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(a) Overall faunal endemism and rangerestriction based biodiversity sensitivity ranking of hexagonal grid cells of Sri Lanka where graduated colors from green to red depicts low to high ranks of sensitivity values respectively (please note that all areas with a color are sensitive areas) in which, (b) the Apple Farm area within the Kurundu Oya Mukalana has been identified with a high sensitivity rank. (Personal Communication by Dr. Sandun Perera)

By Emeritus Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke
University of Peradeniya

Chronological and Administrative/Legal History

There has been a long-drawn-out legislative battle between the government bureaucracy and politically influential cultivators of seasonal cash crops over the Maha Kudugala Apple Farm lands since its opening up in the 1970s. A total extent of 126 ha consisting of three land blocks each of 89 ha, 12 ha, and 5 ha respectively, is located entirely within the upper-most watershed mainly of Kurundu Oya in the Maha Kudugala GN Division of the Pidurutalagala (Pedro) Conservation Forest. The elevational range in the cultivation area is 1500 m – 2100 m (over 5000 ft.) having steep slopes mostly over 60o, (See Figure 1)

This land is also located within the ‘Central Environmental Fragile Area’ (a geographic entity that consists of the lands with sensitive natural ecosystems highly vulnerable to landslides which play a crucial role in sustaining water resources) depicted in the 2008-2030 National Physical Policy Plan and also in its updated version of 2017-2050 (Govt. Gazette No. 2127/15 – 12 June 2019).

The earliest records indicate that this land has been included in a forest area that has been declared way back in 1938 as state land for which survey plans were subsequently drawn up in 1942. The forest range was designated in this survey plan as Kurundu Oya Mukalana – the primary watershed forest of the Kurundu Oya. This 1942 survey plan refers to the entire forest range as a Climate Reserve for the protection of the sources and courses of streams arising from this forest area’ (FSPP 84B and 84C in the survey plan) highlighting its importance in watershed protection even at that time. It was later designated as Maha Kudugala Proposed Forest Reserve and included as a part of the Pidurutalagala Proposed Reserve according to the Forest Conservation Act which was resurveyed in 2004 and declared as a Conservation Forest by the Gazette No: 1527/22 on 14 Dec. 2007.

Cultivation History

Upon a request by the Nuwara Eliya District Co-ordinating Committee made on 08 Oct. 1970, the Forest Department had apparently issued a ‘no objection’ letter dated 11 Dec. 1970 to release 300 acres of this forested state land on the basis of a long-term lease in Maha Kudugala Proposed Forest Reserve for the cultivation of apple trees as a co-operative project to 97 members of the Ragala/Walapane Apple Growers’ Co-operative Society. However, these cultivators not only deviated from the original agreement to grow apple trees but also had not paid the annual lease for the land blocks leased out to them over several years. Consequently, upon a recommendation by the Forest Department, the then Secretary, Ministry of Lands and Land Development issued a directive on 23 March 1978 to the Government Agent/Nuwara Eliya to transfer back the entire land area to the Forest Department for reforestation. Since these directives were apparently not honoured by the apple farm cultivators, the issue has gone no less than to the highest legislative/executive authority – the President of the country.

The then HE President issued a directive in June 1990, approving the recommendations made by the Secretary, Ministry of Lands, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development on 14 May 1990 that all the occupants of the apple farm land (the members of the Ragala/Walapane Apple Growers’ Co-operative Society) to be evicted for deviating from the specific cultivation practices for which the land was originally leased out namely, for the cultivation of apple trees, thus causing extensive damage to this fragile landscape. The land to be reclaimed was once again recommended to be reforested.

However, the members of the apple growers’ co-op society (those with LDO permits as well as those who have established their long-term residence in the area) moved the Court of Appeal that the quit notice issued by the DFO, Nuwara Eliya in 1992 and the related actions pending in the Magistrate Court at Walapane be quashed. However, the Appeal Court issued the judgment on 20 Sept 2016 that the eviction order issued in 1992 is a legally valid document and that all ten notices requesting the repeal of the DFO order be annulled.

