The Environmental Foundation (Guarantee) Ltd. (EFL) and the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) have been working in alliance to demarcate the boundaries of the Pallekhandal Church situated within the Wilpattu National Park (WNP), and to regulate activities of the Church which poses a threat to the conservation of the park’s remarkable biodiversity.
EFL is a pioneer public interest litigation organisation dedicated to conservation and protection of the natural environment through legal and scientific measures. WNPS, at 125 years old, is the third oldest conservation NGO in the world and was instrumental in the creation of the Wilpattu and Yala National Parks and its administration until the establishment of the Forest Department.
On 25 January 2018, the two parties initiated legal action in the Court of Appeal against the unlawful and unregulated religious festivities taking place at the Pallekhandal Church. The Respondents for the case include, among others, the Director-General of the Department of Wildlife and Conservation, the Bishop of Chilaw and the Minister of Tourism Development, Wildlife and Christian Religious Affairs.
The EFL legal team appeared for the Petitioners against the violations of the provisions of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) and the damage caused to the sensitive environment of the WNP by the activities of the Church.
A brief history
In 1969, the entire village of Pallekhandal, inclusive of the Church which had for centuries been nothing but a simple jungle shrine (Kele palliya), was acquired by the Government as a State land under the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Act No. 28 of 1964 as reflected in the Gazette bearing No. 14,886 dated 26.12.1969 published by the Department of Government Printing.
In accordance with this, in 1973, Block V of the WNP was declared by way of Gazette declaration bearing No. 89 dated 07.12.1973 over the same area; making Pallekhandal Church a part of the WNP.
In 1987, during Sri Lanka’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the park was closed to visitors for security reasons. During this time, the shrine was forsaken by all, and the building fell apart.
In 2009, with the end of the war and the reopening of the National Park, what once used to be a small and humble shrine was converted into a large, well-constructed Church with added permanent structures, with the Church encouraging the encroachment of thousands of people without any regulation and/ or control.
This all happened in the wake of unregulated access being possible via an unauthorised road cutting across the park, connecting its southern and northern boundaries. This was unlawfully opened to the public in or around March/April 2010 (which is the subject matter of a Fundamental Rights Application, bearing No. 224/2010 pending before the Supreme Court), after which the growth of these festival related activities has been rapid.
From humble sanctity to clamouring crowds
Over time, followed by many site visits, the Petitioners observed large constructions of permanent structures and buildings beyond the Church premises resulting in a substantial increase of festival celebrations.
Moreover, the Petitioners noted that the scrub-lands, and some of the areas surrounding the Church, had been cleared to facilitate the festivities. A set of new, permanent structures have been added; from water tanks used for drinking water to an erection for a Church bell.
The provision of plastic water bottles, polythene bags and plastic packaged food items in stalls during every festival, their inevitable consumption, and their irresponsible disposal results in unrestrained plastic pollution within this precious forest reserve. ‘Villu-pattu’, meaning ‘Land of Lakes’, hosts approximately 205 water bodies, both natural and man-made. Consequently, the absence of adequate waste disposal systems pollutes the natural sources of water bodies in the WNP.
A total of 284 faunal species, belonging to 101 families, have been recorded within the WNP, with 21 endemic and 30 nationally threatened species among them. The elephant (Elephas maximus), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), and leopard (Panthera parduskotiya) are some of the endangered mammals found in this protected area that have already been pushed to the brink of extinction as a result of many unregulated human – development practices.
Deforestation to make way for camp sites and food stalls disrupts the preferred environment of a species, causing population fragmentation and ecosystem decay. In like manner, the habit of feeding wild animals by pilgrims severely disturbs wildlife foraging, nesting and breeding patterns while also posing a risk to all attendees.
Aside from this, the air pollution from hundreds of vehicles also threatens the environment, and the lives of wild animals through road kills. The burning of wood to cook, coupled with the noise pollution caused by loudspeakers and firecrackers, all have devastating impacts on the lives of all fauna. In addition, the thousands of visitors open the possibilities for illegal activities such as sand-minding, poaching and bio-piracy, all of which have been detected there.
Upholding the laws of Sri Lanka
With regard to the ongoing court case, the Director-General, in his Affidavit dated 03.05.2019, stated that the Pallekhandal Church is situated well within the boundaries of WNP and that when Block 05 of the WNP was declared as a National Park in 1973, Pallekhandal Church which was situated within it, along with all other lands, were absorbed into the WNP. Nevertheless, the Minister of Tourism Development, Wildlife and Christian Religious Affairs, appearing through Private Bar, in his Objection dated 14.06.2019, stated that the Pallekhandal Church does not form part of the WNP and is not subject to the FFPO.
The aforesaid stance of the Minister is contrary to the Gazette bearing No. 14,886 dated 26.12.1969 mentioned previously. The Minister further stated in his Objection that the rights of the Catholic worshippers who have worshipped at the Church since the 17th Century cannot and should not be affected by the creation of a National Park and that the activities of the Church, in particular services such as the Holy Mass, must be continued, unabated and without obstruction.
Consequently, on 5 May, when the case was taken before the Court of Appeal, 12 terms were recorded by the Court as the Terms of Settlement pertaining to this year’s feast only, which was to be held from the 10 to 14 July. The aforesaid terms required the devotees to camp and stay within the demarcated area and precluded them from collecting firewood or any other resources from the surrounding environment.
Additionally, the Terms restricted the use of loudspeakers up to a magnitude of 50 decibels from being located within the demarcated area and directed the Church authorities to ensure that the exercise of the entitlements given to the devotees cause minimum damage to the environment. Accordingly, the Case is fixed for Mention on 11 October.