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The legal quagmire over the Muthurajawela marshlands

a year ago

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  • Govt. seeks to clarify controversial gazette while environmentalists seek to make wetland conservation a reality
BY Sumudu Chamara The Muthurajawela Wetland is a key wetland that has been a topic of discussion for many years owing to its environmental importance and also due to the environmental destruction taking place in the area. The wetland has been under threat due to racketeers’ activities as well. The newest controversy surrounding the Muthurajawela Wetland began after the Government gazetted the wetland under the Urban Development Authority (UDA), with the aim of conserving the area and protecting it from land grabs.  In the gazette notification dated 7 October, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said: “By virtue of the powers vested in me under Section 2 of the Urban Development Projects (Special Provisions) Act No. 2 of 1980, I, upon the recommendation of the Minister in charge of the subject of Urban Development, being of the opinion that the Muthurajawela marshy land described more fully in the schedules hereto, are urgently required for the purpose of conservation and sustainable use of the Muthurajawela environmentally sensitive zone and to develop such as a Ramsar Wetland by preventing the unauthorised filling and encroachment of its land plots, do by this order, declare that the said lands are required for such purpose.” Opposition The gazette notification resulted in a number of parties including political parties, religious leaders, and the civil society, voicing opposition against the Government’s decision, predominantly because of the alleged development projects that are going to be implemented in the area in question. At the same time, what would happen to those living in and around the surrounding area of the gazetted area, and the flora and fauna in the area, were topics of discussion. On 5 November, the main parliamentary opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) filed a fundamental rights (FR) petition in the Supreme Court (SC), seeking an order nullifying the aforementioned gazette notification. SJB Parliamentarian Dr. Kavinda Jayawardhana, one of the petitioners, speaking to the media, alleged that the Government has started robbing lands, and that such land theft is expanding, and that therefore, everyone should take a stance against this attempt. He added: “The houses, churches, and other properties in the area should be protected. They would be sold to foreign firms and the residents would be thrown out of the area. We ask Urban Development, Waste Disposal, and Community Cleanliness State Minister Dr. Nalaka Godahewa to read the UDA Act. According to the Act, the UDA can sell, rent out, or develop these areas. If the Government wants to protect this area as a Ramsar site, why can they not hand over the area to the Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) or the Forest Department, instead of giving it to a development or regulatory institution?” Meanwhile, Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith filed a writ petition before the SC, seeking an order revoking the gazette notification. He claimed that the residents living in the area in question would be affected by the Government’s decision.  Development projects To look into how development projects have and might in the future affect the Muthurajawela Wetland, The Morning spoke to several environmentalists who are familiar with the matter. Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Executive Director Hemantha Withanage claimed that land grabbing has been a pressing and exacerbating issue in the said area, and that politicians are also part of such activities. He alleged that politicians encouraging and supporting people to illegally acquire lands in the area is also prevalent. Some of these illegally acquired land slots, according to Withanage, are as big as 100 to 150 acres.  Alleging that certain firms and individuals have illegally acquired hundreds of acres in the area, Withanage said: “Those areas overlap with the wildlife sanctuary, as well as the environmentally sensitive area. Now, it is a very, very complex situation. So, if you want to protect this land, there should be a strong law; otherwise, you should allow the DWC to declare this area as a wildlife reserve. But, in order to do that, you have to remove all the people living in the area including the industrialists and hoteliers, and residents, and also properties such as churches and other places. That is one of the issues we are facing.”  He also raised concerns about the type of protection the area in question requires, and said that the Government declaring this wetland area under the UDA is concerning, because the UDA’s mandate is not protecting wildlife areas. Adding that there are experiences that prove what he said about the UDA’s role, Withanage noted that it is impossible for them to trust the UDA as an agency that is concerned about conserving the area in question.  