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Destruction At What Cost?

  • Projects ward away the elephants from their natural habitat
  • No Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) carried out for any of the project proponents

By Nirmala Kannangara

Pilot project of the proposed solar garden is also within the proposed Elephant Management Area and One of the metal quarries within the proposed Elephant Management Area

Startling revelations have come to the fore as to how thousands of acres of thick forest lands in Hambantota district are being destroyed for development. After clearing 2,000 hectares of forest lands for the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, plans have been drawn to construct a Commercial City, a housing complex, a university and a solar garden (solar power project) clearing thick forest lands. Certainly, for an area far devoid of development, the arrival of projects of such magnitude is laudable. The creation of livelihoods to an area where employment rates are low, and the arrival of a higher learning institution are all indications of an increase in living standards which the province needs. Yet, the destruction of the environment cannot be overlooked. According to environmentalists, although forest lands have been surveyed and earmarked for the proposed projects, none of the project proponents have carried out Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) which is compulsory to get the clearance from forest, archaeological, Mahaweli, Central Environmental Authority and Wildlife Department before carrying out any development work in more than one hectare of forest land.

“It is compulsory to carry out an EIA if more than one hectare of forest land is developed for non forest purposes,” said Jagath Gunawardena Attorney-at-Law specializing in Environmental Studies. As a result of the accelerated development which is taking place in and around Mattala, the wildlife habitat especially the elephant population has faced an absolute threat claims the Wildlife officials. Environmental organizations are up in arms against the clearing of these Mahaweli Authority and Forest Conservation lands and have raised questions as to why such a large forest area with thick wildlife population is allowed to be destroyed although Mahaweli and Forest officials too are against clearing these lands.

“Since there is pressure from the officials, Mahaweli Authority and Forest Conservation officials have had to give their consent to clear the forest for the developments,” Director Environmental Conservation Trust Sajeewa Chamikara said. According to Chamikara, more than 2000 acres of forests have been earmarked for this leaving the implementation of the proposed Elephant Management Area by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) coming to a complete standstill.

Meanwhile, Chamikara accused the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) of not taking any action against the project proponents for the failure to carry out an EIA before developing the forests. “The CEA has become yet another non-effective government department. Although an EIA has to be carried out if more than one hectare of forest is cleared for non forest purposes, the CEA is acting like a scarecrow when thousands of acres of forests are being destroyed in Hambantota district for this development,” alleged Chamikara. Addmitting the necessity for developing the country he however worries over the cost of country’s forests leaving the wildlife habitat in danger.
“If the government cannot protect the environment for the benefit of the country’s future what is the purpose of carrying out greening projects in the country. When the private sector is paying more attention to safeguard the environment in order for a greening project, the government has not showed any concern in that regard but kept on destroying the forests for personal gains,” he said. According to Chamikara, the entire Seenukugala mountain range in Mattala where a thick elephant population is recorded has now been converted to metal quarries where explosives are used to blast granite rocks very often.

“When I visited this area last week I saw how heavy machines were used at these metal quarries. There are 10 metal quarries each spanning over 50 acres. A large road network has been constructed clearing the forest and according to the workers of these metal quarries the granite is sold for the development projects that are taking place in the area,” claimed Chamikara. According to him, although the government was able to get the mining licenses for these ten metal quarries, it is evident that none of the metal quarries have carried out EIAs before developing the area.

“Had they carried out an EIA for each metal quarry they would have had to open them for public comments for 30 working days which never happened. It is learnt that they have obtained approvals from Mahaweli Authority and Forest Department but still how could the Geological Surveys and Mines Bureau (GSMB) issue mining licenses when there is no EIA report. This clearly shows that GSMB too violates their own rules,” he noted. He further said that five more metal quarries within forest lands in Elalla and Kuda Indiwewa is in operation destroying a large part of the forest.

“There again these metal quarries have got mining licenses from the GSMB on the request of Southern Provincial Council Minister, D.V. Upul. Some of these five metal quarries spans in 25-30 acre lands and heavy machineries are used from morning till evening disrupting the wildlife habitat,” said Chamikara.

Meanwhile, Attorney-at-Law Gunawardena said that it is compulsory to carry out an EIA to obtain a mining license since these metal quarries use explosives to blast granite. “Any project that uses explosives has to carry out an EIA which is a requirement by the Central Environmental Authority. So how could the GSMB issue mining licenses for the said projects if the claim that they have not carried out EIA for each project is true,” said Gunawardena.

Chamikara further said that although the Wildlife Department wanted to declare the entire forest area in and around Mattala including the 2000 hectares of forest land that was taken for the airport project as an Elephant Management Area (EMA), their attempts have now been hampered. Meanwhile, reliable sources from the Department of Wildlife Conservation on conditions of anonymity told The Sunday Leader that the decision to declare forests in and around Mattala as an Elephant Management Area had to be held back due to the development that is taking place in every nook and corner of the forest.

