Does agribusiness meant to be destroy nature?

HVA foods grabs another forest land in Thabbowa

Sajeewa Chamikara

Location of the HVA farm in the Thabbowa sanctuary and Veerakkulicholai forest reserve

The government has handed over 175 acres of forest land, which belongs to Thabbowa sanctuary and Weerakkulicholei forest reserve, to HVA farming project managed by HVA Foods, which operates under the chairmanship of Rohan Fernando, in an illegal manner. Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake has played a key role in ensuring this transaction. The 175 land is located at the buffer zone of the forest area adjoining Kala Oya, which is the Southern border of the Wilpattu National park. Prior to this latest land grant, HVA Foods had illegally cleared 35 acres that belong to the above mentioned two forest areas and Raalmaduwa - Achchimale archaeological reserve to carry out a pilot project for fruit cultivation. In an administrative sense the pilot project is located at Achchimale Village, Raalmaduwa GN Division (No 635), Wanathawilluwa DS Division, Puttalam District, the 175 acres of new land belongs to the forest reserve adjoining the Achchimale Village. The 175 acres of land are an extremely important catchment area for Achchimale Tank, Raalmadu Tank and Raalmadu canal. Moreover the entire forest area is a haven for wild elephants and a number of archaeological sites and sensitive eco systems are also located in the area. It is because of the above mentioned factors that these forest areas had been declared protected areas. It is this sensitive area that the HVA Foods plan to use as the site for their US $ 4 million agro tourism project, 'Organic Agricultural Resort'. Moreover they plan to export the agricultural products harvested from the farm. HVA Food Pvt. Ltd also exports tea under the brand name Heladiv Tea and its head office is located at No 39A, Linton Road, Kandana.

History of the Project

HVA Foods initially encroached on state land at Eluwankulama without obtaining any approval from the government. The usual practice of these areas is that people clear up state land to commence farms without any licensing and when Wanathavilluwa DS office investigates these encroachments, the perpetrators apply for an annual farming licence, which the DS office obligates. HVA foods also seem to have followed this practice and in 1997 the company requested the Land Commissioner's Department for a four acre land for a farming project. Later they requested an area of 8 acres and 25 acres to expand their farming project. After considering the request the North Western land Commissioner's Office awarded an annual licence only for four acres.
However HVA used this licence to clear a land of 35 acres of forest land periodically and has used the water from Raalmadu Oya for their cultivation. On March 24, 1998 HVA requested for another 250 acres from the North Western Environmental Authority through the BoI. North Western Environmental Authority, under the powers vested by Gazette No 1020/21 of March 27, 1998 (issued under the Provincial Environmental Convention (no 12 of 1990), advised HVA to obtain an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to granting approval for the release of land. On July 28, 1999 HVA submitted the EIA to the North Western Environmental Authority, which was rejected by the Wildlife Conservation Department as the requested land belonged to the buffer zone of Wilpattu National park and the catchment area of Kala Oya.

Archaeological remain found from the farm

Legal action against this illegal project

The land used by HVA foods is an area frequented by wild elephants and is a part of the Wilpattu forest network. The company has invested heavily to keep elephants away from the farm but elephants periodically break through the defences and destroy crops. This was extensive discussed at the Puttalam District land Use Committee in 2003. Representatives from Forest Conservation Department, Wildlife Conservation Department, Department of Archaeology, North Western Environmental Authority, Irrigation Department, Divisional secretariat as well as the District Secretary of Puttalam attended this meeting, held on April 02, 2003, extensive discussed the issue and decided that land, from this important archaeological and environmental area, must not be released for farming.
Following the discussion HVA Foods was asked to vacate the land but due to the political and economic power the company wielded they could ignore the directives of the state officials. Realizing that legal redress was the only option available, the Environmental Foundation Limited filed a lawsuit at the Supreme Court (SC(SPL)35/2007) seeking the removal of HVA from this ecologically and culturally sensitive area. The Chief Justice at that time, Sarath N Silva, for the shock and consternation of many, declared that HVA should be provided with an alternative land (instead of their removal from a state land that they had illegally encroached.) Using that directive HVA Farm has encroached 210 acres that belong to Tabbowa Sanctuary and Weerakkulicholei forest reserve although the directive did not state that the alternative land should be provided from protected forest areas, HVA continues to use ecologically sensitive land because of the political backing they have.

