The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith was in his element recently when he took up cudgels against those who are planning commercial development of the Muthurajawela wetlands.
He certainly did not mince his words when he reminded government that it is only the temporary keeper of all that is public, and businessmen who throw around their might and money have no right to interfere with such resources that do not belong to them.
Addressing a press conference on Thursday, January 7 the Cardinal stated that he has advised Catholic priests in charge of the parishes surrounding the wetlands not to allow ‘anyone to lay hands on this area,’ and urged the people to rise up against any moves that would result in the destruction of the wetlands.
Holding up a brochure of the proposed eco-friendly development plan for the wetland, he alleged that match box size apartments will be put up and described them to be nothing but ‘glorified prisons.’
Who, he asked, gave the private entity permission to remove boards put up by government departments and claim the land for their own.
A man who usually speaks in support of the current government, the Cardinal charged that the country has become a garbage mound, and that the culprits have government protection.
The wetlands are home to birds, water lilies and eco-systems he said, reminding everyone of the importance of oxygen, perhaps taking a shot at the current State Minister Sanath Nishantha, who a couple of years ago attempted to force conservation officers to release mangroves in the Negombo area for a volleyball court. The officer’s adamant refusal and explanation that such destruction would reduce much needed oxygen was met by a derisive comment by a supporter of the Minister who said, they do not need oxygen!
Muthurajawela ( Photo courtesy Biodiversity Sri Lanka.org)
Muthurajawela is the country’s largest saline coastal peat bog and is identified as one of Sri Lanka’s 12 priority wetlands. Recognising the significance of the bio-diversity and ecology of this coastal wetland, 1,777 hectares of the Northern area of Muthurajawela had been declared a sanctuary in 1996. Like other wetlands, Muthurajawela too is home to many endemic and threatened species.
With the Cardinal at the press conference was the Ven.Pahiyangala Ananda Thero, Convenor of the Protect Sri Lanka organisation (Surakimu Sri Lanka), a monk who has been vehemently protesting against the destruction of forests and other resources for several years. The organisation’s Secretary, Palitha Wickremaratne told Counterpoint that continued pumping of effluence into the wetlands by the residential and industrial complexes in the surrounding area has resulted in the death of many species including fish.
Agrarian officers have been selling off parcels of land allegedly for agriculture purposes, he said, adding that it was only a pretext by commercial entities to purchase land on the cheap for industrial activity. The current protest is against the plan to build apartments, golf courses and other tourist attractions over nearly 700 acres of the wetlands, which are being filled with garbage from various sites, including the Colombo Municipality, he says.
Time and time again, the wetlands have been declared protected through various gazette notifications etc., says Wickremaratne, adding that in 1981 it was made clear that private parties could make no claim on the wetlands. If these plans are not thwarted now, he points out the wetlands will be completely destroyed within the next ten to fifteen years.
The blueprint for a housing complex complete with golf courses and an electric train that would connect the Beira to Katunayake and a host of other tourist attractions had first been mooted in 2014. That is the plan that is now being revived.
This is not the first time that there have been attempts to convert the marshland in to housing complexes and similar projects. For private entities the importance of Muthurajewela’s proximity to the commercial capital Colombo and to the Katunayake airport cannot be overlooked.
In1989, the government of the day put a halt to any form of development of the marshland and commissioned the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (the Board of Investment as it is known today) to draw up a master plan which would be environmentally acceptable. That plan proposed that that the Muthurajawela and the Negombo area be divvied up along conservation and development lines. Three government departments, Forestry, Wildlife Conservation and Fisheries had been assigned responsibility. The Forest Department was put in charge of protecting the mangroves. While the Fisheries Department was in charge of the Negombo Lagoon, the conservation zone had been put under the Wildlife Department.
Yet, Convenor of Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka, Jayantha Wijesinghe laments that if public servants did their job as mandated and withstood political pressure to release such land to private entities, the country’s eco-systems could be saved.
Muthurajewela, he points out is on one of the rest stations of migratory birds who enter the country from Mannar and fly onto Bundala through Anawilundawa, Beddegana, and Belanwila wetlands. As well, this particular wetland is connected through canals and estuaries all the way to Kelaniya. Any more tampering will only worsen issues and even cause more flooding.
Environmentalists, he points out, have through various protests managed to slow down or delay these development plans, and adds that even the Meetotamulla garbage dump is part of the plan to grab the wetlands.
Despite directives from the Courts way back in 2013/2014 to the Central Environment Authority to demarcate the boundaries and ensure no illegal encroachments are allowed, Wijesinghe alleges the authorities are dragging their feet. “They use flimsy excuses such as the land being involved in court cases, but the fact of the matter is that judgements have been given, advising that other than those claimed by individuals, all other lands should be demarcated as government owned. So it is time public officers showed some backbone, and stood by the responsibilities they are mandated to uphold, and not cave into any pressure, political or otherwise.’
Interestingly, the CEA identifies the Muthurajawela Environment Protection Area on its website as the “Buffer Zone in the Muthurajawela Wetland and Negombo Lagoon Master Plan” and highlights its importance as ‘Existence of high bio-diversity, Environmental service including flood control, Important area for agriculture, fisheries, navigation, educational, recreational and supply of natural products and Imposed threats due to ad hoc development activities, disposal of waste, discharge of effluents and other anthropogenic activities.” What more persuasion does the CEA need then to ensure these great natural resources are not exploited by private entities, who, with political backing, are only interested in feathering their own nests?
Marking World Wetlands Day on February 2 this year, the UNDP’s report had this to say about the Muthurajawela wetlands; “More than 15 years ago, the value of the goods and services derived from Muthurajawela wetland was estimated by IUCN at Rs. 725 million per year. This considered the direct benefits such as fishery, flood control, water purification and tourism. Today the value of these services would easily be doubled and the population living in the wetland area would have increased tenfold. However, the marsh is still considered an expendable ‘wasteland’ to be exploited for waste dumping, haphazard industrialisation and housing.”
For the Cardinal, protecting the wetlands is of significance, not merely because it will be destroying the ecology, but, because the area is situated along a strong Catholic belt. Naturally, the wetlands and the Negombo lagoon which is adjacent provide a livelihood to many of his flock, and ignoring their plight could well turn out to be costly. After all, it will only be too easy for other Christian denominations to attract his congregation, an issue that has troubled the Catholic Church for many years, if he fails them.
Cardinal Ranjith has been seen to be supportive of the current government. Perhaps his joining hands with other environmentalists who have been waging a valiant war for years to protect our natural resources, might just be the fillip needed, at least to save Muthurajawela.