Muthurajawela issue: Development plans for endangered wetlands?

  • Environmentalists question UDA mandate and motives
  • Fishing communities express concern about loss of livelihood
  • State appoints committee to analyse and seek stakeholder views

By Yoshitha Perera

Conservationists have questioned the motives behind attempts to bring lands in the Muthurajawela wetlands and Negombo Lagoon areas under the preview of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) through the Urban Development Projects (Special Provisions) Act, alleging that the move is being done with the aim to secure land for development.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara claimed that the Negombo Lagoon was also the target of the Government for development activities, alleging that the State was planning to interconnect the lagoon area.

However, the Government denied the charge.

“The Government is now saying that they are not acquiring the land of the settlers, but that is not the problem. The problem is that under the new gazette, the Negombo Lagoon area and some parts of the Muthurajawela wetlands would be brought under the UDA. That was done so that these lands could be used for development projects,” Chamikara charged.

He explained that 1,098 hectares of the Muthurajawela wetlands were designated a sanctuary under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, and 167 hectares had been designated as environmentally protected areas under the National Environmental Act.

“These are conservation-ordinated lands, but when these lands come under the UDA, the conservation does not come under their mandate. Even that preamble doesn’t state that the UDA can use these lands for conservation. So, it would be completely used for development instead of being conserved,” he said.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) North and South Programme Co-ordinator Anthony Jesudasan echoed the environmentalist’s allegation, adding that they were planning to educate fisherfolk on the possible impact to the lagoon area and their livelihoods, if the UDA is to develop the area.

“We have to educate the public with the real issue. The Government’s new target is to acquire the Negombo Lagoon area. The fishing community knows and understands that if Muthurajawela is touched, then there would be adverse impacts,” he said.

Meanwhile, in response to a question about how the UDA would handle conservation in the area under the new gazette, State Minister of Urban Development, Coast Conservation, Waste Disposal, and Community Cleanliness Dr. Nalaka Godahewa said that there were a large number of illegal development projects even inside the Muthurajawela Wetland Sanctuary, and that the Government’s plan was to prevent such illegal development projects by issuing the new gazette.

“The new gazette which we have proposed includes the Negombo Lagoon, and that is the only major change. A little bit more of the wetlands has also been included, but that is not a large area. The main addition is the lagoon. The lagoon area comprises more than 3,000 hectares,” he said.

The State Minister further said that after a special discussion held in Parliament last Tuesday (9) with the participation of more than 50 members, on the advice of the President and the Prime Minister, measures were taken to appoint a special eight-member committee headed by Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera and himself.

“The primary responsibility of this committee is to analyse the areas identified in the gazette. The Muthurajawela issue will also be discussed by the committee with other stakeholders,” he said.

Accordingly, Ministers Amaraweera and C.B. Ratnayake, State Ministers Dr. Godahewa, Nimal Lanza, and Sudarshani Fernandopulle, MPs Nalin Fernando, Jayantha Weerasinghe, and Weerasumana Weerasinghe, and Gampaha District Secretary Sunil Jayalath are representing the above-mentioned committee.

Meanwhile, on 6 November, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court against the Muthurajawela wetlands gazette notification. In his writ application, the Cardinal mentioned that the wetlands have a highly diverse ecosystem and were named among 41 internationally important wetlands in the country.