Saturday Magazine

Wasgomuwa: threatened with human settlements
by Dasun Edirisinghe

The government has decided to resettle people who will be displaced by the proposed Kalu Ganga reservoir project in Pallegama in the Matale district, in the Wasgomuwa National Park. The Kalu Ganga is a main branch of the Amban Ganga and the reservoir will be one of the main reservoirs of the proposed Moragahakanda reservoir project. Around 2500 acres of the Wasgomuwa National Park will be acquired for the resettlement. Environmentalists oppose this massive environmental devastation and expect the Minister of Environment’s immediate involvement to stop it.

"Around 500 families will be displaced by the proposed reservoir. They are currently living in Karandagahamulla, Gonawala, Pallegama, Miniranketiya, Halmilla and Gangahenwala of the Laggala divisional secretariat. Government officials are already engaged in surveying the land plot of the Wasgomuwa National Park. This is a severe environmental problem and bad example for society. A powerful politician in the ruling party representing the area is behind this environmental devastation," an officer of the Wildlife Trust, Sajeewa Chamikara said.

The national parks, he pointed out, were established for the protection of wild animals. "The are not for people."

"The Wasgomuwa National Park is unusual in its virtual lack of contemporary human disturbance and infrastructure and its importance as a centre of ancient Sri Lankan culture. Being isolated by large rivers on all but its southern side is a major advantage for management. The park probably contains more wildlife in terms of both diversity of wild fauna and flora. All fauna and flora of the park is under threat due to this land acquisition," he said.

There are 23 species of mammals, 143 species of birds of which five are endemic to Sri Lanka, 35 reptile species of which seven are endemic, 15 species of amphibians, 17 species of fish and 52 species of butterflies that have been recorded in the Wasgomuwa National Park. A population of around 150 elephants, leopard, sloth bear, golden jackal, water buffalo, slender loris, wild boar, spotted deer, sambar and fishing cat can be found in the park. Noteworthy birds include Sri Lanka trogon, racquet tailed drongo, endemic tallow fronted barbet, endemic Sri Lanka jungle fowl and Sri Lanka spur fowl. White necked stork and lesser adjutant stork occur in the plains. The common monitor mugger crocodile, estuarine crocodile and python are some of reptiles reported in the park. Among endemic reptiles, skink, lizards like the red lipped lizard and Earles’s lizard are also found in the park.

The Wasgomuwa National Park is also important as a cultural heritage site. The most important cultural site is Buduruwayaya in the southwest of the park near the Amban and Kalu rivers. These ruins, estimated to be 1800 years old, feature a statue of the Buddha reclining and stone pillars. Another reclining Buddha statue is found immediately across the Amban ganga, outside the western boundary. Remains of an ancient irrigation system provide evidence of early human occupation beside the Mahaweli Ganga and Amban Ganga. The canal known as Kalinga Yoda Ela was constructed by King Parakrama in the 12th century. A ruined palace with stone pillars located on an island in the Kalinga River is a particularly important cultural site.

Among the fish species found in reservoirs in the park the stone sucker and combtail are endemic. However, when outsiders enter the park they fish in the reservoir, posing a threat to endemic fish species.

Chamikara says that human settlement in a large land area would cause extinction of animals and damage the cultural heritage.

"This is not the first attempt to resettle villagers in a national park. The government has decided to resettle villagers who will be displaced by the proposed Weerawila International Airport in the Bundala-Wilmenna Sanctuary. This has been stalled due to protests from concerned parties," he said.

Environment Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane said that the proposed area for resettlement has been a part of the Wasgomuwa National Park. Therefore it is illegal to give away land to people and for anyone to stay in such land, clear such land, erect any temporary or permanent building, and make any clearing to plant a crop or other purpose.

He said that even if the proposed resettlement was within one mile of the boundary outside the park it should have been done only in accordance with the approved procedure, i.e. preceded by an Environmental Impact Assessment. "Therefore it is sad to note that an activity that is totally illegal in terms of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance is being carried out by state (departments and authority) in total disregard of the law," he added.

Former Director General of Wildlife Conservation Dayananda Kariyawasam, who was retired recently, before his retirement told The Island that the government has still not informed the department about the purported land acquisition.

Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka said that this land is in the buffer zone in the park. But, there is a problem of ownership of the land.

"There is some private land in the buffer zone of the Wasgomuwa National Park. Recently, the Department of Wildlife Conservation has declared more lands under the buffer zone. This land was owned by the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka. But, the authority states that the land is still owned by them. As a result they are going to resettle people who will be displaced by the proposed reservoir in that land," Ranawaka said.

He further said that the Ministry of Environment discussed the issue and informed the Mahaweli Authority that if the resettlement of people in the land is harmful to the fauna and flora of the park in any way, this responsibility should be take by the Moragahakanda reservoir project.

 

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