Sanctuaries Threatened By Excavations And Deforestation
By Nirmala Kannangara
Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC), Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) and Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) has come under severe criticism for allowing sand and gravel mining in sanctuaries and forest reserves in the country.
Questions have been raised as to who has given authority for the GSMB to issue sand and gravel licenses violating the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (and the Frost Conservation Ordinance (FCO).
However the Director General of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) Anil Peiris, says it is the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) Ministry of Lands and the respective Divisional Secretaries that have granted these approvals to issue gravel and sand mining licenses. The GSMB have issued these gravel mining licenses in two sanctuaries in the Mannar and Trincomalee districts which comes under the DWLC and sand mining licenses in a Forest Reserve in the Matale district.
The Madu Forest Sanctuary in Mannar district and the Naval Headwork Sanctuary in Trincomalee district are facing an onslaught by the government sponsored parties as gravel excavation is carried out without any restriction causing severe damage to the jungle and the wildlife. In addition to gravel mining, a timber racket is going on and the environmentalists query whether the DWLC is in deep slumber allowing their superiors and their henchmen to destroy the jungles. “The forest patches in these districts are home to a unique eco system and wildlife that cannot be found in other parts of the country. They are also the catchment areas for the limited number of water resources in the dry zone. Due to mass forest destruction and gravel mining the water bed would go dry eventually and the people would have to suffer in the years to come without any water resources. That is why the people in the North Central province and the adjoining provinces are facing immense hardship due to the severe drought unlike in the past,” Director Environmental Conservation Trust Sajeewa Chamikara said. According to Chamikara, no government department can issue licences for gravel and sand mining within a sanctuary or a forest reserve which is a punishable offence under the law. “Sanctuaries have been declared to protect wildlife habitat in the country but not for the humans to destroy it to their whims and fancies to earn money. It bothers these sanctuaries, apart from issuing licences for mining purposes, a new road network have been constructed to transport the excavated gravel which is strictly against the law. Although the GSMB is now claiming that they had received the necessary approvals to issue mining licences, we would like to know as to who has given these approvals for mining and to construct the road network in both these sanctuaries,” queried Chamikara. He further said that the sound that emits from heavy excavation machineries and the lorries that transport the gravel and the deforestation would adversely affect wildlife.
“The contractors who have got licenses for gravel mining are political henchmen. It is said that these gravel is used for road construction work in the north and east. Any person who visits these sites could see how the destruction work is taking place without considering the negative impact caused to the environment. Over 10 to 15 feet deep cavities can be seen in these sanctuaries, where gravel has been unearthed. This too is disastrous for the wildlife habitat. It is clear that these illegal licences are given on political request and that is why neither the Environment Ministry nor the Agrarian and Wildlife Ministry are taking legal action against the lawbreakers,” claimed Chamikara.
He further said that the natural water springs in and around Ulpotha wewa in the Naval Headwork Sanctuary in Trincomalee too will go dry unless the mass scale deforestation and excavat ion is stopped immediately. “These natural water springs in the Ulpotha wewa will soon go dry as a result of these excavations and deforestation. This is one of the few places that give water to wildlife. In addition GSMB has issued several metal quarry licences for the government henchmen to operate in large scale within this sanctuary,” alleged Chamikara. Meanwhile Chamikara accused the DFC for its stance to remain silent knowing very well the sand mining along the Mahaweli river and the irreparable damages caused to the river banks would affect the people living downstream. “From Sonussagama, Malgammana, Maraka via Dunuvilapitiya in the Mahaweli River, Maraka Forest Reserve in Matale district sand mining are taking place without any restrictions. Like in sanctuaries, in this forest reserve too, a road network has been constructed to transport sand. It is very unfortunate that our rulers and their henchmen do not understand the gravity of this destruction although the environmentalists have pointed out what the consequences would be if sand mining is allowed specially in the river banks. Matale District UPFA MP Lakshman Vasantha Perera is involved indirectly in sand mining. They are not bothered about the people or their grievances but want to make money when in power,” said Chamikara.
