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Monday, June 27, 2022

Yoshitha Rajapaksa’s hotel project and Gongala road development cause serious damage to Sinharaja

Sajeewa Chamikara
Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform

Sinharaja, which was declared a World Natural Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1989, is a tropical rain forest which is important for environmental, ecological, hydrological, and geological reasons.
The importance of the forest had been widely recognized; and in 2019 an important decision was taken to protect Sinharaja. That year the legal protection given to Sinharaja as a National Heritage Wilderness Area, on October 21, 1988, by gazette notification 528/14 when the National Heritage Wilderness Areas Act (No. 3 of 1988) was passed, was expanded. Considering that the forest was being fragmented by multiple threats, ranging from illegal logging and cardamom cultivation; 36,475 hectares of forest land surrounding the protected area was declared a forest reserve under the Forest Conservation Ordinance. This doubled the forest reserves Sinharaja had. However, in the last two years a large number of forests assigned to Sinharaja was lost due to the wrong policy decisions taken by the current administration.

In 2020 and 2021, two circulars were issued by the government, handing over the management of Other State Forests (OSF) to Divisional/Districts Secretaries. These circulars repealed an earlier circular, 05/2001, which had transferred the management of these lands from the Divisional/District Secretaries to the Forest Department. Through circular 1/2020, the OSF were brought under Divisional/Districts Secretaries and circular 1/2021 allowed the officials to survey the OSF and allocate them for development activities. The power these two circulars gave to Divisional/Districts Secretaries have been used by those with political and financial power to clear up forest lands in Sinharaja.
In the same time period, the government also decided to expand two roads in Sinharaja. While expanding the road to Lankagama benefited a large number of people, the methods used by the government, i.e., using executive powers to fast track the process, using the military and by not following proper conservation techniques, has led to a number of negative externalities. Moreover, the road development project, which violated many environmental laws, undermined the rule of law in the country and democratic structures. The example set by the President might be used in the future to carry out similar projects.

The second such road development project is being carried out from Hayes Estate Junction, along the Deniyaya – Rakwana road, to the peak of Gongala Mountain. The road is being built to make access easy for a hotel owned by Yoshitha Rajapaksa, although his name is not mentioned as the proprietor.
Apart from this hotel, this seven-kilometre stretch of road only leads to several transmission towers that belong to TV stations, mobile service providers and the security forces. There is also housing for estate sector workers nearby.
Lands through most of the road running through belong to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. However, the road is being built without adhering to any conservation mechanism or procedures established by environmental laws.
The road is being built on the Eastern section of Sinharaja, the area with the highest number of endemic species in the forest. The hotel too has been established in the same highly ecologically sensitive area. The Eastern section of Sinharaja comprises of Handapan Ella, Morning Side, Gongala and Ensalwatta. The species that live in this area had evolved in isolation for millions of years.

The hotel is situated near the Sinharaja forest reserve at the eastern slope of the Gongala Mountain. To be exact it is located at the Boraluwage Aina Grama Niladari division at the Kolonna Divisional Secretariat, Ratnapura District. The initial owner of the hotel, which spans around 12 acres, is Mr. Roshan Wijesinghe, the owner of Asiri Cake, Deniyaya. The property was later bought by Mr. Ravindu Soyza, an employee of the Rajapaksa Family. Mr. Wijesinghe apparently had to sell the property under pressure for Rs. 40 million. Mr. Soyza is currently in charge of the management of the property.
Several other nearby lands too have been purchased by associates of Yoshitha Rajapaksa, on his behalf, following the acquisition of the hotel. Moreover, Hayes Estate had donated 20 acres of tea land that adjoining the hotel. This donation followed moves by Yoshitha Rajapaksa to take over the entire estate. A Director of the Mathurata Plantation Company, had proposed the donation of 20 acres as a ploy to prevent Rajapaksa from taking over the entire estate.

