Environmentalists muster to save the environment Over 1000 issues at stake

By DR Prasanna cooray ( The Island) 05.03.2001717105361_755249257964308_1685765050_n
Last Wednesday (01.03.2017) afternoon a number of environmental groups from across the country gathered at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) auditorium in Borella to discuss the pressing issues they face in the environment front today and to come out with a plan of action to address those. This event was jointly convened by the Centre for Environmental & Nature Studies (CENS), the Young Journalists Association and the Parapuraka Balaya (Power of a Generation).

Development dilemma

A common concern that surfaced repeatedly throughout the discussion was the issue of “development”, defined and implemented by the successive governments of Sri Lanka during the past couple of decades.

Many speakers questioned the meaning of the word “development” that the politicians and the international agencies thrust on people. Many held a common view that the so-called “development” that is propagated through the state with the auspices of the international agencies, (who generally act on the sly, keep a low profile, while remaining in the backdrop), is highly skewed and takes place causing severe harm and distress to the environment and marginalized segments of the society. Recent involvements of the international agencies including the UN agencies and the European Union in funding housing projects within Wilpattu forest giving no two hoots to the country’s environmental laws is a classic case in point opined Ravindra Kariyawasam, director, CENS.

“They went on to justify their action claiming that was legal since it was endorsed by the state bureaucracy. The endorsement was obtained through intimidation during the past regimen”, clarified Kariyawasam.

Harping on the issue of development Kariyawasam emphasized, “We need the country to be developed. But that has to be a real development. The real development is something that is acceptable to all. It is not something that benefits only a few while plunge others into poverty and misery. The benefits of real development should be reaped by all. And that too not at the expense of one segment of the society or the environment”.

National Physical Plan

comes under fire

The National Physical Plan (NPP) 2011 – 30 of the country was one contentious topic that received top priority in the discussion.

Kariyawasam presented a brief outline of the on-going NPP. The road network, airport development, sea mineral resources, energy sector, industrial development and the regional physical plans were some of the segments of the NPP that Kariyawasam highlighted.

Highway construction – a faulty method given rise to many ills

The country’s highway network is developed by filling land with enormous volumes of soil spending colossal sums of money. This is a practice not found elsewhere in the world in building highways. In other countries highways are built on concrete pillars, which is less costly than the method carried out here. The method used here cause fragmentation of land, and hinder free movement of animals either side of the highway, argued Kariyawasam.

“Due to the lack of allowance for free movement the beasts get on to the road and eventually get killed by the motorists”, lamented Kariyawasam.

Deluging of surrounding lands along the highway during the rainy seasons Kariyawasam pointed out as another untoward outcome of our “highway construction fiasco”. This he demonstrated with the aid of aerial photographs captured of the immediate vicinity of the outer circular extension of the southern highway in Kaduwela area, following rains.

Kariyawasam said, “Yet this failed method continues unabated in our country for the monies it spin for the seedy elements that are flocked around this business. Today it has created a separate class of entrepreneurs who thrive on the highway industry. They will fight tooth and nail to see these projects will continue”.

Construction of a km of highway requires 120,000 cubic meters of soil. The gargantuan volumes of soil needed for the building of highways are supplied through razing of hillocks or excavating large pits in the interior of the country. These have given rise to a number of environmental and social problem commented Kariyawasam.

Nineteen Airports by 2030

“According to the plan (NPP) by 2030 the country is expected to have 19 airports” said Kariyawasam. These include construction of new airports in addition to further expansion of the already existing ones.

“Can a small country like Sri Lanka afford to have 19 airports is one question. And how the authorities would address the environmental and social costs attached to these is another”, questioned Kariyawasam.

Drawing an example from Mattala, Kariyawasam revealed the present plight of the people who lost their land to the construction of the airport, “They were making a living through selling karamba, thumba karawila and such vegetables and fruits and firewood that they used to collect from the thickets in the surrounding areas and by keeping them by the roadside. Now these lands have been cleared for the construction of the airport, these people have lost their sources of income. They don’t have enough education to work in the airport. They have become “economic refugees” in their own land”.

Agriculture sector

Kariyawasam said that plans are afoot to relinquish lands across Sri Lanka to the foreign multinational companies in the name of agriculture development. Already around 65,000 acres of land had been given away to some foreign and local companies for cultivation of crops such as (cavendish) banana. Another 50,000 acres have been granted to local businessmen. Some of these lands were virgin forest land. 15,000 acres in Hambantota will be given to a Chinese company for putting up an economic zone.

In wekada wewa in Buttala around 500 acres of land including the wekada wewa tank (wew) had been doled out to a foreign company. This has created a severe shortage of available land and water sources for the people to engage in their familiar livelihood, farming, which they were engaged in for generations. This has pushed those people towards working as agricultural labourers in the banana plantations, which once was their land.

“This has impacted their livelihood negatively” lamented Kariyawasam.

