Photo courtesy of Tashiya de Mel

As both a developing nation and a biodiversity hotspot, Sri Lanka has to tread a delicate balance between conservation and development. The recent decision to degazette portions of the Vidattaltivu Nature Reserve (VNR) has caused grave concern, further damaging this delicate equilibrium and serving neither the economy nor the environment.

Ecological significance and conservation efforts

VNR is far more than just a strip of land; it is a vital ecosystem and a lifeline for numerous species and local communities. It serves as a sanctuary for the locally critically endangered dugong, a variety of fish and diverse species of shellfish, all of which are essential for sustaining coastal communities and marine life. VNR is a crucial habitat for over 100 species of migratory birds that travel along the Central Asian Flyway, journeying all the way from the Arctic regions to Sri Lanka, the final landmass on this migratory route.

Due to its significant ecological value, the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the Northern Province, conducted in 2012, identified VNR as an area in urgent need of protection. Acting on the advice of the SEA, VNR was designated a National Reserve in 2016 through Gazette Extraordinary No.1956/13, becoming Sri Lanka’s third largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) and covering 29,180 hectares including seagrass meadows, salt marshes, coral reefs and one of Sri Lanka’s largest mangrove habitats. This decision was a testament to VNR’s ecological significance and viewed as evidence of Sri Lanka’s serious commitment to protecting its environment.

Environmental, economic and social concerns

However, despite the undeniable significance of VNR, there have been persistent proposals for aquaculture development within its boundaries since 2017, casting serious doubt on its future. Unfortunately, these threats have now become a reality. On May 6, 2024, the Minister of Wildlife and Forest Resources Conservation, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, made a controversial decision to remove the protected status of certain, as yet undisclosed, areas within the reserve. This decision was officially outlined in Extraordinary Gazette 2383/05, signalling a significant shift in the conservation status of the VNR. This move raises substantial concerns about the future integrity of this critical MPA and its ability to continue serving as a sanctuary for the diverse species and communities that depend on it.

The decision to remove protected status, likely for aquaculture development, raises serious red flags, particularly in light of Sri Lanka’s past experiences. From the Puttalam Lagoon to the Anawilundawa Sanctuary, unchecked aquaculture ventures have led to environmental degradation, pollution and depletion of marine resources. Such actions extend far beyond ecological concerns. They infringe on the livelihoods of communities reliant on these vital ecosystems, disrupt traditional fishing practices and jeopardise the long term sustainability of marine resources. The Lanka Environment Fund (LEF), a not for profit serving the environment and working towards the empowerment of local communities, highlights the increasingly urgent need for holistic approaches that prioritise conservation while supporting the socio-economic well-being of local communities.

There are both ecological and economic imperatives to immediately protect the VNR, never more prescient as the global community shifts towards a focus on sustainable blue economies. Its diverse habitats, including salt marshes, seagrass meadows and mangrove forests, play a crucial role in sequestering carbon, presenting significant economic opportunities while being vital in the fight against climate change. By conserving these ecosystems, Sri Lanka can not only fulfil its environmental obligations but also harness new revenue streams for sustainable development through the adoption of nature based solutions. These include conservation financing, debt for nature swaps, carbon trading and the issuance of blue/green bonds, which offer promising strategies to achieve this dual objective. This approach has already been initiated in Sri Lanka as demonstrated by the Blue Carbon Stock Assessment of Seagrasses in VNR, led by Sustantha Udagedra of Blue Resources Trust, which has yielded positive results.

VNR is a lifeline for the local community and their livelihoods. 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 and seagrasses provide refuge for many commercial fish and shellfish, significantly contributing to the local abundance of seafood that is crucial for the many fishing communities that live around Vidattaltivu. For example, Vidattaltivu is home to approximately 15% of the fisher population in Mannar.

Marynathan Edison, a former wildlife officer, highlights that the protected status of the reserve has denied the local community access to essential sustenance activities. However, the community now face the distressing prospect of witnessing the land that they were denied access to being potentially exploited by private companies with complete disregard for its protected status. They argue that there has been a lack of public consultation or clear communication regarding these changes, compounded by official notices being issued only in Sinhala, a language not widely understood by the local community.

Legal and transparency concerns

The de-gazetting of VNR raises additional concerns about a lack of compliance with legal procedures and constitutional obligations. A legal requirement under Section 2 (5) of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) is to conduct an ecological assessment before releasing lands. The failure to adhere to these regulations prompts the urgent question: do the legal protections afforded to these areas actually have any practical value and more disturbing still could this decision set a precedent for the further exploitation of other protected areas? Article 27(14) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka guides the government to protect, preserve, and develop the environment for the benefit of the people. De-gazetting a portion of VNR is a direct contradiction of this constitutional promise.

This move also highlights a significant transparency issue. The Department of Government Printing, responsible for publishing the gazette, has failed to include the schedule that provides critical context and necessary details about the degazetting process and in effect undermining public trust. As such critical information regarding the degazetting such as the affected area and extent is currently unavailable for the public. In response to the public outcry regarding the gazette, the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Chandana Sooriyabandara, made a statement to the Sunday Times claiming that the institutions followed an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process approved by a technical committee as detailed in the FFPO. However, details regarding the EIA nor the Technical Committee have been disclosed, leaving the public uninformed. While past de-gazetting attempts and speculation suggests that the removal of the protected status of certain areas is intended for aquaculture development, there has been no official communication from the government regarding the motivation behind this decision.

Furthermore, the disparity between the high level commitments to climate action and the actual on the ground decisions and actions taken highlights a disconnect that warrants urgent scrutiny and investigation. The president’s pledges for a low carbon future and his proposed initiatives such as the International Climate Change University are in direct contravention of the actions his government is taking. This inconsistency begs the question whether there is genuine commitment to driving climate change mitigation and adaptation or is it merely lip service being paid to appease critics and the international stage to give the appearance of honouring commitments?

In light of these concerns, the government must reassess its decision regarding VNR urgently. While we recognize the need for Sri Lanka’s ongoing emergence from the worst economic crisis since independence and require exploration of  new economic opportunities, we urge the government to recognize nature based alternative avenues available such as conservation financing that offer feasible solutions to balance conservation and development interests. The government has a responsibility to its constituents to upholding legal requirements, constitutional directives and global climate commitments that they have ratified, therefore their actions reflect not only as a moral imperative but also as a commitment to  safeguarding Sri Lanka’s natural wealth for future generations.