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No unauthorised settlements in Wilpattu Forest Reserve: AG

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The Attorney General has asserted to the Court of Appeal today that the Wilpattu Forest Reserve has not been deforested and no unauthorised resettlement has been carried out.

The State counsel appealing for the Attorney General told the court that the people displaced by the war have been resettled in an area outside of the Wilpattu Forest Reserve and the resettled area was not a protected forest area.

The State Counsel made this statement when the petition filed by the Center for Environmental Justice (CEJ) in 2015 requesting the Court to issue an order for the removal of unauthorised structures in the Wilpattu Forest Reserve was taken for consideration before the Appellate Court on Thursday (8 February).

The State Counsel said that the Wilpattu Forest Reserve was located in the Puttalam district, but the resettlement was carried out in a forest area in the Mannar district.

He told the court that a special Presidential Task Force was set up for resettlement based on the instructions of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) during the past regime and the resettlement in Mannar district was carried out according to the recommendation made by the Task Force.

The State Counsel further stated that a few decades ago, the area where the alleged resettlement had taken place was inhabited and since the people left the area for a number of years ago, it has become a forest again.

The State attorney said the abandoned land areas had been identified and displaced people were settled in those lands, and if the court orders their removal from the resettled lands they will have to go back to the refugee camps.

However, the attorneys representing the petitioner informed the court that the Government in 2015 declared the area a conserved forest by a gazette a notification.

The State Counsel noted that, before 2015, the area had not been designated as a conserved forest area, and decades ago the area was inhabited by people.

Noting that this is a very complicated issue which requires a broad study, the Court of Appeal postponed the next hearing of the petition to 5 June.

Meanwhile, the Court of Appeal granted permission last week to hear a petition submitted by attorney Nagananda Kodituwakku requesting the court to order to remove the unauthorised settlements from the Wilpattu Forest Reserve and take the land back for the Government.

The petition cites Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, former Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, Central Environmental Authority and Forest Department as respondents.

The Court ordered the respondents to appear in Court and present submissions on 5 March.

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