Withanage added: “I think that is a major concern right now – we have concerns as to whether this declaration of acquisition which was announced through the recent gazette notification, is actually for conservation purposes or for development purposes. If you read that gazette notification, it says that this acquisition is for conservation as a Ramsar site. But, at the same time, the word ‘development’ is also there. I don’t know how they are going to develop the area. But, this Government, or maybe a future Government, can easily say that this land has been placed under the UDA for development purposes, and that they can, therefore, take all the land and hand it over to private contractors, perhaps to more than one contractor. That is one of the issues.  “I don’t trust the UDA as a conservation agency, and this area will definitely end up being a development area. It is an area next to Colombo, and there is definitely a bigger demand for these lands. That is why we are suspicious about this gazette notification involving the UDA. Just giving this land to the UDA without giving compensation or adequate facilities to those who live in this land will not guarantee productivity, and once the Government removes all these people, they can easily sell the land to the private sector.  “In this context, we have a fear, because we have identified that there are several lands in Colombo that are being prepared to be sold to the private sector, probably foreigners. We don’t want that to happen to the Muthurajawela area. Some of the proposals contain projects involving building railways, housing complexes, and helipads, among other things, and they are not going to be positive developments for the lagoon. We want the lagoon to be developed as a biodiversity retention area and that is not the expectation of the UDA. That is why we are concerned about the recently issued gazette notification.” Attempts to contact UDA officials and Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera in this connection proved futile. A collective decision  Despite strong, mounting opposition from various parties, the Government maintains that its intention, as mentioned in the aforementioned gazette notification, is to conserve and ensure the sustainable use of the said area. They also claim that the ongoing protests are unwarranted, because the initiative announced through the gazette notification is unlikely to lead to any environmental damage. While the environmental authorities including subject ministers have said so, Dr. Godahewa pointed out that there has been a miscommunication or misunderstanding when the objectives of this plan were conveyed to the public, which he said has led to these protests. Speaking of this during a programme on a private television channel, Dr. Godahewa explained:  “The opposition to the Muthurajawela incident is caused by a misunderstanding and Archbishop Ranjith and many other people are opposing it at the moment. We are trying to help them and actually deliver what they wanted from us. But they have misunderstood our good intentions. Almost a year ago, Archbishop Ranjith himself held a press conference and challenged the Government, saying that certain private parties were in the process of acquiring lands in the Muthurajawela area and that they are going to build a golf course, hotels, and helicopter landing areas. They wanted us to stop that. So, then the President wanted three ministries to look into that. These three ministries were the Environment Ministry; the Urban Development, Coast Conservation, Waste Disposal, and Community Cleanliness State Ministry; and the Wildlife and Forest Conservation Ministry, because all these have some role to play in this matter, and this whole area is anyway gazetted as an urban development area (the entire Gampaha District). We appointed the three Secretaries of the Ministries including the State Ministry to chair a committee looking into this matter, and they studied this and said that the Muthurajawela Wetland, which was about 7,000 hectares (ha) about three decades ago, has now been reduced to about 1,000-plus ha, and that its size is diminishing with time.” Following the evaluation of the situation, Dr. Godahewa said the three Ministries including the State Ministry looked into preserving the area in question, particularly to prevent the deteriorating situation from causing an impact on the worsening flood situation in the Gampaha District. “We have to safeguard at least what is remaining of the wetlands, and in order to safeguard these wetlands and to preserve them as they are, we have to take them under the Government’s control,” he said, adding that the three Ministries including the State Ministry had proposed to bring the said area under the UDA, taking into account the fact that the Environment and Wildlife Conservation Ministries did not have the necessary financial resources to make land acquisitions if a need arose. He added that the plan, proposed by the said three Ministries including the State Ministry, is to place the whole remaining wetland area under the UDA, preserve that area, and then hand it over to the Wildlife Conservation Ministry as a wildlife sanctuary.  