Photos courtesy of Tashiya de Mel
On the northern coast of Sri Lanka in the Mannar District is a place of extraordinary importance to conservation and to the economic wellbeing of the human populations who have lived off its bounty for centuries. Vidattaltivu (Wedithalathive) is an amazing complex of interconnected ecosystems; it drives every activity there and beyond.
The ecosystems of Vidattaltivu – sea grasses, mangroves, mud flats and salt marshes – are all vital for the diversity of the species they support. In 2009, at the end of the civil war, a Northern Strategic Environmental Assessment was inaugurated that looked at all the sensitive areas that had now been opened in the North. After five years of study, a comprehensive report was published that concluded due to its importance to biodiversity and people, Vidattaltivu be designated as a Protected Area. In 2016, it was declared a Nature Reserve by Extraordinary Gazette (No. 1956/13). Yet just one year later, in 2017, a joint paper was presented to the cabinet by the Ministry of Wildlife and Ministry of Forests to de-gazette Vidattaltivu. Why?
Vidattaltivu is the last continuous stand of mangrove still remaining in Sri Lanka. Mangroves are fast disappearing, the world over and there is now a concerted effort to protect and restore them internationally. For an island nation such as Sri Lanka, which has already suffered a devastating tsunami and faces uncertain economic and food security, the uncompromising protection of these special places are of the utmost significance.
The value of mangroves cannot be understated. They play vital roles in protecting local communities and in ensuring healthy populations of the diverse species who have adapted to live there.
Natural coastal defence
The strong, intertwined root systems of mangroves help form a natural barrier against violent storm surges, floods, and even tsunamis as was learned first-hand in Sri Lanka in 2004. Sediments from rivers and land are trapped by these roots, slowing erosion and protecting the coastline. This process also protects water quality by removing nutrients and pollutants from storm water runoff before they reach seagrass habitats and coral reefs to choke them.
In 2017, the UN Ocean Conference estimated that nearly 2.4 billion human communities lived within 100 km of the coastline. There is a very large population of Sri Lankans who live even closer than this all around the island. Mangroves provide protection for these communities who, especially with global warming, will be increasingly vulnerable to severe weather events and sea level rises brought about the changes in climate; this is happening even now.
Research has shown that coastal mangroves outperform most other forests in their capacity to store carbon; in fact 35% more efficient at hoarding carbon than are rainforests. When mangrove tree roots, branches and leaves die they are usually covered by soil and they are then submerged under tidal water, slowing the breakdown of materials and boosting carbon storage.
An examination of 25 mangrove forests across the Indo-Pacific region found that per hectare, they held up to four times more carbon than other tropical rainforests.
Livelihoods for local communities
Many communities who live in and around mangroves depend on them for their livelihood. Plant extracts are collected by locals for their medicinal qualities and the leaves of mangrove trees are often used for animal fodder.
Most importantly, mangroves provide nursery habitat for many commercial fish and shellfish and thus contribute to the local abundance of seafood. This is a vital service rendered to the many fishing communities that live around Vidattaltivu.
Located in easy access to coral reefs, clear seas and sandy beaches, mangrove forests provide a rich environment for boating, birdwatching and diving tours. These rich ecosystems, particularly the mudflats, host many native and migratory birds on the Central Asian Flyway. Over one million birds have been recorded during a single sighting on the Vidattaltivu mudflats. However, this must be done sustainably to protect the fragile ecosystem of the area. If sustainable, it could provide added income for the local communities, who must be stakeholders in any such projects. This would provide additional motivation for the protection of these precious mangrove forests rather than just destroying them for large scale, untenable development.
Mangrove forests provide a nutrient rich breeding ground for numerous species that inhabit them, both marine and terrestrial. A large variety of wild species live or breed in the mangrove ecosystem including many fish species, shellfish and even some varieties of sea turtle. Mangroves serve as nesting areas for coastal birds; many species depend on them for part of their seasonal migrations. Even dead mangroves play an important role, providing roosting areas for certain birds.
