Expanding Saltern Destroys Mangroves
By Nirmala Kannangara
Deputy External Affairs Minister Neomal Perera has been accused for destroying mangroves illegally on a large extent of land along the Puttalam Lagoon in order to expand his existing saltern.
According to Divisional Secretary of Kalpitiya – Ranga Fernando , the exact extent of the cleared land cannot be determine without a survey being carried out as it is a vast area which was used as a buffer zone for natural fish breeding.
“The mangrove was completely bulldozed last year without taking any approval from the Forest Department. We got to know that Perera’s men were bulldozing the mangrove on a Sunday morning and immediately took an injunction order by the same evening. Hence we were able to stop further destruction to the mangrove. Later we found out that they have started illicit mangrove destruction from Friday evening – after all government departments closed for the weekend. We still cannot determine as to what the extent of this bulldozed area is since it is a large extent. I assume it could be several acres. We have to carry out a new survey now to demarcate the boundaries,” Fernando said.
However Fernando said that he is waiting instructions for a re-survey from the Provincial Land Commissioner who visited the site in question two weeks ago to see the damage to the mangrove.
“Once the Provincial Land Commissioner gives a written approval for a re-survey I being his agent, will make a request to the Survey Department to carry out the Provincial Land Commissioner’s order,” said Fernando.
Neomal Perera obtained 150 acres from the Puttalam lagoon for a saltern on a lease agreement during Chandrika Kumaranatunge regime with the support of the then Chief Minister North Western Province Gamini Jayawickrema Perera.
However according to Puttalam Forest Ranger S.M.K.W. Kotuwegedara, Perera on two occasions has removed mangroves illegally and have acquired lands to extend the salten “Perera, little by little he got the saltern extended illegally. As a result we have filed two cases against his company –St. Ann’s Salt (Pvt) Ltd in the Puttalam District Court,” said Kotuwegedara.
According to him, any of these illegal activities around Perera’s saltern cannot be seen as it is 1 ½ km away from the road.
“People hardly go to this area and that was why all these illegal activities are taking place unnoticed. When we were told about bulldozing the mangrove we immediately took action to stop it if not the devastation would have been very much more” said Kotuwegedara.
Meanwhile Director Environment Conservation Trust Sajeewa Chamikara said that Perera has neither obtained the Forest Department’s approval nor North Western Provincial Environmental Authority (NWPEA) approval before developing the area.
“According to the North Western Provincial Environmental Statute, approval has to be obtained from the NWPEA before clearing more than one hectare of mangrove for any development purpose or before filing more than four hectare of wetland for any development project which Perera has not abided,” Chamikara claimed.
Meanwhile a fisherman in the area on condition of anonymity said as to how Minister Perera has deployed people as ‘watch dogs’ to find out who gives information to the media about the illicit mangrove destruction.
“This wetland was earlier a natural fish breeding site. However little by little Minister Perera’s people cleared the area illegally to which we are strictly against but not in a position to talk openly in fear of our lives.
We have been deprived of entering the lagoon to catch fish. Recently when media personnel visited the area to obtain photographs, Perera’s people chased them away in motor bicycles,” said the sources.
Director North Western Provincial Environmental Authority Saman Senanayake said that there was no necessity for new approvals because the project was started in 1990 well before these environmental regulations were enforced.
“In fact this was a state owned saltern earlier and this land has been released by the Provincial Land Commissioner,” said Senanayake.
“When I went through all the complaint forms I understood that the Forest Department has taken action against those who were involved in the illicit felling. In fact this has been taken up in the parliament as well. When I phoned up Minister Perera to find out more details into this I was told that the land has been released by the Land Commissioner. These cases are still pending in Puttalam Court,” said Senanayake.
However refuting allegations, External Affairs Deputy Minister Neomal Perera said that he has not destroyed the mangrove around the saltern and has also not acquired lands illegally.
“When I got these 150 acres in 1994, there were scattered mangroves within my stipulated area. I do not think that there is any wrong to remove this mangrove to make the saltern,” said Perera.