He further noted: “The area that was identified in the gazette notification includes only the wetlands and the lagoon. There are no areas where people live. However, when you publish a gazette in that regard, we have to give all the co-ordinates for the lagoon and the wetlands, and when you Google co-ordinates, you have to mention the adjacent villages, as otherwise, we cannot explain the exact area. Therefore, in the gazette, the names of 52 grama niladhari divisions have been mentioned, and the people misunderstood that as we are going to acquire those villages. The church, people, and even our own politicians misunderstood this.” Dr. Godahewa stressed that the Government is only proposing to protect the wetlands and the lagoon, and that that is the only way to save it for the future generation. Conservation efforts in the future Meanwhile, Withanage spoke about managing the Muthurajawela Wetland area in a sustainable manner. First and foremost, he said that Sri Lanka has adequate laws and policies to protect the environment, adding that enforcement of these laws and policies, however, is not taking place properly. He added: “I think the Government has to respect the laws. In fact, we have adequate laws in the country. But the Government has disregarded and violated all these laws and regulations, and has even deregulated some of the forest areas. For example, the forest areas known as ‘other state forests’ which were about 500,000 ha and under the control of the Forest Department, have now been removed from that category, and the power to control them has been given to divisional secretariats. Even if we take the organic agriculture plan or get 70% renewable energy, which are positive plans, what happened to them? In fact, the proposals for those projects caused more harm than the non-existence of those proposals and projects caused. This Government has tried to do some positive things, and many negative things. The implementation of the law has not been successful.” In order to develop the Muthurajawela Wetland area in a sustainable manner, Withanage said that the Government should consider placing the area under the DWC.  He explained: “You can declare this as a conservation area or a wildlife reserve, and then develop it. However, the main problem is that the DWC does not have the monetary resources and the wildlife law is not strong enough. So, if the Government wants this land, attention should be paid to purchasing it from the local communities who rightfully own lands and pay them compensation. Then, the Government can hand over the acquired area and place this under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and thereby under the DWC and not the UDA.” Meanwhile, Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle (BCRC) Convenor Supun Lahiru Prakash said that the conservation and protection of the Muthurajawela Wetland area should be done under the supervision of the DWC, even though the gazette vested that power with the UDA. He also questioned the UDA’s suitability to be in control of the Muthurajawela Wetland area, which, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is home to a large number of endemic and threatened species. Reiterating that the UDA cannot be trusted to conserve the area in question the same way the DWC would have done, he said that it is extremely important to ensure that wetlands remain under the DWC.  Speaking about the future of conservation, Prakash further said: “We strongly believe that if we can improve the status of conservation in the country, from sanctuaries to national parks, there are recommendations to do so. We need to improve the status of the protection of national parks, and we should clearly demarcate the boundaries of national parks and the DWC should be provided with adequate infrastructure. In addition, there should be continuous and very effective ways to strengthen the conservation process pertaining to the wetland. The President’s intention is to protect the Muthurajawela Wetland which connects to the Negombo Lagoon as well. But, if the gazette notification does not ensure the protection of this wetland, we then have to ask what is the use of such measures? Therefore, I personally believe that if the Government has a genuine intention to protect the future of the Muthurajawela Wetland and the Negombo Lagoon areas, they should gazette this ecosystem as a national park.” In addition, future conservation efforts, according to Prakash, could be further strengthened by finding out some of the details about the area that remain unclear. To do that, he suggested that steps be taken to identify what areas of the wetland should receive priority with regard to conservation efforts, and what risks and benefits are unique to those areas. He also noted that some lands in the same area remain unprotected, and that all sensitive areas should come under the DWC. With regard to conservation in the future, he said: “We need to identify the important areas which are rich in biodiversity, and those areas should be protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. After that, the DWC should be strengthened with adequate infrastructure and officers to combat encroachment. When it comes to encroachment, we mostly point fingers at politicians, businessmen, or corrupt officers. However, the general public around the wetland also has a responsibility to protect these wetland areas.” While some opposing the Government’s decision are concerned about the natural resources and the people living in the area, whether the UDA has the capacity and interest to protect the natural resources in the area is a much bigger concern. Although the UDA has the capacity to manage the residents and buildings in the area, how it is going to identify and properly conserve the natural resources, is a question that is yet to be answered.