by Ifham Nizam
Civic minded organisations and environmentalists expressed concern about the remarks made by Minister Rishard Bathiudeen
There is no forest destruction done in order to resettle these people
It is the government that is using state resources that cleared the forests
Civic minded organisations and environmentalists expressed concern about the remarks made by Industry and Commerce Minister and Vanni District Parliamentarian Rishard Bathiudeen in London last Sunday, pertaining to the Wilpattu land grabbing issue.
In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, Sinhala Service , he said that the jungles surrounding the Wilpattu sanctuary were cleared not by Muslim Internally Displaced People – IDPs – nor people but by state authorities themselves.
Eminent Conservationist Rukshan Jayewardene, who is also a senior official of the Wildlife Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPS) told The Sunday Leader that the WNPS position is that, whether the DS or Forest Department or State Timber Corporation or all in conjunction cleared the land, the land clearance was illegal.
The beneficiaries of this deforestation by state agencies are the settlers sponsored by Minister Rishard Bathiudeen, he said.
“He has continuously been a minister for many years now and the officials in question do not say that the land was cleared on his orders.
Why is that? What happened to the timber? They do not admit to cutting down these forests, since they are aware of the legal position of the land even when it has been released illegally or using coercion or quasi legal means,” he added.
He also stressed that all land Bathiudeen cleared for so called resettlement is protected forest land with mature trees. “The settlements in those lands are not re-settlements but new settlements. The fact that mature forests have been cut down, and never cultivated areas are being built on, is self evident to anyone who visits these areas with even a rudimentary knowledge of trees and landscape. The claim that the cleared forest is 22 years old growth, since the land was abandoned by the occupants due to terrorism is a laughable claim. Those lands are elsewhere,” he further said.
Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Executive Director Hemantha Withanage agreed with the fact that Muslim people are not the ones who practically destroyed the forest.
However, Withanage stressed that Minister Bathiudeen pressurised the government and the Forest department to release this land for his resettlement programme.
He told The Sunday Leader that Minister Bathiudeen cannot wash his hands by passing the ball to state agencies. “I agree it was the State Timber Corporation who got involved in destroying forests and removing timber,”: he said.
He also said that Minister Bathiudeen is trying to hide is wrongs by highlighting this destruction as a communal issue.
“It is wrong. Environmentalists are not against Muslim people who are returning to own land which they lived in before the war. We are very clear that for 90 per cent of the lands they have pushed the government agency to release for these resettlements are forests and there was no ownership to any one before.
The jungles surrounding the Wilpattu sanctuary were cleared neither by Muslim IDPs nor people but by state authorities themselves, the Cabinet Minister said in London.
“I can vow, with responsibility, that none of these IDP people are responsible for this destruction. It is the government using state resources that cleared the forests” said Minister of Industry and Commerce and Vanni District MP Rishard Bathiudeen on 12 March in London.
Minister Bathiudeen was responding to a question posed to him by BBC’s Sandeshaya programme’s Thisara Rathuwithana in London’s BBC Studios on March 12 during a Sandeshaya programme.
When BBC’s Rathuwithana said that whenever the Wilpattu issue emerges, Minister Bathiudeen’s name too is mentioned. “Your name is mentioned in 90 per cent of comments we received on the Wilpattu issue. Why is it that you are solely targeted on this Wilpattu issue?” asked Rathuwithana.
Minister Bathiudeen, himself a Northern refugee once, responded: “Even today, I feel for these (Muslim IDP) people. No one in Geneva talks about them-not even the European Union, neither India nor even the Arab countries talk about them.
One thing is to cutting trees. Resettlement in a tree cleared land is a different issue. The trees were removed not by the people but by the government itself, through government’s State Timber Corporation, Divisional Secretary and Department of Forest Conservation. Therefore these accusations are part of a conspiracy against the people by a certain group to create a communal rift between Sinhalese and Muslims. There is no forest destruction done in order to resettle these people.
These people did not destroy the jungle as per their own whims and fancies. There is nothing wrong in resettling in your own land if you have a land deed even inside the jungle.
How can I, as a Minister, prevent people from resettling in their own legally owned lands? There was destruction of jungle in the surrounding areas but I can vow, with responsibility, that none of these IDP people are responsible for this destruction. It is the government, using state resources that cleared the forests,” he said. Minister Bathiudeen was meeting the BBS Sandeshaya team on the sidelines of his visit to the inaugural Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ Meeting held on 9-10 March at Lancaster House, London.