“When we drew plans to declare the entire forest area as an EMA, the government brought their proposal for the airport project. Since then all our efforts to declare the said forest cover as an EMA failed as the government did not allow the DWC to implement the proposal. The government knew that once this area is declared as an EMA it would be difficult for them to destroy the forest and use the elephant corridor for their projects. But still most of the officials who have worked at DWC over the years are strictly against the clearing of forest. Although it is recorded that the elephant population in this forest is 400-450, we are surprised if we could save at least one elephant from this herd from the way the forest destruction is taking place,” alleged the sources.

Chamikara further said that 650 acres from Buruthankanda area which too is well within the proposed EMA are to be cleared for the proposed solar power project. “This project is to be implemented in order to generate 8Mw solar power. Although it is good that the government is trying to generate solar power, what is the purpose of implementing such projects after destroying the thick forest? For this project too they have failed to carry out an EIA,” he claimed.

Meanwhile, the proposed plan to construct the Hambantota commercial city in the Koholankala elephant corridor – where more than 450 elephants come from Bundala national park to the proposed stalled EMA too have come under severe criticism.

“Yet another 900 acres of forests are to be destroyed for the Hambantoa commercial city project. When I visited the area last week I saw how connecting roads are constructed along the forest land boundaries. For these projects too, EIAs have not been carried out,” said Chamikara. He further queried as to why the government wants to destroy the forest and the wildlife to build a commercial city in Hambantota when the existing Hambantota city is more than enough to provide a better service for the people. “There is no issue if anyone can develop any part of the country on par with Colombo but we would not want any party to destroy nature and carry out development,” said Chamikara.

He further alleged that there were businessmen encroaching the forest for banana cultivation. “More than ten businessmen from Hambantota have encroached on the forests for banana cultivation and we are not allowed to take any action against them. When the farmers in the Uda Walawe left bank project informed the Mahaweli Authority that they are deprived of water for their cultivations as large water motors are used to pump water for these banana cultivations, Mahaweli officials were quick enough to arrest two workers of these projects. When they were about to be produced in courts, they were released with the Mahaweli officers being reprimanded.
When those who make laws break them whom can we go to? This is why all the government departments are now acting as if they are deaf and dumb because they cannot carry out any their duties in this environment,” alleged Chamikara.

District Secretary Hambantota R.C. de Soysa meanwhile confirmed the development plans but said that approvals have been obtained from the Mahaweli Authority. He however said that the plans were at the initial stages of discussion. The District Secretary meanwhile confirmed that permission has been granted to blast granite in the Seenakugala mountain range but added that all these metal quarries were given licenses after conducting an EIA.

“For the metal quarries running over 50 acres, EIAs have been carried out but the other quarries that are less than 50 acres, there is no necessity to go for an EIA,” said De Soysa. When asked how many acres of forest lands have been obtained for the housing project which is now under construction, Soysa said that he has to consult the Urban Development Authority (UDA) to get the details. When asked for whom these houses are, De Soysa said that once the project is completed it is going to be given for companies calling tenders.

Asked why it is not given for those who do not have a place to live in, De Soysa later said that part of the housing project would be given for the people as well. He further said that the solar garden is to be constructed by private companies and the approvals have been obtained from the Mahaweli Authority for the land.

“The university is a BOI project with 50 acres earmarked for it with a 100 acres demarcated for the housing project. I do not know what the land acreage for the solar garden is, but 1000 acres have been allocated for the commercial city project. I am not aware whether EIA has been carried out for these projects,” said De Soysa. He further added that he has instructed the Mahaweli Authority and the Divisional Secretary Hambantota to take necessary action against the encroachments and maintained that all encroachments have now been stopped. Meanwhile Asela Fernando – the Chief Mining Engineer GSMB said that mining licenses have been granted for the said metal quarries and added that there was no necessity for the said quarries to conduct EIAs as per the CEA guidelines.

“There is no necessity to do an EIA, but if the metal quarry carries out multiple blasts at the same time then they need to do an Initial Environment Examination (IEE). Since all these metal quarries fall under category b and c in Industrial Mining Licenses as said in CEA guidelines there is no necessity to carry out an EIA or IEE. However without the approval of the land owner we cannot issue mining licenses. In this instance we got the Mahaweli Authority and Forest Department consent. In Elalla the approval for the Chanaka Metal Crusher was obtained by the Southern Provincial Council Minister D.V. Upul,” said Fernando.

Meanwhile D.V. Upul said that he is not aware whether an EIA was carried out or not   but requested that details be obtained from his son D.V. Tharaka who owns the metal quarry in Elalla. However D.V. Tharaka said that he did not carry out an EIA as there was no such request when he applied for a mining license. “I got the wildlife, forest and environment clearance but was never asked to do an EIA. GSMB issued the mining license to me in 2012,” said Tharaka.

All attempts to get comments from Environment Minister Susil Premjayanta and Governor Southern Province Kumari Balasooriya failed as they were not available. However, messages were left with Minister Premajantha’s office and Governor Balasooriya’s office that The Sunday Leader wished to get their comments for the story, but none of them returned the calls.

1 Comment for “Destruction At What Cost?”

  1. Sembu

    Good , please Build a formula 1Track and a factory complex to create Jobs. People can’t live ever in the jungle. future generations will decide and either they will compliment or curse for the projects.

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