The Director General of Forest Conservation S.A. Hathurusinghe alleges that Dole Lanka (Pvt) Ltd a subsidiary of the reputed American Company Dole International and Nelna Private Company together had unlawfully acquired 800 Hectares of Forest Land in the Moneragala District belonging to the Department of Forest Conservation.
Dole Lanka and Nelna Companies continually rejected this position over the past ten years, but as a result of a court action it has come to light that these lands belong to the Department of Forest Conservation.
The Director General of the Department of Forest Conservation alleges that Dole Lanka Company had acquired 400 Hectares from the Government forest reservation in Kuda Oya Grama Seva Division, coming under the Moneragala, Wellawaya Divisional Secretariat, and 200 Hectares from the Demodera forest conservation in Rahathangama Grama Seva Division, in the Buttala Divisional Secretariat. In addition local Nelna Private Company had acquired 200 Hectares from the Wandama Forest Conservation in the Rahathangama grama Seva Division, for the cultivation of mangoes.
Dole Lanka and its agents had established this agricultural project in the Moneragala District in the year 2008. At the beginning the company had cleared an area of 20 Hectares in the elephant infested jungle area in Wandama bordering the Lunugamwehera National Park. The records available at the Department of Forest Conservation reveal that this company had acquired 320.04 Hectares within two years of starting operations. The forest conservation officers had gone to courts, but actions to eject them were not carried out using the act of re-vesting government lands which had aroused suspicion (Annexure 01). At, at the time, the then Moneragala District Forest Officer addressed a letter dated 07/12/2010 to the Zonal Deputy Conservator of Forests, with a copy to their head office in Colombo, seeking instructions for granting these two blocks of land to the relevant company for agricultural activities. The District Forest Officer had failed in keeping his senior officers aware of Dole Lanka Ltd company’s continual acquisitions of land. This had been revealed in an investigation conducted by the Department of Forest Conservation regarding this matter.
With a view to regularise the acquisition of forest lands from 2008 by Dole Lanka Pvt Ltd Company, they had in writing requested on 01/06/2010 from the Director General of Department of Forest Conservation to grant them 300 Hectares from the Wandama Kuda Oya area and another 150 Hectares from the Wandama Demodera area in Wellawaya.
This request had been made through Ranabima Private Company of 16th Mile Post Raja Mawatha Buttala. Accordingly the Senior Deputy Conservator of Forests (Controller Planning and Progress ) attaching a copy of the request by the company sought a report from the then Moneragala District Forest officer by his letter dated 16/06/2010 Reference PM/08/0214/14. In response to this letter the Moneragala District Forest Officer had called for a report from the then Wellawaya Forest Range Officer. Subsequently the Moneragala District Forest Officer had by letter dated 07/12/2010 and carrying reference MD/2/4/2010 recommended that 450 hectares belonging to the Department of Forest Conservation to be given to Dole Lanka Company.
Following this directive of the District Forest Officer, Senior Deputy Conservator of Forests (Planning & Progress Control) S.A.D. Kingsley had subjected the land acquired by Dole Lanka Company to an observation. The senior Deputy Conservator of Forests (Planning & Progress Control) had informed the then District Forest Officer and Ranabima Private Company that the Director General of Department of Forest Conservation had decided to grant, out of the two lands Dole Lanka Company had requested, 200 Hectares of land from Demodara area in the Grama Niladhari Division of Buttala Rahathangama in Wandama Demaliya forest belonging to the Government to Dole Lanka Company.
This is confirmed by his letter dated 03/01/2011 under reference number P/M/08/02/14/14. However Dole Lanka Company had acquired a further 18.08 Hectares in addition to the land already granted. This is shown in the Tracing number MO/BTT/2013/358 provided by the Moneragala Superintendent of Surveys. Despite all these facts it is shown from the letter dated 06/07/2011 under reference DLUPO/20/13/01 addressed by the Moneragala District Secretary to the District Land use Committee that this land under question had been referred to them and directives had been obtained. During our investigations it was found that with regard to the 200 Hectares in Kuda Oya area belonging to the Wellawaya District Secretaries Division which had been acquired by Dole Lanka Company, the Director General of Department of Forest Conservation had not given any directives.
Much before the Director General of Conservation of Forests released this block of land to Dole Lanka Company and the Survey Department of Sri Lanka had on the orders of Buttala and Wellawaya Divisional secretaries conducted a survey of 218.08 Hectares in Demodara Crown lands in Wandama and Demaliya areas and made tracings.
This position is shown by the following documents:-
The order to conduct the survey by the Buttala divisional secretary dated 18/06/2013 carrying reference BU/ LND/01/RLTAP 27 and survey order Number 1601.
