Stop Deforestation in Wilpattu Forest Complex
The Wilpattu Forest Complex (referred to in this petition as WFC) bordering the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka, is an important ecological complex and a cradle of global biodiversity, home to close to 1,000 plant and animal species. (It is important to note that sometimes the WFC is called ‘Wilpattu’ or ‘Wilpattuva’ in the vernacular language and should not be confused with Wilpattu National Park. Wilpattu National Park (hereafter “WNP”) is the main constituent of WFC; however, it is only one part of the WFC. In effect, a number of peripheral forests and sanctuaries and WNP link up to create a large habitat that is more than the sum of its parts; these other lands include the Kallaru Forest, Wilpattu North Sanctuary, Thabbowa Sanctuary, Vilatthaikulam, Mavillu, and the Veerakkulicholai-Eluvankulama Proposed Reserve. The fact of this larger habitat, i.e. the ‘forest complex’, is vital to the point of this petition.
Wilpattu Forest Complex has shown a dangerous and growing trend of deforestation since the late 2000s. All environmental groups have continually maintained that new settlements in the “Wilpattu Forest Complex” have been the key driver of this deforestation, in contrast to Wilpattu National Park, which remains relatively well protected. The Wilpattu Forest Complex is the larger entity than WNP and includes WNP, and the resettlements are taking place outside the northern boundary of WNP, specifically within Wilpattu North Sanctuary, Kallaru, and Vilatthaikulam. There are no settlements/clearing in the Wilpattu National Park itself. This is why environmentalists used specifically the term “Wilpattu Forest Complex”, Kallaru, WIlpattu North Sanctuary, or Vilatthaikulam when speaking of deforestation. These areas include 12 ecosystems and are just as important to the forest complex as the national park.
Sponsored human settlement within the WFC began in 2010, following the 2009 construction of an illegal road on 300 acres of land, cutting through WNP and bridging the areas ‘Eluvankulama’ and ‘Mollikulama’. Legal action by four environmental organizations is continuing against this illegal road. Human settlement commenced subsequent to the road’s construction and has led to a visible acceleration of deforestation, as documented via Google map time-lapse videos.
Currently, the controversial settlements are taking place within the northern, peripheral parts of the WFC, specifically within part of the previously mentioned Wilpattu North Sanctuary and the Kallaru Reserve (Marichchikuddai/Kaarikkadu) and more recently in Vilatthaikulam Reserve. We will hereafter call this threatened area the ‘Northern Habitat’ for ease of reference within this article.
The threatened Northern Habitat comprises ecosystems including wetlands, wet villu, mangrove, and other important freshwater ecosystems, containing 605 species of plants, 33 of which are endemic to Sri Lanka. The section provides habitat to 30 freshwater-fish species, 17 amphibian species, 57 reptile species, 149 bird species, 41 mammal species, and 86 species of butterflies. Moreover, the area is an important archeological site with artifacts dating back to the time of the Mohenjo-daro civilization. Human settlement of the WFC poses a direct threat to the conservation of all of these vital natural and other assets. About 50 acres of resettlement area belong directly to Wilpattu North Sanctuary. Proponents of WNP human settlement argue that current human-settlement areas are not protected areas. However, comprehensive field and aerial assessments show that this is not the case: the settlements have clearly encroached areas protected by legislation. Apart from the 50 acres of Wilpattu North Sanctuary, 2500 acres of deforested land is owned by the state, mainly by the Forest Department (since 10 October 2012) and partly by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. The initial stages of the settlement projects led the Wildlife Department itself to initiate legal inquiry; the above-mentioned c. 2,500 acres of habitat land belonging to the state has been destroyed for human settlement in contravention of the Forest Conservation Ordinance and several other key environmental laws and without archeological impact assessments.
Proponents of WNP human settlement argue that current human-settlements are “resettlements”, although they are in fact new settlements with a ‘resettlement’ guise. The original villages were small villages situated south of the forested areas as noted on Google maps (which are compiled based on historical satellite images). The new settlements show on Google maps as built on recently cleared forest land, and show a grid city system not previously seen in the area.