Desecration of Anawilundawa | Sunday Observer

Desecration of Anawilundawa

The pristine Anawilundawa wetland sanctuary lies on the coastal belt between Negombo and Puttalam. Covering an area of 1,397 hectares it is one of the six RAMSAR Wetlands in Sri Lanka. Significant for the diverse ecosystems found within the sanctuary it is a haven for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts alike. Therefore, the news that nearly one hectare of the sanctuary had been cleared illegally overnight and prepared for shrimp farming has left them shocked and they have demanded the perpetrators be punished for the desecration of the wildlife sanctuary protected by law.

Cabinet Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation, C.B Rathnayake has promised to deliver on their demands. The businessman behind the illegal clearing of the sanctuary was arrested by the Police yesterday (29). As rumours were rife of possible political involvement the Minister told the Sunday Observer that all the culprits behind the brazen act will be revealed to the country despite their status, stature, or political affiliation. “I have ordered for their identities to be revealed,” he said. The Minister has also ordered a probe into the incident and on Friday (28) the Arachchikattuwa Police also arrested a bulldozer operator they believed had cleared the area. In his initial statement to the Police, the driver claimed he had cleared the area on the instructions of the businessman who is now under Police custody.

The Director-General of the Department of Wildlife (DWC) Chandana Sooriyabandara said it was the department’s own officers that the destruction caused on the night of June 25. “People in the area do not tip us off on illegal activities being carried out,” he said. While the DWC has reported facts to the courts, Sooriyabandara said investigations are continuing. “We have zeroed in on who the possible suspects could be,” he said. The restoration of mangroves in the destroyed area will be carried out immediately, a spokesman for the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation said.

But environmentalists are now concerned if the damage done to the protected area can be reversed. According to Attorney–at-law and environmentalist Jagath Gunawardana, the tragedy of the incident is that it occurred on the very day the DWC officials had visited the same area to check the soil and determine which mangrove plants will be suitable to rehabilitate the mangroves in the sanctuary. “The project to rehabilitate the mangroves commenced led by the DWC, and supported by the University of Wayamba and a volunteer organisation recently as we have a national commitment to protect and increase the mangroves areas in the country,” he said. However, according to Gunawardana, unfortunately, the remaining mangroves have now been cleared illegally and the future of the project is doubtful.

Biodiversity

Explaining the significance of the wetland, Gunawardana said that the area consists of forested wetlands, including mangrove swamps to the west and freshwater swamps and the freshwater lakes. “There are a number of ecosystems coexisting in the area rich in biodiversity,” he said, adding that the sanctuary provides a number of environmental services to the area. “People living in the area depend on the sanctuary for their livelihoods. Therefore, this sanctuary is important not only to the environment and wildlife but to the society at large,” he said. While the sanctuary could bring in revenue to the country, Gunawardana said this opportunity has not been fully explored yet. Commenting on the recent incident, Gunawardena also recalled that it was a group of bird watchers whp led to the area being declared a sanctuary. “Thilo Hoffman of the Ceylon Bird Club, ornithologists Deepal Warakagoda and Upali Ekanayake in the 80s carried out a privately funded research in the area as they understood its significance and realised something must be done to protect it,” he said. As a result of their efforts, Anawilundawa was then declared a sanctuary under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in 1997. Later, it was declared a RAMSAR wetland in 2001. “Though it was a group of volunteers that led to Anawilundawa being declared a sanctuary the benefit has been for the entire country,” he said.

Negative effects

According to Gunawardena, having shrimp farms in the area can have many negative effects. “The environmental damage from shrimp farming can be severe. The tanks are the main ecosystem in this area. When you place saltwater near a freshwater system the saltwater often leaks into the freshwater thereby affecting the quality of the freshwater resulting in the change of the whole ecosystem. This also affects negatively on the paddy farming of villagers in the area. There is a fertile paddy field in the area but they will not be able to cultivate it if this happens” he said. “It could also lead to the farmers killing birds to prevent them from feeding on the shrimp,” he said. According to Gunawardena, establishing farms in a sanctuary can only create a path for clashes between the environment and the farmers.

Environmentalists and others have also raised their suspicions on who could be brazen enough to clear land in a protected area. While shrimp farming is not profitable overnight and is a long term business venture, Gunawardena said the person who ordered the land to be cleared must either be foolish, be powerful, or believe he has some power to carry out such an act.

“He has to be under the impression that he can circumvent the law,” he said. As area residents suspect the involvement of a politician behind the destruction the topic also drew the attention of the Parliament this week. “Regardless of who is involved, the people didn’t give us a two-thirds majority to destroy wetlands and the environment,” Minister Wimal Weerawansa said in Parliament.?

Minister C.B Rathanayake said the suspects will be brought before the law. “What use is there of a signboard claiming the land is protected if such acts are carried out illegally,” he said. “If close to a hectare can be cleared what does it mean for the future of our environment” he added. According to the Minister, the perpetrators have attempted to misuse protected state land and this cannot be allowed. “I love my country more than my ministerial position. Therefore, the real perpetrators will be unmasked soon” he said.

But the incident has also revealed a host of other issues faced in protecting the country’s natural treasures. According to Gunawardana, it is somewhat unfair to blame the DWC for the incident as the Anawilundawa sanctuary only has o two DWC officers to protect it.

Sooriyabandara admitted that the Department faces a staff shortage across the island. “It is the same across the country,” he said.

The DWC only has 1000 staffers to ensure that all the protected areas and wildlife in Sri Lanka are safe. According to Gunawardana, staff numbers must increase by six-fold. “Anawilundawa only has two rangers and they can’t protect the area which is over 1000 hectares throughout the day,” he said. The DWC has now asked the Government to recruit 3000 new officers to its fold.

Gunawardena also pointed out that the lack of a national plan for land has also led to these issues. “The protected areas amount to just 17 percent of the country’s whole landmass,” he said adding that the lack of a plan for available land has led to people attempting to carry out similar economic activities in protected areas.

“Shrimps for example are not for local consumption but for export. Destroying our environment for short term gain can impede the country’s development. Therefore, a decision must be taken considering the continuity of our country. Investors must understand misusing our environment for the benefit of another country is harmful. The money he earns he can put it into another business but we cannot replace the environment that was destroyed” he said.?

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