(By Akitha Wijayasinghe)
Sri Lanka’s forest cover is growing slimmer daily. According to Dr. Ravindra Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka had a thick forest density of 82% in 1882 and by the end of 2019, it stands at a regretful 16.5%. Although, with the growing population and their needs, development projects are a necessity, it’s everybody’s responsibility to preserve nature and the eco systems while carrying them out.
But with the recent government development projects, it’s quite doubtful whether the responsible authorities are taking this crisis seriously. The most recent example for this is the road widening project from Deniyaya to Neluwa via Lankagama in a very close proximity to the World Heritage Sinharaja rainforest, even without an Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIAR).
Latest scenario in this far-reaching problematic issue is the proposal to construct a road through the Flood Plains National Park in Polonnaruwa. It is proposed to carve a widened road connecting Manampitiya and Yakkure alongside the Mahaweli river via the national park.
What is a Flood Plains National Park?
The Flood Valley National Park was declared on August 7, 1984, with several main objectives. Its main objective is to protect the floodplain of the Mahaweli River, which is a unique ecosystem created by the Mahaweli River, the longest river in Sri Lanka. Another objective of this project is to provide habitats to many wildlife including wild elephants that have lost their habitats due to the Mahaweli Development Scheme. This national park covers an area of 17,350 hectares.
This Flood Valley National Park is a critical wildlife reserve in the Mahaweli Wildlife Sanctuary where more than 30 percent of Sri Lanka’s wild elephants are recorded. Lake elephants can be seen here with larger than average sizes, limited to this unique ecosystem. Wasgamuwa National Park is located to the South from the Flood Plains and Somawathiya National Park to the north. Environmentalists also point out that the Flood Valley National Park, which connects these parks, is home to a number of elephant migration routes.
An illegal project
Although the State Minister of Wildlife Protection, Wimalawwera Dissanayake continued to stress that he would exercise his powers in this regard as this road must be constructed and that an Environmental Impact Assessment Report is being carried out for this project, Attorney at Law Jagath Gunawardana, who is also a well-known Environmentalist said that nobody holds authority to carry out such EIARs inside a national park.
The lawyer further stated that neither any construction nor renovation can be done inside a land mass once it’s declared as a national park.
According to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, the ownership of such an old road was reserved to the public at the time of its declaration, but if it is not used for two consecutive years, Article 3 of the Act states that it will be revoked, he added.
Untouched for 28 years
The Department of Wildlife Conservation said that after declaring the area as a national park in 1984, the road from Manampitiya to Yakkure was closed completely. But according to the locals of the area, the road was in use from time to time until 1992 for certain needs, with the permission of the wildlife authorities. They say that with rising LTTE threats, the security forces closed the road completely in 1992. The road has not been used after that, for 28 years now.
Although the Wildlife Conservation State Minister Wimalaweera Dissanayake had stressed that he will do whatever is under his purview to build this road, the minister told with MediaLK.Sinhala that he has not visited the relevant section where the road is planned to construct in the Flood Plains National Park in Polonnaruwa and that he took the decision to carry out this project, based on photographs.
MediaLK did a thorough investigation into the wild and observed that there is not even a sign of a road now, but foot trails of cattle and elephants. There are even large Kumbuk trees in the middle of where the road was laid previously, clearly indicating that the road has not been in use for over 25 years.
Is there a true necessity of a road through the park?
According to an article on MediaLK.Sinhala, the residents of the area have mixed opinions. Some believe that it is better to travel to Polonnaruwa on the carpeted main road than taking a route where a wild elephant can cross your path at any moment. Some locals said that they can get to the Polonnaruwa hospital just 12km by taking this road through the Flood Plains National Park. The State Minister of Wildlife Conservation Wimalaweera Dissanayake had mentioned this in the Parliament.
