Let us Proudly Commemorate International Year of Small Scale Fisheries & Aquaculture - 2022

Colombo Cardinal tackles Sri Lanka's environmental destruction

Following the call of Laudato Si, protecting nature should become part and parcel of pastoral activities

By Father Reid Shelton Fernando | 

At the start of this year, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, the outspoken leader of the Sri Lankan Church, addressed environmental issues in his archdiocese regarding Muthurajawela, a wetland 30 kilometers north of Colombo.

This marshland is notable for its unique and highly diverse ecosystem and is listed as one of the 12 priority wetlands in Sri Lanka.

 Muthurajawela, which translates as "Swamp of Royal Treasure," has a long history of 700 years. It covers 4,390 acres and while only 700 acres are earmarked for development, the project will have a drastic effect.

Prominent environmentalist Ven.Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera joined the cardinal in speaking out against the Muthurajawela development project.

 Ven. Sagara Thera has condemned almost all destructive projects in the country, castigating rulers who make promises during election campaigns but act differently once they are in power.

  The monk and the cardinal conducted a joint press conference against the development of this prime land, which was cultivated until the 1950s but later abandoned due to problems with water resources.

Recently there have been ominous signs in the area that is home to poor people. Earlier there were signboards to protect the land but new signs declare the area is the property of a local entrepreneur.

 Cardinal Ranjith discovered that without any assessment the land had been handed over to private companies to build a golf course and hotels for rich tourists.

Under the pretext of development, without any consultation with the people, this project had been approved in the latter stage of the Yahapalana government by President Maithripala Sirisena.

 This same president was present at the Paris Global Meeting of the UNFCC in December 2015 as a signatory to the agreement. But as minister of the environment he assigned this land to entrepreneurs who are not remotely concerned about environmental issues.

In earlier periods this land was cultivated paddy and the very name Muthuragawela indicated that it produced the paddy harvest bountifully until seawater seeped into this very fertile earth.

 Cardinal Ranjith said the development would mean destruction of the environment and natural fauna and flora. He also indicated that a major part of Gampaha district outside of the capital would be inundated and the whole area would become uninhabitable.

 It is a good thing that Cardinal Ranjith addresses environmental issues and he has been in touch with other areas where people and politicians are involved in damaging the environment through deforestation for timber, excavating the soil and dredging sand.

 This supports Laudato Si, the encyclical on the environment that Pope Francis announced in May 2015.

The Vatican celebrated its fifth anniversary last year and will continue for the next five years. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka's church leaders have not followed the call of the Vatican dicasteries for celebrations in Sri Lanka.

Environmental activists note that these development projects are geared toward tourists and entrepreneurs who invest in Port City now known as "financial city," which was approved by the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. It was implemented by the succeeding government of Mathiree-Ranil, creating many hazards for the poor in the western province.

Construction of the financial city was handed over to Chinese companies, causing disharmony with other Asian financial enterprises.

Cardinal Ranjith was silent about the menace that was created in filling the new island with boulders and extracting sea sand to fill the ground.

Instead of fighting for safeguards pertaining to the construction, the cardinal sought financial and expert advice to repair the roof of the Basilica at Tewatte, north Colombo.

However, Cardinal Ranjith must be congratulated for coming out to protect the environment for the first time and he was given all the information by the activists living around the land in question.

As the head of the Archdiocese of Colombo, he had come out without any dealing with present government leaders.

So he took up the issue before it was too late and it is our wish that he will not only speak on behalf of Catholics but also against common anti-environmental projects initiated by the authorities as well as investors.

 In the mid and late 1990s, there were two major events in which church leaders led protests.

 The first was against the Voice of America radio substation installed in Iranawila in the Diocese of Chilaw.

The initiative was taken by Bishop Frank Marcus Fernando against this invasion by communication media.

The present writer was also one of the prayer leaders when they conducted a prayer service in public places. 

 Other leaders who are called shepherds also led boycotts without supporting the individual bishop. By 2017 the US closed down this radio station. I am not aware whether US authorities paid any compensation to the government.

At the same time there was another campaign against a hotel in Kandalama in Dambulla in the Diocese of Kandy. 

The protest was initiated by activists because this construction was mooted in the irrigation area involved in agriculture.

However, the entrepreneur who invested in this hotel saw to it that the hotel was built according to environmental specifications.

This construction won many accolades from environmental groups. There are several groups within the Church and individual activists who have taken steps to fight for environmental issues in their work for the betterment of the people.

Fishermen and some activists took steps to protect Negombo lagoon to safeguard fish breeding and prawn culture in this unique lagoon.

 So I would wish that Cardinal Ranjith takes up further the green cause not limited to Catholic areas but beyond the limits of his archdiocese to all over the country. In this, he would be following Pope Francis who vociferously spoke of protecting nature in Laudato Si.

 He can make use of the existing structure in the diocese and at the national level to have a proper mechanism to protect the forests and waterways from pollution that is harming human habitation.

 Protection of flora and fauna should become part and parcel of pastoral activities.

 Further, it is taking the leading role not only in the protection of environment rights but also the rights of others who are victimized through development projects.

It is indeed a true Christian prophetic role to follow the example of recently canonized Salvadorean Saint Oscar Romero.

Father Reid Shelt

on Fernando is a prominent human rights defender in Sri Lanka. He was a university lecturer and former chaplain of the Young Christian Workers Movement. He is well known for his writings and commentaries on social and political issues.