Raigam: Providing Much-Needed Salt Or Leaving A Sour Taste
By Nirmala Kannangara
Raigam Eastern Salt Company (Pvt) Ltd has started a saltern in the Salapearu lagoon at Kuchcheveli in Trincomalee without the approval of the Wildlife and Forest Departments.
Although the Chairman/CEO of Raigam Group of Companies – the parent company of Raigam Eastern Salt Company claimed that all necessary clearances had been obtained prior to the commencement of the saltern operation, the Wildlife and Forest departments say otherwise.
Director (Operations) Department of Wildlife Conservation H. D. Ratnayake and Senior Deputy Conservator of Forests, Department of Forest Conservation Mahinda Seneviratne said Raigam Eastern Salt Company had neither obtained clearances from the two departments nor has it forwarded applications before the work started.
“We have not given any permission for the saltern in Salapearu lagoon in Kuchcheveli,” said both officials.
Rich in biodiversity, Salapearu lagoon, which covers 1,305 acres of land which includes the mangrove and salt marshes, are ideal breeding grounds for shrimp, crabs and many other varieties of fish. This was also a hotspot for migrant birds because of the varieties of fish found in salt marshes in the lagoon.
However, according to environmentalists, it is not only the fisher folk that have lost their livelihood as a result of the lagoon being leased out for a saltern, but also the environs that has lost the attraction of migrant birds to the area due to the removal of marshes in order to form salt beds.
Under the government’s accelerated development programme in the east ‘Negenahira Navodaya,’ Raigam Estern Salt Company received 1,805 acres of land – 1,405 acres in the lagoon and marshy areas and 400 acres in the highland on a 33-year lease for a saltern and hotel project.
Director Environment Conservation Trust Sajeewa Chamikara meanwhile accused the Coast Conservation Department for its failure to instruct Raigam Eastern Salt Company to do an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report to determine the impact caused to the environment due to the saltern project.
“Being such a massive project, it is surprising why the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) did not order the project proponent to carry out an EIA report instead of the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) report,” claimed Chamikara.
According to him, it is obvious as to why the CCD wanted the project proponent to do an IEE report instead of an EIA.
“It is the government that wanted this company to start a project in the east to strengthen the Sinhala population under the ‘Negenahira Navodaya’ programme. They were well aware that if an EIA report was requested, it has to be open for 30 days for public comments where people will come out with the negative impact caused to the environment. If so the project would not be able to see the light of day.
Considering these facts the CCD, with the blessings of the government, wanted the project proponent to do an IEE which would not need to open for public comments but only the approval of the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resources Management Advisory Council which consist of the representatives of the Ministry in charge of CCD, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Urban Development, Ministry of Public Administration, Ministry of Industries, Ministry of Provincial Councils, Ministry of Environment, Director General of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Director General of National Aquatic Resources, Research and Development Agency, Director General of the Urban Development Authority, Director General of Central Environmental Authority, Director General of Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, Land Commissioner, the Secretary to the Council and three others – each from the fishing industry, university academic staff and a representative of an NGO.
Since these officials are ‘henchmen’ of the respective ministries and government bodies there is no way to comment against the report. That was why an IEE report was sought instead of an EIA,” alleged Chamikara.
He further alleged that mangrove destruction and elimination of salt marshy lands within this area has affected the fishing industry very badly.
“These were the main breeding grounds. Once the mangroves and salt marshy lands are destroyed the fishing industry will be affected very badly. Only a few areas in the lagoon are now open for the fisher folk for their livelihood and due to lack of breeding places for the fish, the daily harvest have come to a minimal amount and the fishermen have found it extremely difficult to survive,” said Chamikara.
Meanwhile, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian R. Sampanthan said that around 1,500 to 2,000 Tamil and Muslim fishermen in Kuchcheveli have been deprived of their livelihood because of the saltern in the lagoon.
“When I came to know that there was a plan to establish a saltern in the lagoon, I met President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and told what the consequences would be if permission was granted for a saltern within the lagoon. Although I was given an assurance that the lagoon will not be given for any commercial purposes and it would be there for the fishermen for their livelihood, the promise was not kept,” said Sampanthan.
According to Sampanthan, the entire marshy lands have been destroyed and the prawn farming business of the fishermen have now come to a complete standstill, depriving them of their livelihood. Meanwhile Chamikara accused Raigam Eastern Salt Company of misleading the fisher folk in the area by obtaining their signatures to a blank paper promising more facilities in the area. “Many fishing groups in Kuchcheveli told me that signatures were obtained to a blank paper promising to send a petition to the local bodies requesting more facilities for them to carry out their livelihood. These signatures have been later used to show the relevant authorities that they have received the blessings of the fisher folk and there were no objections for a saltern from the villagers,” said Chamikara.
It is also revealed that Raigam Eastern Salt Company had failed to obtain the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) approval to blast a rock which is within a forest land in Kuchcheveli although they have carried out a trial blast.
Refuting the allegations leveled against him, Chairman Raigam Marketing Dr Ravi Liyanage said that he had obtained all approvals for the 1,805 acres in and around the Kuchcheveli lagoon on a 33-year lease.
