Wilpattu National Park is well known for its rich biodiversity and untouched natural environment. However, during the last years, this wild tropical forest is under threat because of land grabbing for different purposes, especially for intensive plantations, construction of resorts and roads.See more...
Between 2012 and early 2013, a new menace for Wilpattu National Park came up when environmental organizations brought to the limelight the issue of systematic deforestation for the construction of a relocation site for Muslims displaced during the civil war .
Following the statements by local environmental organizations and Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the land has been illegally cleared by the Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, leader of the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) .
The Minister himself declared that the resettlement operations have been carried on in order to sustain his electorate: "These Muslims, whom I am resettling and have resettled in the Wilpattu National Park, after clearing the jungle and also in the Northern Province, are partly my voter base. There is nothing illegal in building houses and places, as I have acquired permission in the correct manner from the relevant line ministries and this is sanctioned by the government" . As we can read within this declaration, Minister Bathiudeen also confirms the allegations made by the local EJOs, who state that the cutting down of trees and fires for deforestation activities occurred not only in Wilpattu area, but also in other forest reserves at 14 locations in the districts of Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu (Northern Province) .
Morover, Sanjeewa Chamikara, Director of the Environment Conservation Trust said that in addition to the land cleared for settlements, a 100km road had been constructed along the Wilpattu Wildlife Park. The same thing occurred in Mankuluma area, where roads have been constructed towards the forests .
Under the Forest Ordinance or the Fauna and Flora Ordinance  cutting of forest is illegal. Moreover, the Environmental Act  requires a study of the environmental impacts (EIA), if more than one hectare of the forest area is converted to a non forest activity. But there are no EIA for any of the mentioned areas. Therefore, the destruction of the forest areas for human settlements is an illegal act .
In addition, there are several other issues that are still not clear regarding the construction of the resettlement site.
Firstly, Mr. Withange, director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, said that the resettlement of internally displaced persons was completed in 2012, but the forests were being cleared under the guise of making room for re-settling people .
Secondly, regarding the construction which took place in the Musali area and in the Northern areas of the Wilpattu National Park, BBS queries who granted permission for it, and why the Minister of Environment and Renewable Energy, Susil Premajayantha, and Minister of Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities, Wimal Weerawansa, were silent on the matter .
Moreover, BBS points out that housing to internally displaced people should be given regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion and that this should be done with a proper plan and by following the correct procedures. Even though Minister Bathuideen asserted that the land was acquired and constructions were carried out in accordance with other ministries, a letter sent by R.P.R. Rajapaksha, in his capacity as the Land Commissioner General, has insisted that the Divisional Secretary of Muhudubada Pattu should reveal who they are expecting to relocate in the land, belonging to the Forest Conservation Department, as identification of IDPs (International displaced people) to be relocated had almost reached a conclusion. This clearly means that the proper procedures for resettlement haven't been followed .
Finally, local EJOs and BBS question that there are plenty of barren lands in those areas, if lands for development activities or for the human settlements are needed. Therefore, destruction of remaining forest lands in the North and East cannot be justified .
In order to stop the destruction of the forestland in Wilpattu area, in 2014 local EJOs filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal, claiming that 2,388 hectares of State land in the Wilpattu National Park was unlawfully released for the settlement of displaced Muslims. They state that in the area vast deforestation is taking place, as a result of attempting to settle the displaced persons, presently staying in the Divisional Secretariat areas of Musali, Manthai and Madhu. The petitioners request to the Court to prevent the building of houses for settlement, so that the forest lands remains preserved and protected, while an alternative solution may be found for the settlement of the displaced Muslims .
Despite the oppositions, the forest clearing for the settlement project is going on. For this reason, the Centre for Environmental Justice sent a letter to Sri Lanka's President, Maithripala Sirisena, asking to intervene in order to stop the land acquisition.
Generally, since in Sri Lanka deforestation is getting more and more a serious issue, environmentalists are taking action to sensitize the local population and the politicians about the matter. Public campaigns, petitions and tree ordinations are some of the several actions of the local EJOs. They stress the need to make the development more sustainable by preserving every remaining forest lands and respecting the environmental laws of the country.
The Wilpattu case shows how environment and poor are often used for political purposes. Resettling Muslims in forest areas Minister Rishad Bathiudeen assures himself votes from his electorate, but on the other hand the problem of the war of Internally Displaced Person in Sri Lanka persists, while the country is losing more and more of its precious forestland .