Photo courtesy of Lankaweb

As the country hurtles along the path of development at any cost, its environmental defenders are facing a host of challenges on all sides. From illegal road construction and illegal clearing of land to sand mining and the destruction of coral reefs, the cases are piling up, demanding immediate attention. All environmental systems, including rain forests, animal habitats and water sources, are under threat.

It is not for the want of laws. The National Environment Act (NEA) No. 47 of 1980 established the Central Environment Authority, which has wide ranging powers to ensure that the country’s natural resources are protected and sustained.

In 1988, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was made mandatory for projects with a significant environmental impact through an amendment to the NEA. The legislation prescribes 31 categories of projects that need assessment such as extracting over half a million cubic meters of ground water per day, building hotels larger than a hundred rooms, construction of ports, high polluting industries, and hydroelectricity projects. In addition, all industrial projects that are to be located close to environmental, archaeological or culturally sensitive areas require assessment.

If a project involves the clearing of more than one hectare of land, an EIA is required. However, EIAs are also necessary for projects depending on environmental sensitivity of area or their impact on the environment, regardless of the size.

There are three recent examples of Sri Lanka’s slide towards environmental ruin. In order to carry out shrimp farming in the Anawilundawa Ramsar Wetland in Puttalam, mangroves have been bulldozed in a clear violation of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance in an area demarcated for a mangrove restoration project. The destruction of mangroves not only impacts on livelihoods of villagers living nearby but also seriously damages the ecological system. Many species of plants and animals are in danger of losing their habitats.

Another serious violation has been the destruction of 200 acres of timber in Wanathavilu sanctuary, also in the Puttalam District. First the land was set on fire and then the remaining trees were cut down for timber and the land was going to be used for cultivation.

The case is supposed to go before the courts and a five member committee is looking into the matter. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa claimed in parliament that legal action against the perpetrator was delayed because he was related to a politician.

Both these sanctuaries are in the dry zone, where forests are being cut down for timber at an alarming rate, especially since the war ended. The result has been scorching temperatures, dried out tanks and a loss of the country’s famed bio-diversity.

The third, and probably most important, issue is the road being cut through the Sinharaja forest reserve, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its rich and unique plant and animal life. The cemented road is being constructed in clear violation of the NEA and the requirement for an EIA, especially since the road is 100 metres from the boundaries of the Sinharaja forest and within its reserve areas. The road, started just a few days after the general elections in August, was given the go ahead by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, setting a dangerous precedent to those who wish to flout the law because there is no fear of punishment.

Designated a national heritage wilderness area in 1988, the Sinharaja was originally declared a forest reserve in 1875 and is protected under the National Heritage and Wilderness Area Act while the peripheral natural forests along the boundary have been declared as conservation forests or reserved forests under the Forest Ordinance.

Former Minister Mangala Samaraweera wrote to UNESCO, urging it to call upon the government to stop the road. “The construction involves heavy machinery and cutting down of large trees causing immense short and long term damage,” he said.

While the road was supposedly being built to benefit some isolated villages at the edge of the reserve,  it was actually being promoted by others with vested interests such as building hotels and cultivating tea and cinnamon, Mr Samaraweera added.

“This is the only national heritage land in Sri Lanka, a common heritage for more than 21 million people, which should not be sacrificed for the need of 188 families,” according to Convener of Rainforest Protectors, Jayantha Wijesingha. He pointed out that the villagers, who are occupying state lands, wanted the existing road concreted rather than widened or lengthened. “The illegal road will result in the establishment of tea plantations, hotels, increased traffic and disturbances to wild life,” he pointed out.

In a further blow to preserving the environment against the pressing need for money, President Rajapaksa recently gave permission for the gem industry to mine lands under plantations companies who have leased the land for tea, rubber and coconut cultivation. The Government has decided to acquire uncultivated lands with gem deposits belonging to plantation companies.

Gem mining contributes to erosion, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, depletion use of water resources, wastewater disposal issues and contamination of soil, ground and surface water, all of which can lead to health issues in local residents.

Instances of environmental degradation follow a familiar course: laws are violated, no action is taken and if it is, political interference prevents halting a damaging project and the perpetrators are free to continue with it, according to environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardena.

For environmental defenders, seeking redress from the law is a last recourse because of Sri Lanka’s costly and tortuous legal process. The first option is lobbying for remedial action by putting pressure on the authorities to adhere to laws protecting the environment, Mr. Gunawardena pointed out.

For example the police, without any legal authority, decided that a permit was no longer necessary to transport sand although it was part of the NEA. For six months, while the Centre for Environmental Justice fought for a ruling to enforce the law, sand mining caused the salination of rivers and other water bodies, resulting in adverse long term consequences.

The issue of revoking circular 5/2001 still persists with a Cabinet decision to return 500,000 hectares of forest lands to Divisional Secretaries, who will no longer have to consult the Forest Department before giving out land for development. In 2001, the Department of Forests was granted guardianship of these lands by the circular.

“Prompting this gazette was the easy release of forests to every state institution that requested playgrounds and landfills for their family and friends, for garages, poultry farms and even quarries. Amending this gazette and reverting this land mass to the slippery hands of Divisional Secretaries would once again allow irresponsible use of our forests,” wrote environmental activist Sunela Jayewardene on Groundviews.

According to Dr Ravindra Kariyawasam of the Center for Environment and Nature Studies, forest density stands at a just 16.5%.At the present rate of deforestation it estimated that by the end of 2030, less than 10% of forest cover will remain.

Rainforests, which account for three percent of the forest cover, are facing increasing pressure from encroaching tea plantations, oil palm plantations, logging and property development. Virgin rainforest land is decreasing day by day. The consequences of destroying what little is left can be seen in the searing heat, the severe floods and landslides and the constant droughts.

“Development at any cost, satisfying commercial and international interests, should not be the way to go. The government needs to have a proper land use policy where it should decide that critical ecosystems should not be touched and will not be touched for development,” Mr. Wijesinha said.

“Sri Lanka has a rich biodiversity where new species are always being discovered. If their habitat is destroyed, we will never know what we have lost,” Mr. Gunawardena said, pointing out that it was the role of every citizen to fight for the protection of the environment. “It is still not too late to protect what we have.”