A second application submitted by 40 petitioners – all occupants of the said land, seeking to quash the Notice to Quit dated 31 Dec. 1992 issued by the Forest Department under Section 3 of the State Lands (Recovery of Possession) Act No. 7 of 1979 (as amended later), by way of Writ of certiorari was also dismissed (but without costs), at the Court of Appeal on 02 Dec. 2019 as the lands were initially released to promote apple cultivation, and that too not forever. During the delivery of the above judgment by the Appeal Court Judge in 2019 (CA Case No: CA/WRIT/6/2015) the statement made in their submission by the Forest Department that ‘the lands are situated over 5000 ft. altitude and part of the catchment area of the Randenigala Reservoir and the illegal occupation and the cultivation of the said area by unauthorised occupants including the petitioner by using hazardous chemicals severely affect the biodiversity of the entire conservation forest and cause siltation in the Randenigala reservoir’ was quoted in the Judgement statement thus under-scoring the conservation value of this forest landscape. (See Figure 2)

Conservation value of the Maha Kudugala Forest in the Pidurutalagala Range

The NE-facing upper montane rain forests are part of a separate plant geographic unit known as the Montane Intermediate Floristic Region (G1) which was recognised recently during the preparation of the 6th National Report for the Convention on Biological Diversity. These forests are among the most threatened landscapes within Sri Lanka for their exceptionally rich biodiversity and critical ecosystem services such as watershed and soil conservation functions they perform. In the pre-colonial era, these forest-clad landscapes provided year-round water security to the traditional rural communities of the present-day Walapane and Hanguranketha Divisional Secretariats lying in the eastern escarpments of the central highlands.

IV. Watershed Value

In terms of hydrological importance, the Pidurutalagala (Pedro) reserve was ranked number three (no. 3), just behind the Peak Wilderness and the Knuckles range, out of all the natural forests in Sri Lanka surveyed during the National Conservation Review (NCR 1996) conducted by the IUCN-The World Conservation Union with funding from the FAO. The main reason for gaining such a high rank is the contribution of fog interception by the natural forests to feed the streams originating from the forests thus ensuring year-round water security. According to the methodology used in the IUCN-sponsored NCR (1996), the horizontal precipitation by way of fog interception that feeds the streams foregone by converting forest into agricultural land use is about 860,000 cubic meters per annum (Personal communication by Prof. Nimal Gunawardena).

This is a substantial quantity of water in view of the issues currently faced by the Walapane Water Supply Scheme located downstream and the farmers who have been using the stream water of the Kurundu Oya for their subsistence for generations. Therefore, leaving the forests in the upper catchments is very important to regulate the stream flow since studies have shown that the fog contribution is significant, especially during the dry season. The NCR survey further indicated that there are 13 streamlets fed by the area covered specifically by the apple farm area and the lack of natural forest cover seriously affects the regulation of stream flow, which normally controls flash floods, soil erosion, and landslides.

One of the most harmful consequences of converting forests into intensive vegetable cultivation is the on-farm soil erosion and sedimentation of downstream reservoirs. The field studies in Nuwara Eliya district have shown that the soil erosion from intensive cultivation is about 100 t/ha/year whereas the soil erosion from the natural forest is as low as 0.3 t/ha/year. Almost all of such eroded soil released to the Kurundu Oya from the Apple Farm area ends up in the Randenigala Reservoir since there is a very steep gradient along the Kurundu Oya. This high level of soil erosion also increases the water purification cost at the Walapane Water Supply scheme due to the increased expense for chemicals to remove sediments from water and operate the pumps to flush out sediments from the filters at frequent intervals.

Heavy inputs of inorganic fertiliser, pesticides, and weedicides in vegetable and other cash crop cultivation in this area contaminate both surface- as well as ground-water thus affecting the drinking water quality of the downstream communities.

