By Rathindra Kuruwita | Lakbima News
Those who have successfully managed the long term exploitation of mineral resources, i.e. Germany and the USA have done so through careful regulation and planning which have served to prolong the sustainability of their resources as well as minimize ecological degradation.
Sri Lanka and mineral wealth in the north
The 30 year civil war deprived the Sri Lankan economy of its once significant contribution from mineral sands from the north and the east. The factory at Pulmudei, which has nearly five million tonnes of ilmanite that can be mined at the rate of 150,000 tonnes a year, rutile and zircon that can be mined at the rates of 10,000 tonnes and 6,000 tonnes, respectively, was inactive for over two decades. Meanwhile, the ‘final report on the mineral resources in the Mulaitivu district (under the Integrated Strategic Environmental Assessment (ISEA,) a study of the Northern Province’ in January 2011, also highlighted the massive mineral resources in the two provinces.
Although harvesting the substantial mineral wealth as well as development activities in the areas are necessary -- mineral excavation should be carried out under proper guidelines. The report (stated above) comissioned out by Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GMSB) also highlights the dangers of unplanned mining, and steps that should be taken to minimize the damage to the environment.
It is in this backdrop that 5000 acres near Kokilai lagoon, one of Sri Lanka’s oldest protected areas, have been reserved for a mineral sand excavation project and an industrial zone by Indian companies. The Ministry of State Resources and Entrepreneur Development stated that initiatives are underway to construct a Mineral Sands Plant for the Sri Lanka Mineral Sands Corporation in Kokilai at an estimated cost of Rs50 million.
Reconciliation by robbing?
Apart from the Kokilai lagoon and sanctuary, the earmarked area also comprises agricultural land belonging to farmers of whom many have not returned to the area after the war.
“The sale of mineral sand currently being carried out without damaging the environment will continue while 500 more acres between Yan Oya and Pubmodai will be allocated for foreign investors to set up an industrial zone,” Minister Dayashri Thisera said, adding that, “the open transparency method that is followed in tender procedures has helped Sri Lanka Mineral Sands Corporation make a profit of Rs186 million, considered massive in its history.”
However environmentalists claim that the project is being carried out violating environmental laws, and that neither a feasibility study nor an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had been carried out for the project.
The Kokilai lagoon and its vicinity are one of the oldest protected areas in Sri Lanka, having been declared a sanctuary on May 18, 1951, over 61 years ago.
The 2,995 hectare protected area consists of estuaries, deltas, intertidal mudflats, sand flats and mangrove ecosystems. The sanctuary cuts across the boundaries of both Trincomalee and Mulaitivu Districts that come under the Eastern and Northern Provinces.
“Laws are neglected and there are hoardings announcing the project at the site,” said Thilak Kariyawasam of the Environmental Conservation Trust (ECT). “However the project is not only harming the environment, but is also destroying fertile agricultural land and the livelihood of fishermen,” he added.
Loss of livelihood
The GSMB (see main story) has identified that mineral sands are widely distributed in the coastal stretch covering north of the Kokilai Lagoon.
Mineralogical analysis of the sand samples collected in the area has indicated that ‘ilmenite sands are the predominantly occurring mineral sand variety within the zone with over 60% while percentages of rest of the mineral sands are, zircon - 10 %, rutile - 8%, monazite - 3% and sillimanite - 1%,’ (page 9 of the report.)’
Thus it is evident that the project will encompass the lagoon that will lead to the destruction of mangrove ecosystems which in turn will lead to the decline of aquatic species in the lagoon. The lagoon is famous for species such as crabs and prawns, and more than 1500 fisher families in the area depend on this lagoon for their livelihood.
According to government regulations, anyone clearing more than one hectare of forest land has to obtain approval from the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment. In addition, there are provisions which prohibit the removal of mangroves and prevent permanent structures/development activities near a lagoon.
“The saddest thing is that most people don’t even know that their land has been taken over. There are thousands of people in camps dreaming about their return home. How will they feel when they find their land has been taken over without their knowledge?” Kariyawasam asked.
The government’s action stands in stark contrast to the GSMB’s study which clearly identified the need to include the local community in the areas’ development and the need that they should benefit from the natural resources of the area.
The degradation of the environment and the loss of biological resources are not purely environmental issues. The world pharmaceutical industry, estimated at trillions of dollars and is growing, is looking for new biological compounds which would lead to new medical breakthroughs in cancer medication. Their growing desperation can be seen by the increasing number of scientists sent to collect plant and animal samples, by any means, from biodiversity hotspots like Sri Lanka.
In such a context preserving and identifying a country’s biological resources may open doors for long term and inexhaustible sources of income. Therefore the question is weather it is judicious to degrade our natural resources so that we could make a fast buck for a limited period of time, excluding local communities -- or whether we should move towards a regulated growth model?