HRC begins probe into move to fell thousands of trees


By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has undertaken an immediate investigation into a government move to fell 67,132 trees on state-owned plantations in the hill country, HRCSL Commissioner Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa says.

Dr. Mahanamahwea told The Island that President’s Counsel Wijayadasa Rajapakshe had already lodged a complaint with the HRCSL against the State Resources and Enterprise Development Ministry’s decision to cut down trees on estates in the central hills to settle outstanding EPF, ETF and gratuity payments, amounting to Rs. 1.74 billion.  

The respondents cited in the UNP MP Rajapakshe’s complaint are State Resources and Enterprises Development Minister Dayashritha Tissera, Environment and Renewable Energy Minister Susil Premajayantha, Secretary to the State Resources and Enterprises Development Ministry and Secretary to the Environment and Renewable Energy Ministry.

Dr. Mahanamahewa, however, said: "First we will examine whether or not the matter comes under the Human Rights Commission Act No. 21 of 1996 or under chapter three of the Constitution. Even if it does not come under our mandate, we will look into the problem."

Rajapakshe has, in his petition, noted that the mass felling of trees in the central hills would lead to severe environmental degradation in the country and even add to global warming.

Meanwhile, State Resource and Enterprise Development Minister Dayashritha Tissera told The Island that the felling of trees in state owned estates in the hill country was not a violation of Human Rights.

He said, "We expected such actions from the Opposition when we started to draft the Cabinet paper and we will face any challenges in the future."

The Minister also said that the felling of trees was not a violation of any laws of this country as the trees were planted for commercial needs. "The trees earmarked for felling are Eucalyptus, Grevillea, Pine and Albizia, aged between 30 and 40 years and distributed across 36 estates in the Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Kandy districts, and mostly growing among tea bushes.

The Minister said: "All the trees have exceeded their harvesting age and if we don’t cut them down at this age, the commercial value would be reduced," he added.

Tissera claimed that some of those trees were posing a huge threat to the houses of plantation workers.  

Responding to a query, the minister said the trees were not supposed to be cut down only to settle defaulted EPF, ETF and gratuity payments and it was the workers’ unions that requested that their EPF, ETF and gratuity be paid from the first half of the money gained through the selling of trees to the State Timber Cooperation (STC).

However, he said that the president had already appointed a committee to look into the cutting down of trees and after considering the committee report, the Ministry would take necessary action.  

The ministry had also planned to cut down trees gradually and two new local varieties of trees would be planted to replace the foreign varieties, Tissera added.

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