Agarwood smugglers running rampant in Sri Lanka

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Despite the best efforts of authorities, well-organized groups of Wallapatta smugglers continue to operate throughout the country, chopping down trees in their dozens as they seek to expand an already lucrative racket.

The Nation learns that after a brief period of inactivity, smugglers have again commenced operations, including inside the Sinharaja Forest and the Sripada Forest Reserve, with large numbers of Wallapatta (Gyrinops Walla) trees cut down and taken away under the very noses of authorities.

The key ingredient at the heart of the smuggling operation is the resinous substance known as ‘Agarwood’ which is used in some of the most expensive perfumes in the world. Some Wallapatta trees, though not all, produce this substance and since it was revealed several years ago, smugglers have been busy chopping down and taking away such trees wherever they are found in order to try and extract the agarwood. The Wallapatta is a plant protected internationally under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and a permit is required to take it out of the country. However, this has not deterred smugglers. Wallapatta trees, both at private properties and forest reserves, have fallen prey to these groups.Inside support?

Prof. Mangala De Silva from the University of Ruhuna who obtained photographs of the destruction at the Sinharaja forest, said they had been taken along the Mulawella pathway into Sinharaja. He alleged Wallapatta trees had been cut down and chopped into pieces by an unknown group. All the leftovers had been cast aside on both sides of the pathway. While the guides had claimed it was done by outsiders, Prof. De Silva said even if that were the case, “I do not think outsiders can cause so much destruction without inside support”. He pointed out forest rangers could not claim not to have known of such activities.

Wallapatta smuggling also continues and is rampant in the Sripada forest reserve. Visitors to the forest reserve through the Udamalimboda area in Deraniyagala can witness trees of Wallapatta cut down. According to villagers many who engage in the trade cut down all the trees as they are unable to identify the Wallapatta trees that has the agarwood resin that is of commercial value.

Speaking to The Nation a villager who wished to remain anonymous said that it is certain villagers themselves who carry out the smuggling. “They have become prosperous today through this trade” he said adding that forest rangers do not visit the area as the range office is located in the opposite side of the reserve. According to the villager the smugglers can therefore carry out their activities without any interruption”.

Can strike at anytime
When contacted, Conservator General of Forests, Anura Sathurusinghe acknowledged the problem was extensive. “We are up against an extremely well-organized group who operate throughout the country. They can strike at any time, be it morning, noon or night and disappear,” he said. He added authorities had conducted raids in the Nissarana Vanaya area in Meethirigala, Gampaha last week in response to complaints that smugglers were chopping down Wallapatta trees in the area. Sathurusinghe said authorities had been alerted to the destruction done to the trees at Sinharaja forest. “A team of officials were sent from Colombo to the area some three weeks ago and they also reported that trees had been chopped down”.

In a bid to disrupt the racket, authorities had also sought the help of the Police Special Task Force (STF), and the STF had recently conducted raids in the Kalutara and Ratnapura areas, helping to arrest some of those involved, Sathurusinghe revealed.

‘Travesty’ of a Cabinet Memorandum
Meanwhile, instead of taking effective measures to control the problem, the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it is alleged, made matters worse by trying to amend existing laws to enable the cultivation of Wallapatta under the ‘Divi Neguma’ program for commercial purposes while removing existing restrictions in place for the possession and transport of the plant.

A Cabinet Memorandum submitted on August 29, 2014 by then Minister of Wildlife Resources Conservation Vijith Wijayamuni Zoysa and also containing observations of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his capacity as Minister of Finance and Planning, proposed to remove ‘bans and restrictions’ in place under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) regarding the possession and transportation of Wallapatta. The proposal was approved by Cabinet.

However, Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena told The Nation the memorandum, titled ‘Publication through Gazette Order for Regularization of Export of the Plant Species Named Gyrinops Walla,’ would have run contrary to Forest Regulation No.1 of 1979 published in Gazette Extraordinary No.68/14, of December 26, 1979 which regulates the transportation, possession and collection of such plants and plant material along with Gazette Extraordinary No. 1161/1 of December 5, 2001 which  states "No person shall export any timber, seeds of forest tree species or other forest produce unless such person has been issued with a permit by the Conservator of Forests or an officer authorised in that behalf by the Conservator of Forests which is for the time being in force”.

He said it would have been a ‘travesty’ if the Cabinet decision had come into force. It would have also been contrary to the primary recommendation to authorities made by a committee comprising officials from the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Department of Forest Conservation, Department of National Botanic Gardens, Sri Lanka Customs and environmental experts, aiming to stop attempts to export all material produced from Wallapatta, revealed Gunawardena, who was also a member of that committee.

“Thankfully, the Cabinet decision was never implemented due to several reasons,” he noted.

According to Gunawardena, environmentalists have recommended that the plant be protected by a regulation under Section 45 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) in a bid to prevent its destruction due to such illegal activities. While the struggle against the illicit trade continues, officials have the unenviable task of ensuring better protection for a plant which had been considered worthless until a few years ago, but whose existence is now clearly under threat.

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