These forests also have the potential to hold hitherto undiscovered biological materials within them, that could be of benefit to humankind such as antibacterial compounds and pest resistant genes, which will all be lost if they are destroyed.
In 2018, on being presented with the joint proposal for the de-gazette of the Nature Reserve by the Ministries of Forestry and Wildlife, the cabinet requested that an Environmental Impact Study be undertaken on the area. The terms of reference for the study were then issued by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) undertook to conduct the study and they submitted their report to the DWC. In 2019, the DWC appointed a Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) to study the matters raised in it. The TEC strongly rejected any attempts to de-gazette Vidattaltivu.
Later that year, the DWC forwarded all the reports, and the decision of TEC, to the Ministry of Wildlife. However, in 2020, and despite the TEC decision, the Ministry of Fisheries kept continuous pressure on the Ministry of Wildlife to de-gazette this Nature Reserve. According to the National Aquatic Development Authority of Sri Lanka (NAQDA), this area has been identified for aquaculture.
A high cost
Why should the government destroy this precious habitat to culture exotic shrimp, mud crab, tilapia and carp? How is this going to help the local and national economy in the long term? Or once again, are policies to be made on the assumption that this is the final generation?
The World Wildlife Fund says, “…a steady stream of organic waste, chemicals and antibiotics from shrimp farms can pollute groundwater or coastal estuaries. Salt from the ponds can also seep into the groundwater and onto agricultural land. This has had lasting effects, changing the hydrology that provides the foundation of wetland ecosystems.”
This will impact not only the biodiversity of Vidattaltivu but also the local communities that surround it. Some of them may obtain employment in the short term to labour on these farms but as proven repeatedly in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, this has not been a sustainable industry. When the habitat deteriorates it becomes unproductive even for aquaculture and these developers have to move elsewhere. What they leave behind is environmental devastation that will not easily recover or be restored. As an example, according to the Global Mangrove Alliance, about 70% of Indonesia’s mangroves have been destroyed by shrimp farming.
Ignoring the law
This proposed development is in the face of a TEC decision that Vidattaltivu should not be subject to de-gazette. This is against the laws of Sri Lanka, specifically the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO). According to environmental lawyer, Jagath Gunawardena, “Altering/ceasing of an already declared nature reserve can only be done subject to Section 2 (4) of the FFPO. The discretion exercisable by the minister in this regard is limited by Section 2 (5) of the FFPO which sets out that ‘in the case of any change of boundaries or the disestablishment of a National Reserve, a study shall be conducted and such study shall include an investigation of the ecological consequences of the proposed change.’”
Over 25 government agencies were involved in reaching the initial proposal to declare Vidattaltivu a protected area. Therefore is the self-interest of a few who look forward to short term economic gain overriding the overall needs of the nation?
For it is not just the mangrove forests that will be destroyed but the meadows of seagrass and coral reefs that they protect and the local communities who survive on its natural gifts. The world renowned blue swimmer crab, captured at Vidattaltivu, brings foreign currency earnings and is therefore of significant economic value to the country. Many fish and other marine organisms breed in the sea grasses. In fact, about 15% of the fisher population in Mannar are from Vidattaltivu and they earn a stable and a decent income from this rich and complex ecosystem.
The seagrass itself is home to the critically endangered dugong.
Sri Lanka as a signatory to the RAMSAR convention and the lead country for the Commonwealth Blue Charter on Mangrove Ecosystems and livelihoods has an obligation to protect these rich ecosystems. Aren’t there any alternative lands? The TEC Committee had suggested some.
“However much the National Aquaculture Development Authority (NAQDA) talks about eco-friendly technology, that becomes null and void if the site chosen is environmentally sensitive and Vidattaltivu is. Why don’t they move north of Vidattaltivu where there is adequate land for such a project without touching this area which is ecologically important? The reason they have picked Vidattaltivu is because for aquaculture to succeed, they need ecologically strong areas with mangroves. They will use this area, cause massive destruction and then abandon it,” said Mr. Gunawardena.