Meanwhile Director General GSMB Anil Peiris said that GSMB has not violated any laws in giving mining licences and said that the he has got all the necessary approvals from the respective divisions. “If I have violated these laws how can I function as the DG here? If so I would have being sent home by now,” he said. Responding to a question as to why he failed to take the DWLC approval before gravel mining licences were issued for mining in Madu Forest Sanctuary, Peiris said that he was informed by the applicants that this sanctuary comes under the DFC.
“Because of that I applied for DFC approval and got it. If somebody claims that these two sanctuaries come under DWLC, then that department will send us a letter. So far the DWLC has not written to us which means that these are not wildlife sites but forest lands,” said Peiris.
However he said that if the DWLC claims that the sanctuaries come under their purview, he will immediately cancel the licences that the GSMB have issued for gravel mining.
In regard to the Naval Headwork
Sanctuary in the Trincomalee district, Peiris said he obtained the approval from the Secretary Land Ministry as advised by the Government Agent Trincomalee.
“The GA Trincomalee wanted me to take the clearance from the land Ministry. After obtaining the clearance, we gave gravel licence to Holcim Lanka ten months ago,” said Peiris.
Meanwhile Registrar of Mineral Titling, GSMB, K.A.P.H. Liyanaarachchi said that all necessary approvals have been obtained before issuing licences on par with the Mines and Minerals Act No: 33 of 1992.
“Section 30 of the above Act clearly states that the approval from the land owner has to be taken and we have done it,” she added.
According to Liyanaarachchi, the gravel mining is taking place 8km away from the DWLC board.
“Since this is a forest land we got the
approvals from the DFC in March 2012. In regard to the licences issued for mining in Trincomalee, it too is not a wildlife land,” she said According to Liyanaarachchi, the land in question in Trincomalee was given to the forest department in a 2006 by a court order. Meanwhile Regional Mining Engineer Matale, Dhammika Prasad said that it was Divisional Secretary Matale that granted approval for the GSMB to issue sand licences for mining in the Mahaweli River. “The DS said that the river area comes under his purview and issued licences. I do not know whether this comes under the DFC. We have given only 150 mining licences. However illegal mining is rampant along the river. Since we do not have the required workforce to do raids it is extremely difficult to stop illegal mining,” said Prasad.
He further said that the one meter wide road had to be widened to two meters one year ago on the request of GA Matale Helen Meegasmulle and Matale District UPFA Parliamentarin Lakshman Vasanth Perera.
“Wilgamuwa sand miner’s association headed by Lakshman Vasatha Perera has asked for 68 licences but we have given only 24 as we have to restrict the number of miners,” said Prasad.
Meanwhile this reporter received a telephone call from UPFA Parliamentarian Lakshman Perera soon after the details were obtained from the GSMB. He said that he has no hand in sand mining in Matale. However Perera did not disclose how he came to know that this paper is doing an article about illegal sand mining in Matale. “I have sources all over and got to know that you have questioned some officers about this sand mining. The reason why I called you was to tell that I am not involved in any illegal sand mining and would be the first person to stand against it as it is a destruction,” said Perera.
According to him, Directors of Education, high ranking police officers, popular businessmen in Colombo and Matale and gramaseva niladhari were given licenses for sand mining. “These people do not want the small scale businessmen in Matale to come up in this business which is unfair. The big time businessmen remove loads and loads of sand destroying the river bank every day,” he said.
Statement From The Conservator General
Conservator General (Operations) Forest, K. P. Ariyadasa said that the DFC cannot give any permission for a land owned by the Department of Wildlife. “If they are sanctuaries the owner of such lands is the department and not the DFC. I am furnishing these details in the absence of my officers who are away on election duties. The GSMB has to take the permission from the DWLC before issuing mining licenses,” Ariyadasa said.
However he said that mining would be allowed for private parties in the forest lands provided that mining is done for their personal use but not for commercial purposes.
If it is for commercial purposes it is the high powered committee in the ministry that decide whether approval can be granted or not.
If the approval is given they have to follow the environmental guidelines and do an EIA.
“In regard to sand mining along the Mahaweli Ganga Maraka Forest Reserve, it should defenietly come under the DFC. I am not sure whether we have granted permission to the GSMB as my officers are not available this week,” said Ariyadasa. All attempts to contact Director DWLC, H. D. Ratnayake for a comment was not successful.