The District Secretary of Gampaha and Divisional Secretary of Negombo have been accused of earmarking eight acres of mangrove forestland for a housing project under the direction of State Resources and Enterprise Development Deputy Minister Sarath Kumara Gunaratne and Western Province Minister of Road Development, Tourism, Housing, Animal Production and Fisheries Nimal Lansa.
Kadol kele is a mangrove forest belt spanning on a 36-acre strip along the Negombo lagoon. This has been identified as one of the marshy lands in the country that is rich in bio diversity. This land has been vested under the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) on August 10, 2001 by the Secretary to the Environment Ministry through a ministry circular No: 05/ 2001.
However disregarding the value of this mangrove that saved thousands of lives during the tsunami by acting as a buffer, the District Secretary and the Divisional Secretary have drawn plans to distribute this eight acres among those who are ‘said’ to be amongst tsunami affected people without the approval of the land owner – the DFC.
“The reason behind this move is very clear. Not more than ten families were affected from tsunami but why have they depicted 133 plots of land in the survey plan. Although they claim that this is for tsunami affected people, they have already been re-settled .This would be the third housing project claimed to be for the tsunami affected people. Already more than 300 houses were built at Eththukala, Wella Weediya and Bosco Pura and those affected have already been re-settled while other houses were given for Gunaratne’s and Lanza’s supports,” alleged the Convener, Protect the Negombo Lagoon Movement, W. Ramesh Fernando.
According to Ramesh, all attempts to prevent this destruction have fallen on deaf ears and queried as to why the District Secretary Gampaha had failed to find an alternative land for the project as suggested by an 11-member committee comprising the Assistant Divisional Secretary Negombo and higher officials representing the Board of Investment, DFC, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Surveys Department, Urban Development Authority, Coast Conservation Department (CCD) and Central Environmental Authority (CEA).
“After a site inspection, the above officials in a letter dated February 14, 2005 to the District Secretary Gampaha had clearly suggested to find an alternative land for the housing project as the land in question has not only acted as a buffer during the tsunami but also rich in bio diversity and a breeding ground for verities of fish mainly crabs and prawns,” said Ramesh.
Although the Divisional Secretary Negombo A. K. R. Alawatte confirmed that he together with the District Secretary Gampaha J. J. Ratnasiri are now working on how the lands should be distributed, the District Secretary contradicting Alawatte said he knew nothing about it.
“It is two years since I took over office in Gampaha. I am not aware of it. Have to find out about this,” said the District Secretary.
Meanwhile Divisional Secretary Alawatte said that he had received all the necessary approvals from the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), DFC, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) and the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) in 2009 for the project.
“The cabinet has granted its approval for this project in 2006. These lands are to be given for all the tsunami affected families and the rest for low income people in Negombo. We earmarked eight acres and 133 people would get six perches of land each. Although the environmentalists claim that this is a mangrove, it is not. There are small patches of mangrove within this land but the rest of the land is high land,” said Alawatte.
According to Alawatte the delay in distributing this land was because of some restrictions imposed by the Land Ministry Secretary.
“The 2006 cabinet approval clearly states that these lands have to be given free of charge. But the Land Ministry Secretary Asoka Peiris says that the lands cannot be given free of charge as the land in question is within the Negombo Municipal Council area. According to Peiris any land within the municipal area cannot be given free of charge and wanted us to get the lands valued and to impose 4% of the value amount per year and to distribute them on a 33-year lease agreement,” said Alawatte.
Disclaiming that mangroves have already been destroyed in certain areas to initiate the housing project, Alawatte said that there were no mangroves in this land as claimed by the villagers and environmentalists.
“I took over office as the Divisional Secretary Negombo one year ago and I do not agree with the accusations. Other than few patches of mangrove the rest of the land is a bare highland, not a marshy land,” he added.
Meanwhile Director Environmental Conservation Trust Sajeewa Chamikara queries as to who has given authority for the government high ranking officers to make arrangements to give away lands that belong to another department.
“This land belongs to the DFC. Who has given permission to get this land surveyed during February and March 2010? District Secretary and the Divisional Secretary have got the land surveyed by Government Surveyor N.W.M.D.N. Weerasuriya (Survey plan No; 3243). It is up to the DFC to act immediately against these two government officials for trespassing this mangrove area and getting surveyed without their approval,” claimed Chamikara.