Kariyawasam noted that Kegalle, Kalutara and Galle are the districts where lands will be given for palm oil production. Another 5000 acres in Vavuniya, Mannar, Iranamadu and Jaffna in Northern Province are earmarked for commercial agriculture ventures. In addition, 15,000 acres in Chunnakkadu and 400 acres in Maduruoya will be given for Cavendish cultivation. Some of these lands are thick forests rich in biodiversity and with this kind out activities country’s forest cover will further deplete remarked Kariyawasam.

A price for water

He further said in the Wayamba (North-Western) Province a plan is underway to acquire the natural water sources into governmental tenure. “The next step would be to impose a fee on the usage of water from these sources. This region doesn’t have many major rivers. Thus, the people are very dependent on the surface and ground water. And the government will start charging a fee for water, even from the wells”.

Sri Lanka – fourth

worst forest rapist

In a nutshell, 39 forest areas including some ecologically hypersensitive locations face threats to their existence as of now. This has brought on danger to the existence of some important faunal and floral species including endemic species in the country.

Commenting on forest cover depletion in Sri Lanka Kariyawasam remarked, “The research done by Gothenburg University (in Sweden) in 2011 identified Sri Lanka as the fourth worst country destroying its primary forests. Our forest cover has depleted drastically over the last couple of decades. From around 50% in 1948, when the country gained independence from British rule, it reduced to 24% by 1982, and further to 19% by 2010. The way it is going country’s forest cover will reduce to around 10% by 2030″ he predicted.

Involvement of military in land acquisition

Kariyawasam further noted that the military is being used for acquiring lands in the Northern Province. Thereafter these lands will be granted to foreign multinational companies for commercial agriculture.

Drawing on from past experience he recalled how in 2011 after army first acquired land within the Somawathiya National Park, it was reassigned to the Dole company for banana plantation. A case was filed by some environmental groups, including his own, in the Supreme Court against this move by the government. This case was won and 1000 acres from within the National Park were released through a court decree.

Energy sector

In the energy sector, small scale hydropower projects are being constructed throughout the country. Scant respect to the environment is given by most of these projects. In addition the plans are afoot for the development of more coal power plants.

“Even there had been discussion on having a nuclear power plant with Australian assistance in Sri Lanka” remarked Kariyawasam.

Industrial development

Blueprints are drawn to have new economic zones with foreign investors’ participation in Hambantota, Dambulla, Batticaloa, Mannar and Mankulam. In Hambantota this project has already begun with Chinese investments, and has created much uproar in the wake of possible 15,000 acre land grab there.

In 2015, agreements were signed between Sri Lanka and 36 countries and international agencies for implementation of various aspects of the NPP. “The bottom line of this plan was that…”, Kariyawasam stressed, “whatever the future governments of this country are going to be, this plan will continue uninterrupted. The Sri Lankan government has given an assurance to that end. Thus, this disaster could be thwarted only by the people of this country”, emphasized Kariyawasam.

Sea mineral resources

Country’s sea mineral resources such as Titanium and Copper will be allowed to be exploited by the foreign companies according to the NPP commented Kariyawasam.

No proper EIA

Kariyawasam flayed the EIAs that are being carried out in connection with the mega development projects in the country. Both the processes deployed as well as the undertakers of the EIAs got a lot of stick from him.

“Most of the parties who undertake to do the EIAs come out with reports as per the whims and fancies of the government. This we saw with the Port City project, Hambantota port construction project, Rilagala and Gommunawa quary projects and in Rathupaswela. Initially none of these had EIAs. But when the issue was raised they came up with reports”.

Commenting on the Port City project Kariyawasam quipped, “An EIA involving a project of this nature should be carried out at least for a year to get a good grasp of the tidal behavior and its impact. But here a local university has come out with a report after six months of study. This is the caliber of some of our scientists who undertake these projects. Not only they succumb to the pressures of the authorities, they write reports according to their whims and fancies. This is a very dangerous situation. In future we will have to take these reports with a pinch of salt”.

Chameera Nakandala of Parapuraka Balaya commenting on the struggle ahead for the environmentalists said, “It should be a real struggle to save the environment from this on-going onslaught, and not a mere struggle to bring a particular political entity to power in 2020″.

Ven. Wekadawela Rahula Thera, incumbent priest at Kudabibula raja maha vihara who led the campaign to protect the Nabadegaswewa forest reserve from the front, informed “The Island” that the forest destruction that took place in the said area has been halted.

16 January 2017 edition of “Environment and Society” revealed the saga of Nabadegaswewa forest reserve destruction and its ecological significance. It also identified the state institutions that were either responsible for the forest destruction or failed to prevent it from happening. These were the Road Development Authority and the Mahaweli Authority. This nefarious undertaking had taken place in the guise of finding alternative settlements for the people who are to be displaced as a result of the construction of the Matara-Hambatota stretch of the southern highway.

The said forest reserve apart from serving as the watershed of the Manamperi and Katuwewa tanks in the area is also a thick thicket, home for the wildlife including the elephant.

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