Bird Sanctuary Under Threat From Development And Encroachment

By Waruni Karunarathne
Pictures by Asoka Fernando and Pavithra De Mello

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardena

The threat to the Bellanwila-Attidiya Bird Sanctuary due to encroachment and filling of the wetlands has been the concern of many environmental activists in Sri Lanka for some time now. According to the Asian Wetlands Directory, in 1989 the Bellanwila-Attidiya Bird Sanctuary was named one of the 41 wetlands with the highest biodiversity in the region.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said that a study done some time back by the Society for Environmental Education indicated that there were 168 species of birds of which one third were migrant birds, 44 species of fish, 72 species of butterflies and 35 species of dragon flies in the wetland sanctuary. The survey also indicates that 30 species of reptiles and about 150 to 200 species of plants were also observed in the area.

Gunawardena said that the entire area of the sanctuary is 372 hectares in extent and it was declared a sanctuary in 1990 after a study done by a volunteer group. Thus owing to its rich biodiversity and contribution to flood control in the area, the sanctuary came under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance by Gazette notification.

Gunawardena noted, “Since there are both state and private lands within the declared area, actual calculation of the sanctuary property is much less than 372 hectares. However, under Section 2 Subsection 2 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, the government can declare even private lands as sanctuaries. Under Section 7 of the Ordinance, it is prohibited for the owner of a private land to build dwellings or other structures, clear the land, cultivate crops or other plants or light fires within sanctuary. Filling of the land requires a permit. For changes to buildings, the land owners need permits from the Urban Council or Municipal Council and in the case of other filling they need a permit from both the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and the Wildlife Conservation Department”.

He added that, under Section 3 Subsection 3 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance any rights that have been acquired previous to the declaration can be continued – unless it had been discontinued voluntarily for two consecutive years; as long as it complies and does not violate the Ordinance. For example if people had continuously cultivated paddy without discontinuing cultivation for a period of two consecutive years, then they are free to continue to grow paddy.

Various residents have been filling the wetlands of the sanctuary to enlarge their land holdings and this has also happened due to government interference. Gunawardena added, “Previously there was an area of about 10 acres that had been filled up because of a huge garbage dump operated by the Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia Municipal Council. We went to court and stopped that”.

Part of the sanctuary is in the Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia Municipal Council area while the other part is in the Borelasgamuwa Urban Council area. According to Gunawardena, the Municipal Council and the Urban Council have limited jurisdiction when the area has been declared a sanctuary. He added that the MC’s and UC’s involvement is basically to keep the environment clean and issue permits to private landowners; the rest of the activities come under the purview of the Wildlife Conservation Department.

Many environmentalists believe that the Wildlife Conservation Department has failed in their duty to protect the sanctuary due to a strange mix of affairs. Certain development projects started in the area under the pretext of protecting the sanctuary have caused reverse effects as land filling has invaded the sanctuary. Gunawardena added, “Filling land in the sanctuary is illegal and this has destroyed the biodiversity of the area”.

According to Gunawardena, if it is private land there are two laws in operation; if it is a wetland which occupies private lands, the land cannot be filled and if it is a private land and the owners want to use it for a private purpose they have to do an Environmental Impact Assessment and get the necessary approval from the CEA.

He added that if anyone violates the law by filling the wetlands of the sanctuary, either the CEA or the Wildlife Conservation Department or both can take legal action against the violators. He further stated, “The law is there. Only the mechanism is not working. Officers of the Wildlife Conservation Department are not comfortable to take action against a person who fills one or two small plots of land when far more are being filled by the government itself”. He said that people get demoralized due to such actions by the government. He pointed out that there has been encroachment and many insidious moves by various parties to fill the sanctuary land.
Recently when notes were compared with earlier studies, it was seen that bird numbers have declined as certain species cannot live in an urbanized environment while some other species have increased their numbers. The number of species of fish has drastically reduced in the wetlands due to water pollution. There is a reduction in dragonflies as the larva stage of their lifecycle is in water.  Even though plant diversity is still similar to what it was a decade ago, unfortunately there are new species called alien species which are not found in the habitat or are native to Sri Lanka, getting used to this habitat.

Gunawardena observed, “We have found four new invasive species over the past five years. Three of them are alien invasive and one is a native invasive species in this habitat. According to an ongoing study, there are about 15 invasive species in the area”. He also added that there are now about eight crocodiles in the sanctuary wetlands as a result of the intrusion of salt water; previously there were only one or two crocodiles.

According to environmental activist Sajeewa Chamikara, a River Protection Project is being introduced to protect the area from flooding. However it involves only the digging up of the tank but not the wetlands of the bird sanctuary. He added that on the right side of the Borelasgamuwa-Dehiwala road is the original tank which is being dug up and it is not a part of the Sanctuary.