All the recent constructions and repairs at the hotel had been carried out by navy personnel. They are also in charge of providing security to the property. Navy personnel are sometimes entrusted with providing VIP security when Yoshitha Rajapaksa and his father Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visit the hotel. There is also a helipad at the hotel which is made using plastic.
Until recently the hotel operated under the name Sinharaja Green Eco Lodge, which was the name given to the hotel by the first owner. However, the board had been removed now and a by road leading to the hotel is being repaired. This is a 1.5-kilometer stretch of road.
A main danger posed by the hotel is its expansion plans. There is a plan to take over 1,000 acres of forest lands that belongs to Gongala Mountain Range and to execute a comprehensive tourism development initiative. Among the proposed constructions in the 1000-acre land is a golf course and a cable car project.

On 01 March 2011, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, issued gazette no 1695/16. Through this gazette he took 1000 acres, out of the 2200 given to the Hayes Estate under the Land Reform Act of No. 01 of 1972, and placed them under the Land Reform Commission. These 1,000 acres are now a part of the Sinharaja Forest Range. However, there is a chance that these lands, situated near the hotel, will be taken over by the Rajapaksas.
Moreover, the expansion of the Gongala Road also poses a great threat to the forest network and its biological community. Those constructing the road are excavating the forest for the soil used to expand the road.
There are a number of lizard and amphibian species that only live in this area and most of them face a severe threat of extension. For example, Lankascincus, a genus of skinks endemic to Sri Lanka, lives in this area. Moreover, many areas of the Eastern Sinharaja had not been bio mapped, thus we do not know the extent of the damage that can be caused by a road through this stretch of the forest.
Ceratophora karu and Ceratophora erdeleni, species of lizards in the family Agamidae, which are endemic to Sri Lanka are also found only in this part of Sinharaja. Moreover, Morningside lizard (Calotes desilvai) and Sinharaja Bent-toed Gecko (Cyrtodactylus subsolanus) are also endemic to this area. Günther’s rough-sided snake, (Aspidura guentheri), a species of snake in the family Colubridae, are also found in this area.
Endemic species of frogs, Round-snout pygmy frog (Pseudophilautus femoralis), Handapan Ella shrub frog (Pseudophilautus lunatus), Golden-eyed Shrub Frog (Pseudophilautus ocularis) and Sinharaja shrub frog (Pseudophilautus simba), are found in the Gongala mountain range. The road constructed through the area, which has a number of cloud forests, has also not been adhered to any environmental guidelines. Thus, nothing has been done to minimize the damage done to protect the environment. However, the Forest Department had not even carried out a cursory investigation.

Given the circumstances, it is difficult to predict what the future will hold for the Gongala Mountain. The mountain that spreads from Beverly Estate to Suriyakanda is situated in two grama niladari divisions of the Kolonna Divisional Secretariat area; Ullinduwawa and Boraluwage, and two grama niladari divisions of the Kotapola Divisional Secretariat area; Kandilpana and Viharahena. Kolonna Divisional Secretariat area is in the Ratnapura District while Kotapola Divisional Secretariat area is situated in Matara District. Gongala Mountain is also connected to Panilkanda and is a vital catchment area for Gin, Nilwala, Walawe and Kalu rivers. The tea plantations of the area too depend on Gongala Mountain as a valuable source of water.
However, those who wield great political power do not care for such intricacies. Not a single government agency has attempted to protect the Gongala Mountain, its forests and the biological community for the future generations. These agencies include the Forest Department and the Central Environmental Authority. Due to the politicization of these institutions, we will have to see the destruction of endemic species that live in the Eastern Sinharaja.
Sri Lanka is a party to many UN biodiversity conventions. Successive governments talk about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. However, the entire state mechanism is silent when large swaths of highly important forests, catchment areas and biological hot-spots are destroyed to create an access way for a hotel. Those who embezzled billions of rupees from the people are now spending these moneys to purchase and renovate hotels in highly sensitive environmental areas. Then the same politicians use the state mechanisms to build access ways to hotels, damaging the environment further; they also use state employees to build and guard the hotel. People of the country needs to step up and put an end to this disastrous culture of impunity.

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