A land use management plan (still in the draft stage) prepared by the LUPPD/Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Resources (MEWR) under a UNDP/World Food Programme funded project titled ‘Addressing Climate Change Impacts on Marginalised Agricultural Communities Living in the Mahaweli River Basin” (https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000128802/download/), has identified and classified 297 water sources in Walapane DS Division fed by the three streams – Beliul-, Kurundu-, Halgan Oya into three water quality classes [Class 1 (127 – good), II (114 – fair), and III (26 – poor)]. This report strongly recommends that it is crucial to maintain a suitable land cover (tree-dominated), particularly on the higher slopes to reduce the runoff by increasing infiltration and minimising soil erosion. The UNDP report further recommends that the home gardens with seasonal cash crop cultivation in the slopes over 60% in the Walapane DSD need to be relocated, if possible. Alternatively, cultivation of these seasonal crops (vegetables and potatoes) should not be permitted in these home gardens and their land cover needs to be improved considerably by introducing tree crops (agroforestry practices) with intensive conservation measures. Since the Apple Farmlands are located further up in the watersheds of the three streams (Fig. 2 map on the right), the same evidence-based recommendations given in this report are applicable to them as well.

Biodiversity Value:

A recent biodiversity sensitivity ranking analysis conducted by University-based researchers using eight taxonomic groups namely, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish, dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies, and land snails has clearly identified the Kurundu Oya Mukalana that includes the Apple Farm area harbor a high concentration of endemic and range-restricted fauna See Fig. 3 below.

V. Impact on National Commitments to Global Conventions:

As a signatory to the three Rio Conventions (UNFCCC, UNCBD, and UNCCD), Sri Lanka is under obligation to achieve the national conservation targets within a set time frame (by 2030). Among these are i) restore and improve degraded forests (80% in the Dry Zone and 20% in the Wet Zone) ii) Increase the forest cover from 29% to 32% iii) Reduce the rate of soil degradation to improve land productivity and Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) stocks and iv) reduce soil erosion of lands cultivated with annual and plantation crops.

Under the UNCCD, the Sri Lankan Government has reaffirmed its commitment to Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 15 and Target 15.3 and participated in the Land Degradation Neutrality Target setting Programme (LDN-TSP) to identify national targets. (file:///E:/CP-%20SAM%20-%20Ch.%203%20_%20Montane%20zone/Apple%20Farm/Sri%20Lanka%20LDN%20Country%20Commitments.pdf). Among the Land Degradation Neutrality (LND) measures identified as national priorities, the following measures listed in the LDN national report (Box 3 on page 7) are directly relevant to the Apple Farm issue.

Change the policy of regularising the encroachment of state lands,

Halt the cultivation of annual crops in steep lands and facilitate the conversion of such lands to perennial crops,

Encourage the adaptation of sustainable management practices through incentives.

Summary

In summary, the above-detailed review of both scientific and legal evidence along with the nationally pledged commitments to the three international conventions (UNCBD, UNFCCC, and UNCCD), unequivocally underscores the fact that the current land use practices in the Apple Farm lands are being carried out in violation of National Policies and Legislation (National Physical Policy Plan, Forest Conservation Act, Soil Conservation Act, National Policy on Protection and Conservation of Water Sources, their Catchments and Reservations in Sri Lanka [2014]) and also contravening the legally binding international commitments made to the three Rio Conventions that Sri Lanka is a signatory to.

At present Sri Lanka is moving towards a green economic environment encouraging investments for sustainable and transformative green development projects addressing the nationally important sustainability issues viz. rapid loss of biodiversity, impacts of accelerated land degradation compounded by changing climate, especially on the critical upper watersheds of major river basins.

In such a situation, the current state of affairs on the Apple Farm Land issue creates serious precedence in environmental and social mismanagement and misgovernment, thus severely impacting our national drive toward achieving Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and Land Degradation Neutrality targets through green economic pathways during this Decade of Forest Restoration (2021-2030).

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