The Superintendent of Survey’s Tracing carrying reference MO/ BTT/2013/353
The plan No 3957 prepared by Surveyor S.P. Rathnayake on the instructions of the Wellawaya Divisional Secretary dated 17/02/2010 reference number වැ/3/5/බදු/14
It is the responsibility of the Director General of Department of Conservation to find out why no action was taken, by the then forest officers, when Wellawaya and Buttala Divisional Secretaries had resorted to the preparation of Tracings on surveys conducted on Forest Lands belonging to the Forest Conservation. It should be found and whether this happened with their knowledge. Questions are also raised as to how the Divisional Secretaries of Wellawaya and Buttala had directed the surveying of a forest land belonging to the Department of Forest Conservation. During September-October months in 2010 Dole Lanka Company had obtained electricity to the Agri project with the blessings of the officials of the Department of Forest Conservation.
While these developments took place, Senior Deputy Conservator of Forests (Environmental Manager) Mahinda Senevirathne and the then Deputy Conservator of Forests of Uva Central Zones Wasantha Dissanayake had visited the lands acquired by Dole Lanka Company on 04/02/2013. Later by letter dated 28/02/2013 and under reference number P/M/8/02/14/25 the Senior Deputy Conservator of Forests (Environmental Manager) had given instructions further in this regard, and considering this acquisition as an offence in terms of letter dated 28/03/2013 ref. no 48/2013 and letter dated 03/04/2013 ref no 47/2013 and taken action to prepare ejectment notices to be signed on 13/04/2013 so as to take possession of these lands by the Department of Forest Conservation and forwarded these letters to the Department of Forest Conservation for further action. However even up to the year 2015 these ejectment notices had remained unsigned. It is time that President Maithripala Sirisena as the subject minister intervenes in this regard.
Once again the ejectment notices were prepared on 08/07/2015 under the same charge sheet numbers, sent to the Director General of Forest Conservation had been signed and returned.
Accordingly steps were taken to hand over the notices on July 10 and 13 in 2015. As the company failed to vacate the said properties court action was instituted under ref no 92814 and 92815 to obtain ejectment orders. In response to a complaint made to the Prime Minister’s office and International Trade Ministry with regard to obtaining ejectment orders against Dole Lanka Company from the courts, the Secretary to the Prime Minister E.M.S.B. Ekanayake and Minister Malik Samarawickrama had made inquiries from the Director General of Conservation of Forests. In reply to this query the Director General of Conservation of Forests by his letter dated 25/01/2016 ref no H/05/07/ úm$40$2015 had stated that as the relevant companies are registered with the Board of Investments Sri Lanka and under the Forest Conservation Ordinance and also as discussed with the advisors to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister, to arrive at a settlement on three conditions. They are:
01- Dole Lanka Company and Nelna company to accept in courts that the forest lands presently possessed by them belong to the Department of Forest Conservation and hand over the rightful ownership to the Department of Forest Conservation.
02- On handing over the ownership to the conservation, to make an assessment of the damage caused to the environment by the companies and to reimburse such amount to restore the forest coverage or for a suitable development programme in the abutting forest lands.
03- With the view to continue the project without any hindrance, and acting in accordance with the regulations of the Department of Forest Conservation and with the approval of the subject Minister submit a Cabinet Memorandum and under an annual licence for the Forest Conservation Department to be provided with facilities to issue a license to carry on the activities of the companies. Considering its location in a very sensitive environmental zone, environmental organisations are against the re-vesting of these lands with the same companies without carrying out an ejectment.
The Director of the Environmental Conservation Trust Environmentalist Sajeewa Chameekara opined that, “The lands encroached upon by the said companies are located in close proximity to the Lunugamvehera and Yala National Parks and in a very sensitive zone teeming with wild Elephants. With the occupation of these lands the Human Elephant conflict aggravated. In order to sustain the large acreage of cultivation by the companies water had to be obtained from all available resources. With the tapping of water from Kuda Oya, Menik Ganga and Deep wells, the area is now under threat of a severe water shortage. The scarcity of water has also affected the wild animals in the area. These companies obtained these lands with the connivance of Ministers and MPs of the former Government in a very corrupt manner. This Yahapalana Government which came to power promising to do away with corruption, seems to be continuing with the same activities. We hope that the President as the subject Minister would draw his attention in this regard, if not the decision taken by the Department of Forest Conservation would set a bad precedence. Our attempts to contact Ms Vindya Weerasekera the Director of Dole Lanka Company proved futile.
When we contacted the Managing Director of Nelna Company Gunapala Nanayakkara, he said, “Ours is a company registered with the Sri Lanka Board of Investments. We obtained these lands through the Moneragala District Development Committee following a legal procedure. We have a file full of documents to prove the ownership of these lands. I have made a considerable investment in the 500 acres of land I have obtained. About 200 workers are employed. We are ready to face any eventualities when they surface. If these lands belong to the Department of Forest Conservation, we would abide by any decision they take. Some of the officers who gave these lands to us are not there even in Moneragala. I do not wish to speak further on this matter” he said.
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