Somawathiya National Park Falls Victim to Unscrupulous Developmental Projects

An area of 5000 acres of the Somawathiya National Park is being cleared for a large scale banana plantation. This Park is a unique habitat for the elephant (Vil Aliya). This massive clearing of forest is carried out in Kandakaduwa in Welikanda Divisional Secretariat Division of Polonnaruwa District using heavy machinery. Around 600 laborers have been employed to clear the Wet Villus, Dry Evergreen Forests and Riverine Forests from the Kandakaduwa canal to the Mahaweli River.This detrimental clearing of the Somawathiya National Park is lead by a company called ‘Letsgrow (Pvt) Ltd.’ which is the Sri Lankan partner of the multinational company, ‘Dole Food Company’ of West Lake Village, California. ‘Letsgrow’ is owned by two of our former leading cricketers, Pramodya Wickramasinghe and Muttiah Muralidaran. They have acquired these lands from the Sri Lanka Army.

These lands had been in the custody of the Army since it was reclaimed from the LTTE. Upon reclamation, instead of transferring these lands to the Wildlife Conservation Department, they started clearing the forests. Recalling the history of these lands, first, the Army established croplands in this area. Consequently, it lead to a farm of an area of 3500 acres having cleared it using ex‐LTTE carders undergoing rehabilitation. Adding to the burden, the army has allowed the company to use an area of 11,600 acres for plantation. The company in turn, cleared an area of 5000 acres and cultivated banana.They are planning to establish a livestock farm and launch out Agro Tourism. Indisputably,developmental projects are necessary for development of a country. But if catchment area of the River Mahaweli which secures many animals in a National Park reserved for wildlife, the damage inflicted is too greater to be even compared with the benefits acquired. If the management of this company had the integrity to initiate this project as a law abiding body, they could have selected suitable lands and initiated it lawfully without violating the Environmental Laws imposed within the country. How can we keep faith on a company that has no respect for the laws of the country? If we consider the history of Dole, it has a disgraceful record full of black marks! They manufacture more than 300 vegetable and fruit products in ninety countries. In 2005 a contaminated lettuce product manufactured by Dole caused an outbreak of Escherichia coli in 26 states of USA including Arizona, California, Minnesota, and New York. Further, it had heavily used dibromochloropropane, a pesticide banned in USA, in farmlands in Nicaragua. As a result, laborers that worked in these fields had become sterile. A group of such laborers filed a case against the company in 2007. However, it is stated that the company managed to buy some of the plaintiffs to give testimony that their claims were fraudulent and thus, the case was thrown out. In 2009, the lawyer that represented the Nicaraguan workers was subject to investigation of multiple crimes which included perjury, obstruction of justice, defrauding a court and conspiring to extort a United States company. In the face of the influence of filthy lucre, the rectitude of this virtuous lawyer was pathetically questioned. Matter was later closed.

A documentary film about the plight of the Nicaraguan workers directed by Fredrik Gertten premiered in the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival. Although Dole sued Gretten for defamation, the case was dropped subsequently. In 2010, a court ruling was given in favor of screening the movie in USA ordering Dole to pay a compensation of around USD 200,000. As a group of citizens concerned of future of our motherland, we regret that such an inglorious company has been allowed to invest in a large scale plantation project in our country. On 2nd July 2011, a certain ‘Nuwan Lakshitha’, involved in clearing the forest of Somawathiya National Park, was arrested by the Wildlife Department. Much to our amazement, he had been released without being brought to the courts.

Currently, even the officers of the Wildlife Department don’t have access to the forest. Under the shade of the Army, the Sri Lankan partner company of Dole, Letsgrow (Pvt) Ltd. is clearing the forest rapidly.

Laborers are transported to the project site from areas like Polonnaruwa and Welikanda using two buses. All banana plants planted are irrigated with water pumped from the Mahaweli River and Kandakaduwa canal.

These croplands are established on the flood plains of River Mahaweli. ‘Beru grass’ (Sacciolepis interrupta), a grass which is the staple diet of the elephants grows in these areas. Due to settling of the sediment of the river during floods, the grass in this area is a very nutritious food source for the elephants. This contributes to hold the Human‐Elephant Conflict at a considerably low level. The forest cover, extent of grasslands and water retention capacity are at favorable levels for elephants. But, with the advent of this massive project, these orderly conditions are facing the threat of turning topsy‐turvy. Since the Mahaweli River flows through this area in a very unstable state, during rainy seasons, it flows through villu areas changing its course. As a result, many microhabitats created in the area, harbor numerous organisms modified accordingly. These habitats have been demolished not sparing the river banks.

Somawathiya National Park, its floral and faunal legacy, Mahaweli River and the Kandakaduwa canal face the threat of deterioration due to pesticides and chemical fertilizers that will be used for this largescale banana plantation and the livestock farm in the future.

Somawathiya was declared a National Park through the Gazette Notification bearing No. 417/5 of 02nd September 1986 published under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Later, another forested area of 16,589 hectares was incorporated by Gazette Notification bearing No. 453/30 dated 09th May 1987. Hence, the total area of the National Park is now around 37, 645 hectares.

Above illegal operations are carried out violating the 5th and 6th sections of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance as Amended by Act No. 22 of 2009. According to the Act and its Amendments, entering a National Park without permission, clearing and plantation are offences for which bail is not granted. Thanks to their money and protection provided by the Army, these illegal activities are carried out without any constraint. We question why such self destructive conditions should prevail in this country.

We warn in advance that if the Wildlife Department does not take necessary measures to remove these plantation activities, the entire National Park will be victimized by these unwarranted, destructive developmental projects.

Sajeewa Chamikara /Samartha Harischandra – Environment Conservation Trust

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