Pallakandal Church and the challenge it poses to Wilpattu￼
Wilpattu is Sri Lanka’s largest and oldest natural forest. More than a century ago, Wilpattu was declared as a national reserve and became a national park on February 25, 1938. Once an area is designated as a National Park in accordance with the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, the Wildlife Conservation Department is legally responsible for the management of that area. For a park to be given the status of a national park, it must have an invaluable ecological-biological value and the responsibility of protecting such an environment becomes a wider responsibility for the entire nation, not limited to one person, a group of people or a body of officials. It is for this reason that both accurate and inaccurate information regarding Wilpattu continues to spread within society.
Discussions about Wilpattu often take a political, ethnic, religious, or even racist turn, and as a result, the environmental concerns remain largely unaddressed. Therefore, a proper understanding of the extent of the damage being caused to Wilpattu is lacking. Understanding the real issue without pushing the environmental issue to political, religious or racist extremes is a national need.
The environmental damage caused to the Wilpattu National Park by religious activities is an area untouched by the mainstream media. This article is an attempt to explain the environmental damage caused to a section of the park due to the activities of the Pallakandal Catholic Church.
The Pallakandal issue
Pallakandal is an abandoned village spread over 445 acres in Block 5 of the Wilpattu National Park. About a century ago, the Catholic fishermen who lived near the Puttalam lagoon built a small church for their religious activities and held their annual festival there. An acre of land had been reserved for the original church. The small strip of land on which Pallakandal Church and Pallakandal village were located was claimed by the government through Gazette No. 14,886 under the Land Acquisition Act of 1969. Then in 1973, Gazette No. 89 was issued declaring both Pallakandal village and the small church in the fifth section as part of the Wilpattu National Park. But at that time Pallakandal was an unpopulated village.
However, with the outbreak of the civil war in the 1980s, Wilpattu was not open to local or foreign tourists. With the end of the war in 2009, Block 5, in which the church was located was reopened to the public. The unauthorised road built through the park during the war became the official route for pilgrims after the park was reopened.
Environmental groups filed a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court, challenging the construction of the unauthorised road through the National Park and its continuous use. The case — Fundamental Rights Application No. 224/2010 — has been going on since 2010.
There has been an increase in the number of devotees visiting the Pallakandal Church since the end of the war. As a result, the church’s activities have expanded. Its administration has repaired the dilapidated church and constructed more permanent structures. All this is happening in violation of the provisions of the Wildlife and Flora Ordinance and without the permission of the Director General of Wildlife Conservation, environmental groups say. Needless to say, the amount of environmental damage caused by such a large number of people entering a national park that a nation is duty-bound to protect is immeasurable.
It is evident that the area will take a long time to recover from the environmental damage caused by human activities normalized in the name of the Catholic Church or perhaps it may never be restored to its former state.
When some economic value is attached to a certain area, even if it is a heartland or sacred land, it cannot evade the grip of capitalists. In such an event, the surrounding natural environment will be the first to be disrupted. Today, Pallakandal Church has become an income-generating source within the park. The administration attempts to systematically dispose of polythene, plastic and other garbage that accumulate in the area but because of the large arrival number, it could not cope with the mounting problem. Environmentalists call for a proper scientific study on the adverse effects of pollution on wild animals, vegetation and water sources. During church festival days, there is noise pollution in addition to air pollution caused by heavy traffic to and fro the park. The Pallakandal Church is at the centre of the environmental problem, the gravity of which can be seen in the change in animal behaviour, movement, breeding, and nesting patterns (nest building). The nearby Pomparippu area is of great archaeological value. In particular, the Pomparippu burial ground, spread over 3-4 acres in that area, contains evidence of the lifestyles of early humans during the Stone Age. Thus the uncontrolled arrival of a large number of pilgrims is also a threat to the archaeological sites.
According to sub-section 3 (3) of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, even in a national park, traditional religious beliefs can be continued. However, clearing forest areas for religious or ceremonial purposes, building roads, building new constructions on a permanent basis, and enlarging the size of existing structures are a violation of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Moreover, the fundamental provisions of the law have also been violated when devotees are allowed to live in the national park during religious ceremonies without any proper regulation.
In January 2018, a writ application was filed before the Court of Appeal highlighting the environmental challenges the Wilpattu National Park faced due to the activities of the Pallakandal Church. Documents submitted to the court indicate that the Wildlife Conservation General, a respondent in the case, has admitted that the Wilpattu National Park and its surroundings have been harmed by the activities of the Church.
However, the then Wildlife, Tourism Promotion and Christian Affairs Minister who presents himself as a saviour of the Catholic people dismissed the accusation that the church activities were causing harm to the park.
The minister had an equal responsibility to promote the Christian religion and protect wildlife resources. But the minister claimed the Wilpattu National Park had been established incorporating a land mass that had been holy to Catholic pilgrims since the 17th century. The minister was of the opinion that the religious freedom that the Catholic people had been enjoying for a long time had been violated. His statements were followed by an attempt to issue a gazette removing the Pallekandal Church and another six acres from the protected area. Evidently, the then Minister and the then Wildlife Conservation Director General held conflicting opinions on the matter. Whom should we believe here? The Minister or the Direct General?
The Christian Religious Affairs Minister, who tried to prove that Pallakandal Church was not a part of the Wilpattu National Park, rejected the Attorney General’s Department’s legal assistance in the Court of Appeal case and resorted to obtaining private legal assistance from a well-known lawyer.
On June 26, 2019, when the case was reconvened, the private lawyer represented the minister. Although it is possible to get private legal assistance under certain conditions, it seems that the minister had a strong need to win the case. Perhaps he also intended to build his political persona by intervening in this issue.
The ‘Dhara’ documentary programme aired on July 28, 2019, on the Pallekandala Church attempted to justify its actions and activities. It is believed that such a programme on the state-run Rupavahini channel was produced due to political pressure. Later, the writer, who accessed the Rupavahini website, found that this particular episode of Dhara has been removed, while all others remain. After all this, can we still believe that there is no attempt to justify the environmental challenge to Wilpattu by the Pallakandal Church?
The Wilpattu National Park, which a nation must protect, belongs to the present and future generations of Sri Lanka. Though the political and constitutional responsibility to protect Wilpattu is on the minister, we the people have the collective responsibility to protect our national parks. In fulfilling this responsibility, it is important to ensure that the continuous efforts of the Director General of Wildlife Conservation and environmental organisations are not overshadowed by the political powers of the country.