Not too late to Halt Destruction of Our Natural Resources
Allegations of misappropriation of monies running into millions of rupees, be it the bond scam, Helping Hambantota or pay-offs on projects are not uncommon in Sri Lanka. Whether it’s aid or public funds, it has a value, both monetary and fixed.
The same however is not the case when it involves natural resources, for the loss is not financial, rather, the negative impacts of such destruction will be felt for generations to come for all of humanity.
This past month, two of Sri Lanka’s, nay, globally valued ecological hot-spots have been in the news for all the wrong reasons.
On the one side is the development of a road through the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.
The other was the complete destruction of more than a hectare of the Anawilundawa wetlands, for the sole purpose of preparing the ground for prawn farming. That act of destruction took place under cover of the night on August 25th.
Sinharaja’s issue involves Lankagama, a hamlet consisting of around 300 families; an isolated village which borders the forest and the Gin Ganga. Folk lore has it that their ancestors had fled to the jungles to escape Leprosy centuries ago. Over time, their numbers have increased, and today, like everyone else they may hanker after the more material comforts. One such is the ability to get to better equipped cities for their medical needs. The bone of contention though, is whether the road getting them to civilization should be repaired or widened, especially the roughly 1.3 km stretch that goes through the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.
Who wants the road widened, the villagers or outsiders with commercial interests? The answer varies depending on who one speaks to. Would a road that is repaired and concreted at 8 feet wide, as is the existing one, suffice to get villagers to the cities? Or can that be achieved only if the road is widened to at least a 15 feet, which means cutting further into the forest and threatening the buffer zone of the Gin Ganga which runs parallel to the road?
Both Sinharaja and Anawilundawa are globally recognised and protected bio-hot spots, the latter being one of six sites identified under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, which came into force in Sri Lanka in 1990. In 2018 Colombo too was accredited as a Ramsar Wetland site, with eight wetlands in and around the District being identified.
Environment scientists state that Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems and are home to most endangered wildlife and plants world-wide. They also recharge groundwater supplies.
This then, a giver of life to man and beast is what was destroyed, when greed for material gains resulted in Anawilundawa being bulldozed! Anawilundawa , is an ancient man-made cascading irrigation system. It is reported to be unique to this biogeographical region, and is home to nearly 40% of vertebrate species found in this country and to 50% freshwater fish varieties of which at least three are endemic. It also attracts many migratory birds.
That one act, destroyed not only the homes of fish and birds and other plant life, it has also interfered with flood control and the availability of much needed water for cultivation in the dry season.
While a businessman is now in custody along with the driver of the bulldozer, questions remain as to the person’s identity and manner in which he obtained permission, if he ever did, to convert an important natural resource to a prawn farm. How or what would make his so emboldened?
According to the Director General of Conservation, Mr. M G C Sooriyabandara, such wilful destruction of the country’s natural resources entail criminal charges under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance.
Declared a forest reserve in 1875, Sinharaja, was recognised as a biosphere reserve in 1978 by UNESCO and subsequently a World Heritage site.
Sinharaja, enjoys the highest legal protection through the National Heritage and Wilderness Area Act of Sri Lanka. Most of the peripheral natural forests that form its boundary too have been declared reserved or conservation forests under the Forest Ordinance.
Despite all that, the Sri Lanka Army, according to a post on its website, began widening the road that connects Neluwa to Deniyaya and by extension, Lankagama on August 3rd. A notice on the website titled “Army Engineer Troops Begin Development Work along Kolawenigama – Lankagama Road” describes the activity thus; “Army Engineer troops on the directions of the Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Army have undertaken one more road development project along Deniyaya- Lankagama road following a Presidential directive on Saturday (1).
5 Field Sri Lanka Engineers troops accordingly are currently attending to the repairs of the Deniyaya- Lankagama road by widening both sides of the road and continuing roadside clearing, necessary earth filling and excavations and compaction.”
While work was temporarily halted on the instructions of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, when environmentalists protested, and the Ministry of Highways stated it was awaiting an Environmental Impact Assessment, on Saturday August 29, the President directed that the work recommences, following a visit to the area. His directive to complete the work within 90 days came with a caution that the environment must not be harmed.
To date, no environmental impact assessment report on this project has been released. Such reports take two forms; an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) if the development project involved is complex, or an Initial Environment Examination (IEE) for smaller ventures. These assessments are necessary to predict potential effects development work would have on the social and natural environment, suggest ways to minimize or prevent negative impacts, and to enhance the positive influences.
For environmentalists monitoring the progress of the Lankagama project, concerns involve missing guidelines on how the affected areas are to be protected; drainage, soil conservation and preventing landslides etc.
Convenor of Rainforests Protectors of Sri Lanka, Jayantha Wijesinghe explains that the issue is not repairing of the road, but the threat caused to the Sinharaja and the Gin Ganga, by the widening of the stretch that runs through the forest.
Already plundered for the valuable timber and medicinal plants and for mining as well as for tea and spice plantations, protecting Sinharaja has been no easy task. Widening of the road, Wijesinghe claims will only result in more of that; a wide and well tarred road will increase bio-piracy – of Weniwelgata and Wallapatta for example, he warns. There are reports that non-residents are pushing for a wider road because of their plans to set up hotels and other commercial activities in the area. This would increase pollution, especially of the Gin ganga.
It is also noteworthy, that this has not been the first attempt to develop this road. The first had been in 2013, and the work had been scrapped after the National Coordinator of the Centre for Environment and Nature Studies, Dr. Ravindra Kariyawasam complained to the UNESCO. He has complained to them once again, when work on the road recommenced this time around.
But should such issues prevent development reaching Lankagama’s residents? Just like everyone else, they too have a right to enjoy the creature comforts that many of us take for granted.
Most environmentalists point out that the solution is to offer alternate land along with better facilities to the three hundred odd families of Lankagama, just as it has been done in previous occasions.
The Kotmale Dam project involved resettling around 500 families, while 1200 acres in the Knuckles Conservation Forest area have been regained by providing those residents alternate land elsewhere. Similar action has been taken when the Moragahakanda Reservoir was being built, and reforesting Rambukolowa was necessary to serve as a catchment area for the reservoir.
While relocation must first be discussed with the people and their agreement obtained, Wijesinghe also points out that if they prefer to remain in Lankagama, the government should consider providing them with better facilities, such as a co-operative hospital in an area close to but outside the protected forest reserves.
Lankagama is not the only remote hamlet deserving of better facilities. This country is dotted with many such villages that lack even the basics such as safe water for drinking. When politicians advocate ‘one country one law’, then we need to also ask, what about equal access to better facilities for all? Why has Lankagama and the Neluwa-Deniyaya road suddenly become so important, that the road must be ready within 90 days, even before an environmental impact assessment has been released?
Plunder of material resources of a country can be measured in dollars and cents and the culprits punished. Indeed, such losses, may, with time, even be recovered, but our very survival hinges on how well we protect and manage our natural assets. Unfortunately, environmentalists speaking out against such wanton destruction are being maligned, but if we do not heed them, and strike a balance between development schemes and protecting our natural resources the damage will be irreversible.