Value of the cultivated land

During the excavations for the construction of buildings for the farming project, a two foot crystal Buddha Statue was discovered. This status is now placed at the Anuradhapura Archeological Museum.n addition a number of other artifacts had been discovered during these excavations and all these priceless artifacts are placed opposite the main building of the farmland without any attempt to preserve them. The discovery of the artifacts are not surprising because the building is located at a designated archeological reserve and its mind boggling to see such an important archeological site being used as a farmland.
Due to the ecological importance of the area, Tabbowa Sanctuary was declared by gazette number 1245/31 issued under section 2 (2) of the Flora and fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO), last amended by act no 22 of 2009, covering 2193 hectares of forest land.Weerakkulicholei Forest reserve was declared by gazette number 1834/13 issued under section 3 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance, , last amended by act no 65 of 2009. However until 2013, this reserve and adjoining state land was called Weerakkulicholei - Eluwankulam proposed forest reserve and was controlled by the Forest Conservation Department. The 35 acres in which HVA farm is situated initially belonged to the Weerakkulicholei - Eluwankulam proposed forest reserve. Although the department had placed markers for the Weerakkulicholei - Eluwankulam proposed forest reserve, HVA has now removed all those signs.

Misleading nature of the farm project

HVA claims that it wants to maintain an export oriented organic farm but according to the guidelines of International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement – IFOAM, an entity can't clear up a forest area to create an 'organic farm'. IFOAM will also not issue an organic certificate for a farm created by clearing forest land. Our investigations into the 35 acre pilot project showed that HVA uses artificial fertilizer to grow fruits, the anti-thesis of organic agriculture, and that HVA does not export fruits produced. However HVA uses the 'organic' label as a smokescreen to mislead the authorities and to continue tier illegal activities.
As an environmentalist I have no problem with the promotion of organic agriculture, exporting organic produce or establishing organic agri tourism establishments. In fact organic agriculture will play a vital role in bringing in valuable foreign currency and uplifting our dwindling exports. However I also think its ridiculous to destroy sensitive eco systems, forest reserves and catchment areas to promote bogus organic farms. In addition by allowing a private company to subvert the existing laws of the land, using political and economic might, we are chipping away at the public confidence and trust in laws and institutions and that might lead to a catastrophic outcome in the coming decades.
As responsible citizens of a country we can't stay silent when HVA farms is blatantly violating the environmental laws of the country and the government must also act immediately to uphold the laws of the land. Section 27 (14) of the Sri Lankan constitution states that 'the State shall protect, preserve and improve the environment for the benefit of the community.' Meanwhile section 28 (f) of the constitution states that 'it is the duty of every person in Sri Lanka to protect nature and conserve its riches.' Thus the constitution compels the citizens and the state to protect the environment and thwart any attempt by an entity to destroy our environment.

