The Environment Minister Mahinda Amarawwera has admitted that an environmental assessment report has not been prepared for the project to widen the road from Deniyaya to Neluwa via Lankagama which is at an extremely close proximity to the World Heritage Forest Sinharaja.
The Minister said there was a shortcoming on the part of the Army in widening the road and pointed out the need to change the Environment Act.
Read excerpts from an interview with the minister where he speaks about the ongoing massive environmental destruction throughout the country.
Q – You’re one of the mostly criticized ministers. Has the government really decided that there is no need for oxygen and to deforest so much?
Well, many of the stories are not true. I can clearly say that many statements are lies and made by social media users and random people claiming to be environmentalists. I’m talking here after examining all the details. For example, the incident in Ramsar Wetland Anawilundawa. There has been a considerable destruction. Those who were involved have been arrested including a brother of a minister. Another is the leasing of a land belonging to Cement Co-operation. It has been instructed to resume afforestation. The other is the Hanthana incident. Daughter of Minister Lakshman Kiriella is involved in it. They’ve not been cutting down trees but clearing to cultivate. But you have to get permission as it is Hanthana, which has not been done. Therefore, a case has been filed against it as well.
Q – So, except for these incidents, all the others are fake news?
In another incident, a government land in Kirinda has been bulldozed. People who were involved have been arrested and remanded. But this was posted on social media stating that the mangroves in Tissamaharama had been cleared, which is clearly not true. It was also stated that 40 acres in Gonagama in Thanamalvila had been cleared. They are private lands, belonging to a devala. I investigated this. Only an elephant fence was damaged. That’s true.
Q – Will you have time to do anything else as the Minister of Environment, if you keep investigating the tree cuttings throughout the island?
I obtain reports from the environmental officers as well as the police. Double check the information. I should have known about them. Even the media asks from me.
Q – Isn’t it an embarrassment to the government as so much false information is being spread? Why not take legal actions against them if the accusations are false?
There’s no need for that. They mostly circulate in social media where everybody knows the information is not reliable. It’s not possible to go looking for every one of them.
Q – But aren’t you a part of a government which has arrested ordinary people for embarrassing the government? For example, 17 such incidents were reported in a row during the Covid-19 pandemic?
You cannot compare the Covid-19 pandemic situation, which was quite sensitive, with this. If we chase after the false allegations, we’ll have no time left to work.
Q – Not only in social media, but also in media discussions environmental organizations revealed these disasters with photographs?
People who held those media talks were supporters of Sajith Premadasa. I have publicly called for a debate to prove those devastations. We all know that the one who caused the most damage to the environment is Sajith Premadasa during their government.
Q – It’s an issue between your government and the opposition. This problem is quite different from it. Why is the preparation of environmental assessment reports by the Central Environmental Authority not done properly?
That’s a continuing accusation. We have called for a full report on that. We are investigating whether these reports are done systematically. If there are flaws in the reports, I will personally intervene to rectify them.
Q – That means you accept that there is such a problem?
Yes, we have observed some shortcomings in that. We are working in a hurry to amend the Act too. Even a part of the draft with relevant amendments will be presented to the Cabinet soon.
Q – Can you explain a little bit more about those amendments?
It’s done by the Act itself. Even some fines need to be changed. Fines that existed 30 years ago do not work in today’s context. The fines are not considerable amounts. They pay the fine and commit the same offense again as they don’t feel it paid.
Q – Let’s take an example. Why isn’t there an environmental assessment report prepared on the widening of road from Deniyaya to Neluwa via Lankagama, which is in a buffer zone of the World Heritage Sinharaja?
No environmental report was taken there. That’s true. I went to see the road with the President. The army is building that road. They had not considered that much. We can’t sue the military now, can we?
Q – If there’s a misconduct, why not sue?
There’s no inability to do that, yes. However, there’s a shortcoming from their part.
Q – Next to that, the Gin – Nilwala Project is underway. Lands are being marked. There are no environmental assessment reports?
No. The project is not underway yet. A full environmental assessment report should be prepared before that.
Q – The project has already commenced. Even the lands have been marked?
May be marked, yes. But the project has not started yet. No money has been allocated for it. We are not going to do that without an environmental report.
Q – Government forests in Lunugamvehera in your district are being deforested. I have to go back to the original question, don’t you need oxygen?
We cannot answer all the allegations made by everyone. I met with Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena and some reputed environmentalists a few days ago. I asked them that these are the environmental destructions that have been reported to us, are there anything else apart from these? They didn’t say of any other incidents and I accepted that. Two-three people can get together to form an environmental organization. But they cannot accuse that trees are being cut here and there without any proper details and evidence.
Q – The government has made plans to abolish circular 05/2001 which had blocked the transfer of forests to projects at will. How is it?
Only the lands cultivated by people are applicable there. Chena fields. Discussions are underway to transfer the relevant powers to the District Secretaries. The need of the government is to give the deeds to the people. These are not government forests. Even before, the District Secretary had the authority over this.
Q – But isn’t it fair to get this done by a committee including wildlife, environment and all other officials, instead of the District Secretariat?
A final decision on that has not been taken yet. The discussions are underway. When the President meets with the people, one of their major requests is to give a deed to the land where they are staying. We are considering that. We should be fair on people and protect the resources of the country at the same time.
Q – Is it because the dividing the relevant subjects to the ministerial posts are questionable, that we are not able to talk about these matters in depth? Subjects related to you are somewhere else and you don’t know about your subject?
There have always been such issues. However, what should be done is everyone being dedicated to fulfill their responsibilities.