Centre for Environmental Justice v. Anura Satharasinghe et. al, W.P. 291 of 2015, Sri Lanka Court of Appeal (16 November 16, 2020) (Wilpattu forest case)
The petitioner, Centre for Environmental Justice (Guarantee) Ltd, claimed that the government-approved clearing, development, and occupation of land in designated forest reserves for the resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) violated the Forest Conservation Ordinance, and requested relief. Centre for Environmental Justice v. Anura Satharasinghe et. al, W.P. 291 of 2015, Sri Lanka Court of Appeal (16 November 2020), pgs. 3, 7.
While Section 4(2) of the Forest Conservation Ordinance specified that reserved forest lands may be released by order of the Minister, such an order had not been made. Id. pg. 6. The Court reviewed evidence and found that instead of following this process, the Minister of Industry and Commerce, a respondent in the litigation, had chaired a meeting with other government officials in which he signed an agreement containing the group’s decision to release the reserved forest land. Id. pgs. 6-7.
The Court acknowledged the need to resettle IDPs “as far as possible in the areas where they were residing. However, this is subject to other overriding concerns and above all the respect for the rule of law which is the basis of our Constitution.” Id. pg. 5. The Court held that in the absence of compliance with Section 4(2), the clearing, development, and settlement of the reserved forest land had been conducted in violation of the Forest Conservation Ordinance. Id. pg. 7.
The Court refused to provide remedies that would impact people not party to the case, but ordered the Conservator General of the Department of Forest Conservation to implement a tree planting program in “any area equivalent to the reserved area” in question. Id. pg. 12.
With regards to costs of planting the trees, the Court provided an overview of the polluter pays principle and pointed to case precedent in Sri Lanka holding that the community should not have to bear the cost of environmental damage through “reduced environmental quality or increased taxation.” Id. pg. 11. The Court stressed that the Constitutional duties of “every person in Sri Lanka to protect nature and conserve its riches” applied to public officials such as the Minister of Industry and Commerce and stated that it would be “a travesty of justice to require the State and consequently the taxpayer to bear the costs of this program when the [Minister of Industry and Commerce] was instrumental in getting the reserved forest released for the resettlement of the internally displaced persons.” Id. pg. 12. The Court thus ordered the Minister of Industry and Commerce to pay the full cost of the tree planting program within one month of being notified of the total cost. Id. pg. 12.
In response to procedural objections from respondents, the Court stated, among other things, that in public interest litigation, procedural concerns “should not be allowed to compromise the rights of the community at large.” Id. pg. 10.