Encroaching state land subverting environmental laws

According to sub sections 1 and 2 of section 3(a), ban on tourist hotels within one mile of National Reserve, Sub section 1 of Section 3A of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, amended last by act no 22 of 2009, states that 'No person shall, within one mile of the boundary at a National Reserve, construct a tourist hotel or provide any services or facilities similar to the services or facilities provided by a tourist hotel.' and sub section 2 states that 'No person shall commence or cause to be commenced any expansion to any tourist hotels situated within a one mile radius of the outer boundary of a National Reserve.' Meanwhile sub section 4 states that '(4) Any person who fails to comply with the provisions of this section shall be guilty of an offence.
For the purpose of this section, "relevant authority” means the Director-General of Wildlife Conservation or any wildlife officer duly authorised by the Director-General in that behalf.' Thus HVA has violated a number of sections of the FFPO.
Meanwhile sub section 9a (1) states that 'subject to the provisions of section 3A, no person or organisation, whether private or State shall within a distance of one mile of the boundary of any National Reserve declared by Order made under section 2, carry out any development activity of any description whatsoever without obtaining the prior written approval of the Director-General.' To obtain prior written approval of the Director-General, the proposer needs to carryout an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the EIA report must be placed at a public location for 30 days so that the public has the opportunity to study the report and make any objections. Director-General of the wildlife conservation department will only provide prior written approval after considering the final EIA report. However none of the above steps have been carried out in this case.
Meanwhile secion 10 details what can be done to any person or entity that violated the FFPO 'shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not less than fifteen thousand rupees and not more than fifty thousand rupees or to imprisonment of either description for a term not less than two years and not more than five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.' Thus the government has the power to punish HVA farms.
The FFPO has enforced strict rules regarding development activities in protected area to control the adverse impact human activity can have on sensitive eco systems. However the government has authorized HVA to carryout developmental activities less than a mile from the border of Wilpattu National Park.
The government has no right to release land from Tabbowa Sanctuary which was declared by gazette number 1245/31 issued under section 2 (2) of the Flora and fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO), last amended by act no 22 of 2009, covering 2193 hectares of forest land. Land that belongs to a sanctuary can only be released for a development activity only after an EIA. Following which that area can be declared removed from the sanctuary boundary through a gazette and hand over to the Land Commissioner's Department who can then transfer the ownership of land to another entity.
An EIA is a must prior to authorizing any developmental activity in a sanctuary because it is only though an EIA that we can understand the extent of the damages, to the ecological and archaeological value of the sanctuary, that will occur due to this project. One can excuse releasing land from a sanctuary if it will benefit the general public. However allowing a private entity, whose main objective is making a profit, to destroy an important archaeological and environmental site for narrow personal gain is unacceptable. However land from Tabbowa Sanctuary has been released to a rivate company, to make profit, but it seems that Department of Wildlife, who controls this sanctuary, is not aware of the damage that is being done. .
According to section 7 of the FFPO any human activity, including cultivating , removing plants and building permanent or temporary structures, in a protected area is prohibited. Anyone found guilty of such an act 'shall on conviction be liable to a fine not less than fifteen thousand rupees and not more than fifty thousand rupees or to imprisonment of either description for a term not less than two years and not more than five years or to both such fine and imprisonment,' according to section 10 of the act. Currently HVA runs its farm violating conditions set by the FFPO but the Department of Wildlife has not been able to take any action against HVA.
Since the farm is located at Puttalam District, it falls under the purview of the North Western Province Environmental Statute, no 12 of 1990. According to gazette notification 1020/21 published under section 42 of the Statute, prior written approval, subjected to an EIA, is necessary before carrying out any developmental activity, within 100 metres of a sanctuary or a forest reserve or if the project requires the clearing of forest land over a hectare. A few years ago HVA managed to obtain approval from the infamous North Western Environmental Authority by presenting an EIA report full of falsehoods. However HVA has made a number of changes to the project, detailed in the EIA, so that even this approval is no longer valid. Moreover a provincial authority can't authorize an action which violates a number of other legislations, that are applicable to the entire country.
Moreover prior written approval is needed to clear a forest area over one hectare or carryout any developmental activity within 100 meters from a forest reserve (according to gazette no 772/22 of June 24, 1993 issued under National Environmental Act, no 47 of 1980). Such approval is also needed to carryout any developmental activity within 100 metres from the boundary of a sanctuary (according to gazette no 859/15 of February 23, 1995). Thus the National Environmental Act is also relevant in this instance and thus obtaining approval from North Western Environmental Authority, which has a reputation of subverting environmental laws, is not adequate.
Another act that is relevant in this instance is the Antiquity Ordinance, No 9 of 1940. According to gazette no 1152/14, issued on October 04, 2000, prior written approval is needed to clear a forest area over two hectares of forest land, subject to an impact assessment on archaeological resources. Although a number of artifacts have been uncovered while farming activities in the area given to HVA farm, there has been no impact assessment on archaeological resources. We believe that the Archaeological Department must also intervene as its duty to protect our archaeological sites and treasures. Weerakkulicholei forest reserve was declared by gazette no 1834/13 of October 28, 2013 issued under section 03 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance. According to section 07 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance, entering a forest reserve illegally, removing plants and trees, construction of temporary or permanent structures and inhabiting them, building roads and establishing farm lands have been declared as illegal activities. A person who assists such activities is also considered a guilty party and a person found guilty can be either given a prison sentence less than 5 years or fined between Rs 100 0000 and Rs 1 000 000, or both. Considering the severe actions that Department of Forest Conservation can take we wonder how HVA managed to encroach and cultivate these lands with impunity. We also wonder on what basis did the department gave permission for HVA to cultivate these forest lands.
Article 12 (1) of the constitution says that 'all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law.' Thus HVA can't be given special treatment in the interpretation or implementation of the law.
Neither the Department of Forest Conservation nor the North Western Environmental Authority has the right to release land, protected by a number of legislations, for development activities. North Western Environmental Authority has given the company, in 2011, prior written approval, a development which is surprising given that the area in which HVA maintains a farm is protected by a number of legislations. Moreover HVA has no right to secure release of lands in 2017 using an approval given in 2011. If approval was to be given now, the authorization process would have to commence from scratch.

Forgetting the manifesto

In his manifesto for the 2015 Presidential Election, Compassionate Government - A Stable Country, President maithripala Sirisena pledged to will prepare the background for preventing the destruction of forestation and conserving
Sensitive ecological systems in order to protect forests and forest animals. All environmental laws will be implemented without reservation and in doing so offenders will be punished irrespective of their standing in society. A clear policy on forest cultivation will be formulated and implemented without prejudice to the traditional livelihoods of the rural community. However a number of projects like the HVA farm project starkly violate these pledges.
Moreover the UNFGG in its election manifesto, a new country in 60 months, promised to safeguard all protected areas in the country. We must ensure that these promises are upheld and it is the responsibility of the government to keep its promises. Allowing Minister Ravi Karunanayake or any other powerful minister to facilitate the transfer of protected land to a private company is not something we should tolerate from the government.
What surprises us more is the silence of the President, who pledges from time to time that he will increase the forest cover of Sri Lanka to 32%, while such violations take place. It is unlikely that the optimal way to increase our forest cover is to illegally handover forest land to private companies. The relevant government authorities must immediately step into halt the destruction of an important ecological and archaeological area and to punish those who carry out such actions. Moreover President Sirisena, as the minister of environment, must play a more proactive role and must take a policy decision to end the destruction of the environment for the sake of political and business interests.

Boundary pols remain in the farm

Entrance to the farm

The notice boards of the farm which has been removed by now