Chamikara noted, “The wetlands on the left side of the road are part of the sanctuary. Under the project they have dug a canal on the left side of the road in the area belonging to the sanctuary. They are using a one acre plot of land of the wetlands to build their yard. The canal is being dug without any feasibility or Environmental Impact Assessment study”. According to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, if any development is planned within the sanctuary or 100 meters from the sanctuary the developer needs approval from the Wildlife Life Conservation Department.

Development in the area, digging up and filling of the wetlands by various parties has caused severe environmental impact on the sanctuary. Chamikara pointed out that this area is level with the sea and further digging causes the intrusion of salt water into the wetlands. Thus well borne water is not usable and the intrusion of salt water destroys the biodiversity in the wetlands negatively affecting vegetation, animal species and their habitats.

He added, “Due to the changes in the environment there are invasive plants in the wetlands. There are plants like Annona glabra in this area which need to be removed. However, there are methods to remove such plants. Using backhoe trucks to remove them further destroy the habitats of some species”. Therefore he emphasized the need for an Environment Impact Assessment prior to any activities in the area. He also added that under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance it is illegal to fill the land, build structures, damage the habitat or hunt within the sanctuary. If anybody is engaged in any such activities, he said that the Wildlife Conservation Department can arrest them and take them to court. A fine of between Rs 15,000 and Rs 50,000 can be charged from the culprits or they can be sentenced to a prison term of two to five years.

According to the environmental activist, these development projects have only a physical plan and ignore the value of the high biodiversity in the area. Chamikara further emphasized that for any such activities within the sanctuary, the Wildlife Conservation Department can give approval only after an Environment Impact Assessment has been handed over to the Central Environmental Authority. All the state stakeholders should be involved in the process and the matter should then be directed to a technical committee. He added, “There is a huge process to get the approval. Even after completing this process, the matter will be open for public opinion for 30 days before the commencement of any activities. Even if approval is granted it is only conditional approval and it suggests how and when developers can make the changes. Those conditions cannot be violated”.

Chamikara also noted that residents have illegally acquired land belonging to the sanctuary from several places such as from the sides of Haramanis Road, Malani Bulathsinghala Mawatha and Vikum Pedesa. The Land Reclamation and Development Authority has filled about one acre of land in the area. He blamed some state officials for giving protection to residents to engage in illegal filling and land encroachment.

The Sunday Leader asked the Director General of the Central Environmental Authority, Saranga Alahapperuma whether the Wildlife Conservation Authority needs to inform the CEA prior to granting approval to any party to carry out activities in the area. He replied, “About 29% of land in the country has been declared by the Forest Department and Wildlife Conservation Department. The Bellanwila-Attidiya Bird Sanctuary has been declared by the Wildlife Conservation Department and it is under their purview. They have the authority to grant approval for activities within that area. We cannot control the premises overseen by them unless they seek our assistance in certain proceedings. In the case of an EIA, if they seek assistance we can help them with technical inputs and management. They do not need to inform us prior to granting approval. They have the authority for that”. He added that the CEA has not received any request for assistance for any Environmental Impact Assessment on activities in The Bellanwila-Attidiya Bird Sanctuary and since it is under the purview of the Wildlife Conservation Department, the CEA is not aware of the current state of affairs in the sanctuary.

Attidiya Ranger of the Department of Wildlife Saman Liyanagama added that the Wildlife Conservation Department has given conditional approval to the Urban Development Authority to carry out a certain development project in the area. He added, “We have given them conditional approval to carry out development without harming the environment”. He added that he was not authorized to comment further on the matter and directed The Sunday Leader to the Director General of the Wildlife Conservation Department, H.B. Ratnayake. However, since many attempts to contact the Director General had failed, The Sunday Leader addressed the following questions to the Director General via email; no response has been received to date.

Questions addressed
to DG of the Wildlife Conservation Department

1. Initially prior to development what was the extent of the bird sanctuary?
2. Have you done any assessment of the impact that development and encroachment have had on the bird sanctuary e.g. patterns, behaviour and habitat of birds in the sanctuary?
3. The environmentalists charge that development and encroachment have severely reduced the area of the bird sanctuary and they have had a drastic effect on the wetlands and the sanctuary. What is your opinion on that?
4. Is there a plan in place to acquire the land belonging to the sanctuary?
5. Will there be further development projects or have you taken any measures to protect whatever is left of the sanctuary

1 Comment for “Bird Sanctuary Under Threat From Development And Encroachment”

  1. Encroachment in most state lands has been going for many years under many mysterious and illegal circumstances.Singharaja forest ,one of the worlds most unique habitats, and even our other wild life sanctuaries have been encroached upon encouraged by politics ,mostly,and no action taken.Now with the war over the incidents have become even more grave,with the private sector asking for state land for a pittance for long leases with every conceivable projects outlined fact or fictitious.Our population density is becoming even more worrisome with limited habitable space.

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