lawyers have hailed the unprecedented court ruling that ordered a top government official to pay for the effort.
Replanting in the affected 1,200-hectare (3,000-acre) part of the Wilpattu Forest Complex (WFC) has just begun, following the court order handed down last November. In its ruling, the country’s Court of Appeal found in favor of a petition by environmental groups to hold a government minister, Rishad Bathiudeen, liable for illegal forest clearing in the WFC, a Ramsar wetland, and ordered him to pay for reforestation, estimated at more than 1 billion rupees ($5 million).
“The Court of Appeal decision emphasizes the role of the state in protection of nature and its resources,” said Bhagya Wickramasinghe, the chief lawyer at the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL), a prominent NGO. “We earnestly look forward to the speedy and effective implementation of this decision by the relevant state authorities.”
She added the ruling also has “great significance in giving effect to the ‘polluter pays’ principle,” which is enshrined in Principle 16 of the Rio Declaration and which the court cited to justify imposing the cost of the reforestation on Bathiudeen.
Resettlement in forest areas
The issue dates back to 1990, in the midst of Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war, when the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or “Tamil Tigers,” drove out the inhabitants of a Muslim hamlet north of Wilpattu National Park (WNP). When the war ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE, local politicians sought to allow the villagers to return. Those efforts were still being debated when, in 2012, the government designated several tracts of land in the area, including the site of the hamlet, as forest reserves.
But the lobbying continued, and in 2013, the Forest Department released some of the forest areas for resettlement. That effectively permitted the clearing of 1,200 hectares inside forest reserves that form part of the Wilpattu Forest Complex but lie outside the borders of the national park itself. Bathiudeen was at the time the minister of industry and commerce and had a role in government efforts to resettle internally displaced persons (IDPs).
As part of the agreement, the settlements could not extend beyond 250 meters (820 feet) from the existing road. In reality, however, forest areas have been cleared, said Hemantha Withanage, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), which brought the issue to court in 2015.
In its petition to the court, the CEJ alleged that both the forest clearing and the resettlement effort were illegal, given that the area in question had already been designated a forest reserve. For the program to have been allowed to proceed, said CEJ chair Ravindranath Dabare, who testified in court, the area’s reserve status should have been formally rescinded through the proper procedures, which was not done.
“Whether a forest is protected or not, to clear a forest area of over 1 hectare [2.5 acres] requires an environmental impact assessment [EIA], and any such activity [without an EIA] is illegal and should be considered unlawful clearance,” Dabare told Mongabay.
Court upholds “polluter pays” principle
In its ruling last year, the court said that while Sri Lanka’s IDPs must be resettled, but that in this instance, the effort contravened existing laws. It added the judiciary has a duty to “protect, preserve and improve the environment for the benefit of the community as directed by the Constitution.”
In addition to citing the “polluter pays” principle, the court referred to the moral obligation to protect the environment, a feature of the Buddhist faith that most Sri Lankans subscribe to. “In Buddhism, the Kutadanta Sutta states that it is the responsibility of the government to protect trees and other organic life and that the state should take active measures to protect flora and fauna,” the ruling reads. “According to Hinduism, when a person is engaged in killing creatures, polluting wells, and ponds and tanks, and destroying gardens, he goes to hell.”
Kokila Konasinghe, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Colombo, said the judgment builds on previous rulings that bode well for environmental conservation in Sri Lanka. The latter include the Eppawala judgment, which in 1999 upheld the rights of a local community against a bid to mine phosphate in the Eppawala region; and the more recent Chunnakam judgment, from 2019, which found the operators of a coal-fired power plant liable for extensive pollution of groundwater near the city of Jaffna.
Reforestation in the dry zone
While environmental activists have welcomed the Wilpattu ruling and the start of reforestation efforts, they acknowledge that the task will be a difficult one. Wilpattu is located in Sri Lanka’s dry zone and is among the driest areas, often suffering prolong droughts.
Nimal Gunatilleke, emeritus professor of botany at the University of Peradeniya, said the trees planted under the reforestation program would need to be maintained for at least a decade to reverse the impact of the earlier clearing and ensure the replanting is practically successful.
The reforestation site is subject to prolonged droughts, with much of the precipitation coming during the November-April monsoon. Native tree species here have evolved to survive in these seasonally dry conditions, with adaptations that include slower growth rates than vegetation in wetter parts of Wilpattu, Gunatilleke told Mongabay.
“So these plants are going to need protection for a significantly long period as they can be easily destroyed by prolonged droughts, fire and destruction caused by wild animals,” he said.
“It is a daunting task,” he added.
Banner image of the Wilpattu lowland forest, courtesy of Namal Kamalgoda.