According to section 20 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (amended) No: 65 of 2009, it is strictly prohibited to remove mangroves, forbid to put up any permanent or temporary structures, construct roads or fill lands inside a mangrove forest.
Chamikara further leveled accusation against Deputy Minister Sarath Gunaratne and Provincial Minister Nimal Lanza for their involvement in mangrove destruction in their constituency- Negombo.
“Why cannot the DFC take legal action against this Deputy Minister who is breaking environmental laws? Earlier it was Nimal Lanza that led this project together with Deputy Minister Gunaratne. When the environmental organizations protested against the mangrove destruction in 2006, Lanza took a back seat although he is still very much involved. It is the Deputy Minister Gunaratne that ‘runs the show’. Although the District and Divisional Secretaries and other government officials in Negombo claim that this land will be given to all the tsunami affected families and the rest to low income families it is to mislead the people. How many people in Negombo were affected for tsunami? Only a handful was affected and they have been given houses in many parts in Negombo. This land is solely to distribute amongst Gunaratne’s and Lanza’s party supporter,” alleged Chamikara.
According to Chamikara if not for this mangrove belt along the lagoon, many families would have affected during tsunami.
“It was this mangrove belt that acted as a buffer during tsunami. When government officials from Colombo came on a field visit to Negombo to look for a good land for a housing project, they were taken to this mangrove forest. They immediately wanted these officials not to destroy the mangrove but to find an alternate place but to no avail,” said Chamikara.
Chamikara further said that according to National Environmental Act No: 772/ 22 of June 24, 1993 any development in more than one hectare is subjected to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. Once this is done it has to be open for public comments for 30 working days.
“None of these procedures have been followed before the land was surveyed. As a result of this destruction, breeding sites of prawns, crabs and other varieties of fish will be affected and the fish harvest will reduce dramatically affecting the fishing industry in the days to come,” claimed Chamikara.
Meanwhile Ramesh Fernando accused the District and Divisional Secretaries for violating environmental laws.
“Although Deputy Minister Gunaratne and Provincial Minister Lanza are behind this move, we have to first point the finger towards the government officials. It is these government officials that are accountable for any destruction. The politicians will come and go tomorrow. These two officers should not favour politicians but stand for the right,” said Ramesh.
Meanwhile Assistant Director CCD, W. A. N. S. Rajaratne said that his department had not given any permission to District Secretary Gampaha or Divisional Secretary Negombo to destruct mangroves.
“This department has not given any approvals for any project closer to the Negombo lagoon. Neither have we received any application for our approvals. The lagoon has to be protected. It is these mangroves that protect and nurture the lagoon. If not for these mangroves where could the fish, mainly the crab and prawns, breed?” asked Rajaratne.
According to him, any person who develops any land without the Coast Conservation Act, strict legal action could be taken irrespective of their posts.
“The Coast Conservation and Costal Resources Management Act (amended) 57 of 1981, clearly states that development work within the coastal area cannot be carried out without the CCD approval. This applies not only to private parties who own lands along the coastal belt but also the state institutions to get our clearance before developing the land,” said Rajaratne.
He further said that CCD received foreign donations through the Post Tsunami Coastal Rehabilitation and Resources Management Programme to safeguard the coastal area by re-planting mangroves to protect the coast and the people live within this area.
“After the tsunami catastrophe we understood the importance of having mangroves along the beach. Most of the places where mangroves were in abundance, the tsunami affect could be minimized. That is why we have to re think about planting mangroves and we have already started planting mangroves along the coastal areas,” added Rajaratne.
Meanwhile Deputy Director Conservator Forest (Environment Management) Mahinda Seneviratne said that approvals had not been given to any project in Negombo to remove mangroves. “Mangroves are not allowed to be destroyed anywhere,” he said.
The Chairman, Central Environmental Authority Charitha Herath meanwhile said that the area belonged to the CCD but not to the CEA.
“Since this is a coastal area, approvals have to taken from the CCD. IT is up to the CCD that has to decide whether an EIA or IEE test has to be done before giving approvals,” said Herath.
Refuting allegations leveled, Deputy Minister Sarath Kumara Gunarathna said that he was not involved in any illegal dealings.
“As all know I engage in clean politics and does not engage in any illegal affairs. All these allegations are to discredit me. My political opponents in Negombo whether from the same party or from opposition trying hard to sling mud at me. My hands are clear,” he said.
All attempts to contact Provincial Minister Nimal Lanza for comments failed.