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Friday, 05 July 2019 17:28

Wilpattu National Park severely affected by unregulated activities of Pallekandal Church

The Environmental Foundation (Guarantee) Ltd. (EFL) and Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) yesterday in a joint statement alleged that the Wilpattu National Park is severely affected by the unregulated activities of the Pallekandal Church. Following is the full statement.

EFL, a non-profit organisation dedicated to conservation and protection of the environment through public interest litigation, along with WNPS, an organisation aimed to prevent the destruction and harmful commercial exploitation of species of wild animals and plants and to preserve wildlife intact in natural conditions in Sri Lanka, filed a Writ application in the Court of Appeal (Bearing No. CA/Writ/51/18) seeking the issuance of a Writ of Mandamus to direct the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) to demarcate the boundaries of the Pallekandal church situated within the Wilpattu National Park (WNP) and to regulate activities of the Pallekandal Church according to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance No.02 of 1937 as amended (FFPO) on 24 January 2018.

The Respondents for the case include, among others, Director General of Department of Wildlife Conservation, Minister of Tourism Development, Wildlife and Christian Religious Affairs and His Lordship of Bishop of Chilaw. The grievances highlighted in the petition include the violations of the provisions of the FFPO and the damages caused to the sensitive environment of WNP by activities of the Pallekandal Church.

A few centuries ago, a small jungle shrine was established in the Pallekandal/Pomparippu area. The entire village of Pallekandal comprised 445 acres and the tiny block of land with the shrine was acquired by the Government as a State land in 1969 under the Land Acquisition (amendment) Act No. 28 of 1964 as reflected in the Gazette bearing No. 14,886 dated 26 December 1969 published by the Department of Government Printing.

Pursuant to that Block V of WNP was declared in 1973 by way of gazette declaration bearing No. 89 dated 7 December 1973 over the same area; thus, the entire village including the church effectively became part of the Wilpattu National Park. By perusal of the boundaries of the aforesaid Block V of WNP, it is clear that the said village and the church were not expressly and/or impliedly excluded during such declaration.

With the onset of the terrorist campaign of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), WNP was subjected to a series of attacks and incursions by terrorists in the mid-1980s. As a result, in 1987, the park was closed to visitors for security reasons but was controlled by the DWC and later was taken over by the armed forces. During the civil war period in Sri Lanka, this chapel was not used and the building fell into disrepair, with the roof caving in.

After the re-opening of the National Park, there had been an expansion of structures and buildings transforming the jungle shrine into a well-constructed church, encouraging more human intrusion and intervention of thousands of people into the national park without any regulation and/ or control.

The expansion of festive activity relating to the church has been rapidly increasing due to unregulated access to the National Park, after the construction of the unauthorised/illegal road cutting across the National Park, connecting the southern and northern boundaries of the park which 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).

In response, EFL made inquiries since 2016 and continuously contacted the relevant authorities to enforce FFPO and to ensure the protection of WNP. During the site visits, EFL observed large expansions of permanent structures and buildings expanding the church premises within WNP and a massive growth of the festival celebrations. The development of a motorable access road in and out to the premises inside the park to facilitate human intrusion was also observed.

EFL further noted that the scrub-lands and some of the areas surrounding the church have also been cleared to facilitate the festivities/human activity. Furthermore, EFL observed that a set of new permanent structures have been added to the jungle shrine (i.e. water tank used for drinking water, accommodation facilities and a church bell were observed) and that the road sides between Kala Oya DWC Regional Office and the road leading towards the premises was littered with plastic and polythene.

The rich eco systems and wildlife of WNP are severely affected, in danger of being harmed and endangered due to large numbers of people entering WNP with no regulation or control.

Severe impacts due to festivities within WNP

  • Clearing of forest area for camp sites and food stalls resulting in habitat fragmentation.
  • Absence of adequate waste disposal systems causing land-based, water and plastic pollution.
  • Noise and air pollution due to the influx of visitors, vehicles and festival activities such loud speakers, lights on tress, lighting crackers, burning wood to cook meals.
  • Disturbances to animal behaviour patterns, including foraging, nesting and breeding patterns and pilgrims attempting to feed wild animals causing a risk to all attendees and putting wildlife in danger.
  • Increases the risk of human-wildlife conflict.
  • Facilitates illegal activities within the park; encroachment, poaching, etc.

Once an area of land is declared to be a National Park according to FFPO, its management should be the duty of DWC. The activities of the church relating to festivities, construction/expansion of new/ existing structures, road development and clearing of forest land inside WNP amounts to direct and severe violation of FFPO.

Further, there is a great detrimental impact on the National Park by uncontrolled and/or unregulated human intrusion for the festivities of the Pallekandal church on a weekly and/or monthly and/or annual basis which amounts to an offence under FFPO.

Petitioners participated in a couple of multi-stakeholder meetings held at the Attorney General’s Department in order to arrive at a mutually agreed arrangement under the direct supervision and control of DWC for the purpose of conducting the festival of the Pallekandal Church, but no consensus reached thus far.

The Director-General of DWC (1st Respondent), in his Objection dated 30 July 2018, states that traditional/customary practices under Section 3 (3) of the FFPO No.02 of 1937 (as amended) as permitted by the Director-General of DWC, could only continue in WNP. He further stated that a large area had been cleared illegally and/or in an unauthorised manner and permanent and/or semi-permanent structures had been constructed in the Pallekandal Church area to the very detriment of WNP.

In addition, in his Objection, he stated that any customary rights exercised under Section 3 (3) of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance No.02 of 1937 (as amended), has not permitted any deviation and/or expansion of activities and/or places to be utilised.

Moreover, the Director-General in his Affidavit dated 3 May 2019 stated that the Pallekandal church is situated well within the boundaries of WNP and that when Block 05 of WNP was declared as a National Park in 1973,it was situated within Block 05, along with all other lands absorbed into WNP. He finally stated that several illegal structures were erected ever since the church commenced the feast in 2010.

In direct contradiction to the above position taken up by the Director-General of DWC, the Minister of Wildlife, Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs in his capacity as the Minister of Wildlife and Christian Religious Affairs (being the 2 (c) and 3 (b) Respondents) appearing through Private Bar in his Objection dated 14 June 2019 states that the Pallekandal Church does not form part of WNP and is not subject to FFPO.

The aforesaid stance of the Minister is contrary to the Gazette bearing No. 14,886 dated 26 December 1969, according to which the entire village of Pallekandal comprising 445 acres and the tiny block of land of the church was acquired by the Government as a State land and later was absorbed as part of the Wilpattu National Park by the Gazette bearing No. 89 dated 7 December 1973.

The Minister further states 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.

This case is listed for Support for Interim Relief on 5 July in the event there is no settlement reached by the parties regarding the regulation of church feast pertaining to this year.

K. Kanag-Isvaran PC, appeared for the Petitioner organisations with Wardani Karunaratne (Legal Consultant, EFL) and Chamindri Liyanage (Legal Officer, EFL) instructed by Lakni De Silva, Attorney-at-Law.

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