Legal battle fought by a private company to save our forests

Monday, 26 September 2016 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By St. John Navaratnam Xavier

One of Sri Lanka’s most important “natural environmental assets” is our forests. The responsibility of sustaining this wonderful natural heritage for the benefit of the present and future generations does not lie with the government only but with every right thinking person in this country. The impact of diminishing forest cover is already being felt in our country. We have experienced in the recent past frequent prolonged droughts and high intensity rainfalls resulting in flooding and landslides. Forest cover plays an important role in maintaining a balance in our sensitive ecosystem.

In this context it is noteworthy to look at the story of a “Unique Court Order which was made by the Balangoda District Court”granting ownership to 328acresof prime Forest Reserve to “some private parties.”This story was reported in the media by a registered NGO in Sri Lanka, the Environmental Foundation Limited. The fact of the matter is that the Forest Department should have been summoned by Court and the claim verified before the Order was made but this did not happen.

A public spirited Private Company having seen the news item appearing in the media had contacted the Environmental Foundation Office which was responsible for this article and started an investigation into this matter. The assistance of the Ratnapura District and Balangoda District Forest Officers wereobtained for identifying thelocation of the area related to the court judgment. It was revealed in the course of this investigation that the catchment area for the water basin that drains into the Bambarabotuwa Ganga and a tributary of the Walawe Ganga was included in this Judgment. Therefore based on these findings, the Company initiated Court actionin the year 2003 seeking a court order to issue an injunction preventing the defendants from entering and cutting any trees and clearing the land and to declare the land in suit asForest Reserve State Property. This commitment by the Private Company to spend its own resources and time should be highly commended.

Seventeen persons were named as “defendants” in this action of which the Attorney General and the Conservator of Forests were named as the 16th and 17th defendants. On 4th May, 2006 the Attorney General moved over from the position of defendant to that of co-plaintiff with Court approval and took over the case from the Private Company since the disputed land was state property. The case was successfully concluded in year 2014 with judgment entered upholding the plaint with the issue of a permanent Injunction against the clearing of the forest property and declaring the 328 acres as Forest Reserve State Property. The Private Company’s timely action has been rewarded in saving the forest and a benefit to the nation by way of preventing substantial destruction to the forest and the environment. It had also prevented a fraud taking place robbing the country of its national heritage. We hope that there will be more public spirited Companies and individuals coming forward to offer their services to the Country and the government.

 In conclusion a well focused well compiled awareness program should be introduced into the school curriculum for the children and a TV and Radio programmes to educate the general public on the importance of protecting, preserving and sustaining our forests which is one of our most important and valuable natural national heritages. Development is essential to the country but it should not take place at the expense of the environment!