But the Wildlife sources proved that the residents’ and the minister’s claims over this shortened distance is not accurate. It is a little over 50km from Yakkure to Polonnaruwa hospital. It’s about 13km from Yakkure to Manampitiya through this proposed road through the Flood Plains National Park and another 12km to the Polonnaruwa hospital from Manampitiya. If this road is built, residents in Yakkure can reach the Polonnaruwa hospital in 25km by taking this road through the national park, but not in 12km. The sources state that the locals in Yakkure can reach Siripura hospital by travelling 13km without having to take a ride of 25km to Polonnaruwa without a risk of being attacked by elephants on a muddy road through the Flood Plains.
The wildlife sources further stated that the people have no actual need for this road but they are asking for it anyway, influenced on other’s agendas.
The ‘what ifs’
What will happen if the project starts? What if this road is built? The Wildlife Conservation State Minister had told MediaLK.Sinhala that this road through the Flood Plains National Park is built on several conditions.
Q – Okay. Are there any conditions agreed upon to follow when using the road after constructing it?
A – Yes, this road will not be carpeted. Cannot lay concrete on it either. Only the villagers will be allowed to use the road. Can’t transport sand, bricks or stone. We’ll put two barricades of Civil Security Forces at either side of the road. No outsiders will be allowed at all. And the road will be closed after 6pm. But the villagers will be allowed through in an emergency. That’s the plan for now.
Will the people be able to make full use of the road? According to the minister’s statement, people will have a span of about 12 hours a day to use the road freely. No one will be allowed through it after 6pm if it isn’t for an emergency. The name of the national park ‘Flood Plains’ itself implies the effect on the area by the Mahaweli river. The road is proposed to run at an extremely close proximity to the Mahaweli river. According to both wildlife sources and local residents, the area is flooded for about 4 months at least, every year. Will the villagers in Yakkure be able to utilize the road during those seasons? Surely, they’ll have to take the road around to get to Polonnaruwa by travelling 50km, for 4 months. Is it really worth it to carve a forgotten road through a national park of great importance to the ecosystem of the whole country, just to use it 12 hours per day for only 8 months a year?
Men vs Elephants
About 30% of wild elephants in Sri Lanka live in the Mahaweli wildlife zone. In this context, the Flood Plains National Park is critical for them to thrive.
In our journey through the Flood Plains National Park, we encountered wild elephants several times. It was very obvious that they were using this path to get to the Mahaweli river and to get to the villus.
According to a report on BBC early this year, Sri Lanka topped the charts with most elephant deaths in 2019 (361). The report said that it was the highest figure of elephant deaths reported since Sri Lanka gained independence since 1948 and the most were killed by people. Over 100 people have died in these encounters.
Most of these are a result of people robbing the habitats, elephant crossings, feeding grounds of these innocent giants. It is clear that, building this road through Flood Plains National Park, crossing their path and rights to the wilderness will only make the situation worse. People encountering wild elephants while travelling on this road will cause nothing but disaster.
“People will ask for roads through national parks everywhere”
Nikapitiye Chandima Thero of Medamaluwa Maha Viharaya in Polonnaruwa told MediaLK that constructing this road will motivate people to demand roads through national parks.
“It is true that the distance to Polonnaruwa will be yes but if you consider the time difference, the main road will take only 10 more minutes to get there than through the national park. This road will increase the elephant-man conflicts causing a disaster. People do not know their limits. An elephant was found shot dead very recently. If this road is permitted, people in other areas will also ask for roads across national parks. There are ruins of great historical value in the Flood Plains National Parks. Everything including these will be devastated if this road is allowed.”
A hidden agenda?
Taking the overgrown path from Yakkure to Manampitiya, which is proposed to re-carve, one could reach ‘Thummodara’ with ease, where the Kalu river joins Mahaweli. ‘Gira mankada’, a giant sand corridor is also located near this area. A 2km part of the road from Manampitiya is already being used by the sand miners for transportation.
It is fair to say that it will be hard to prevent them from utilizing this proposed road for their own advantage.