“I vehemently refute the baseless allegations leveled against me. I obtained these 1,805 acres lawfully and have followed all the environmental laws before the commencement of work in Kuchcheveli,” said Dr Liyanage.
Although Dr Liyanage claimed that he had obtained all the necessary approvals from the relevant departments, he declined to give more details with regard to the approvals he had obtained.
“I am not bound to furnish all the details to you although as a courtesy I gave some information. In the event I furnish all these details with the dates, the authorities concerned could question me as to why I leaked all the details to the media. No one can point a finger at me that I have failed to get the necessary approvals. I am a genuine businessman,” said Dr Liyanage.
He further said that he had not destroyed the mangrove as claimed by the environmentalist but added that he had planted many trees toprotect the environment.
“According to the project report, we had to put up a bund along the lagoon. If I built the bund along the lagoon boundary it would have affected certain patches of the mangrove. Hence I got the bund built 50 meters towards the middle of the lagoon from the boundary to save the scattered mangroves,” said Dr Liyanage. According to Dr Liyanage, out of the 1,805 acres, the salterns are only in 400 acres leaving the rest of the area for the fisher folk to engage in their livelihood in the lagoon.
“Although the environmentalists now claim that these fishermen have lost their livelihood because of the saltern, they are not ready to accept the fact that the fishermen could not fish in the shallow lagoon more than 5-6 months very year. During the dry season, due to the speedy evaporation of water, the salt density in the water rises to 10% or more. No living being can live when the salt density goes high in the water. Due to this natural process during the dry season the fisherme could not fish in the lagoon as there were no fish in water. So why do they blame us now. We have not done any damage to these fishermen,” said Dr Liyanage.
He further said that he was the first person who came forwarded to enter the saltern projects since the country was importing 45,000 mt. tons of salt in 2007 and 2008.
“I do not know why people are obstructing us when we are helping the country to retain its foreign exchange. Although the country spent millions of foreign exchange to import salt, due to our intervention, only 10, 000 mt. tons of salt has been imported so far this year,” said Dr Liyanage.
Responding to a question as to whether he had obtained the DFC, approval to blast the rock in close proximity to the saltern, Dr Liyanage said that he had obtained the relevant approvals even from the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB).
“This is a crown land. So I got approval from the GSMB, the department that issues licences. However since a private party is fighting for the ownership of this land I had to stop work temporarily after a trial blast. Although I have stopped work temporarily I have not given up but would be fighting for my rights,” said Dr Liyanage.
He further said that he had sought approvals for another quarry in Kumburupitiya which is 10km away from the saltern.
“I am on the verge of getting the approval,” said Dr Liyanage. However Senior Deputy Conservator of Forests,
Mahinda Seneviratne said that neither the DFC had received any applications for approval in the Salapearu lagoon nor has it granted any permission.
“The land, in which where there are mangroves, belong to the DFC. Without our permission no one has the authority to engage in any development work,” said Seneviratne. He further said that the Raigam Eastern Salt Company’s request for another 14 hectares to extend the saltern was turned down by the DFC. “We had to turn down their request for yet another 14 hectares to expand the project area. In addition they wanted clearance from the DFC to blast a rock in Kuchcheveli, which we did not grant. Later we understood that they had carried out a trial blast without our approval. Although they are now claiming that they are in the process of obtaining yet another license for another quarry in Kumburupitiya, neither the GSMB nor this company has ever requested permission from us. We cannot allow anyone to violate the Forest Conservation Act whether it is a government institution or a private party. We will take stern action against the law breakers,” he said.
Director (Operations) Department of Wild Life Conservation (DWLC), H. D. Ratnayake too said that no approval had been granted by his department to this project.
“We have not given any approvals,” said Ratnayake.
Deputy Director, Coast Conservation Department, Gamini Hewage said that it depends on the project for them to decide as to whether an EIA or an IEE has to be carried out to grant permission.
“If it is a big project an EIA has to be done and an IEE for a smaller project,” he said.
However when queried about the Raigam Eastern Salt Company, contradicting his earlier statement, Hewage said that it was up to the Director General to decide as to whether an EIA or an IEE that has to be done when a project proposal is submitted.
“He has been vested with powers to decide on the report. Once the report is submitted it would be given to the Advisory Council for its approvals,” said Hewage.
Registrar, Mineral Titling of GSMB, K. P. A. P. H. Liyanaarachchi confirmed that necessary approvals were granted to Raigam Eastern Salt Company for the Kuchcheveli land but added that they had not granted any other permission for any other quarry. Meanwhile District Secretary Trincomalee Maj. Gen. T. T. R. de Silva said that he cannot furnish details about the approvals because he was not in his office.
“Off hand I cannot give any details. Why do you want to write about this project now which was started a couple of years ago,” he said. Divisional Secretary Kuchcheveli, Uma Maheshwaran said that approvals had been granted for 1,405 acres in the lagoon for the saltern and for 400 acres in highland to build a factory complex and for a hotel project.
“The district land use committee has granted approvals. I cannot give more details without the GA’s permission,” he said.