The government’s plan to hand over the Muthurajawela Sanctuary to the Urban Development Authority is not with the intention of protecting it but with the ulterior motive of accelerating the development there, the environmentalists allege.
The Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera recently announced that the Ramsar Wetland will be handed over to the Urban Development Authority to protect the ecosystem in the Western Province.
The Muthurajawela Sanctuary has been declared in accordance with the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. According to the sub-section 2 (2) of this Act it has been declared by the Extraordinary Gazette Notification No. 947/13 dated 31st October 1996, an area of 1028.62 hectares in this wetland as the Muthurajawela Sanctuary.
In addition, under Sections 24 (c) and 24 (d) of the National Environmental Act, the wetland reserve designated as the Muthurajawela Buffer Zone has been declared as the first Environmental Protection Area in Sri Lanka by Gazette Notification No. 1466/26 dated 13th October 2006. 206.678 hectares of wetland in the buffer zone have been declared as Muthurajawela Environmental Protection Area by this gazette notification.
Gazette Notification No. 2090/11 dated 25th September 2018 has added another 162.10 hectares of Muthurajawela wetland to the Environmental Protection Area.
A special ecosystem
Recognized as one of the 12 leading wetland systems in Sri Lanka, the Muthurajawela Wetland stands unique due to a number of environmental factors. The entire Muthurajawela area is a breeding ground for marine fish, prawns and crabs that live in the shallow seas. It also has many ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, salt water and freshwater canals, grasslands, shrub forests and riverine forests.
194 species of plants belonging to 66 genera have been recorded in these ecosystems and about 449 species belonging to 7 categories of animals including butterflies, dragonflies, fish, amphibians, birds and mammals have been recorded from this ecosystem. Of these, 27 species have been identified as endemic to the country and about 86 species of resident birds live here. About 43 species of migratory birds have been recorded in this area.
Environmentalists commented with MediaLK on the future of this unique ecosystem.
No legal possibility
Dinusha Nanayakkara, a member of the Muthurajawela Sanctuary Protection Organization and a member of the Archbishop’s Environment Committee said ;
“There is no legal possibility for the Urban Development Authority to take over the Muthurajawela Sanctuary. The Muthurajawela Sanctuary is protected by the Wildlife Conservation Ordinance. The Urban Development Authority has no legal right to take hold of an environmental zone under this Act. That means this land is going to be handed over to the Urban Development Authority, defying all laws.
Also, the Urban Development Authority states that the Wildlife Department cannot protect this land. It’s a very funny statement. Because at a meeting to discuss this matter, a group of our organization questioned the officials of the Urban Development Authority in this regard. They could not answer those questions. They were a group with no environmental literacy. Wildlife Department officials have knowledge in this regard.
Also, there is a court decision regarding Muthurajawela. An enjoining order has been issued by that decision. The court also ordered the Wildlife Department to re-measure the Muthurajawela boundaries. However, the Wildlife Department has not yet implemented the court order. In such a situation the Urban Development Authority does not make a definite statement as to which part of this ecosystem it is going to take over.”
Anything but this is not possible!
“There are streams in the Muthurajawela ecosystem. There is a beautiful environment. There are special creatures. Therefore, we request the Department of Wildlife to take steps to protect all these and make this place a tourist attraction. It is to be done by the Urban Development Authority and not by the Wildlife Department.
We also propose to make Muthurajawela a National Park. Because all the national parks in Sri Lanka, the strict nature reserves, the induction zones and the swamp forests are very well managed by the Wildlife Department. Why only Muthurawela was left out?
We are working hard to protect Muthurajawela since 2017. These threats come in different forms from time to time. No one in the government wants to protect Muthurajawela. If Muthurajawela is turned into a national park and given the opportunity to people to visit it, it will be protected by the subculture that will emerge around it. Otherwise, it is impossible to say what will happen if Muthurajawela becomes a toy passing from one hand to another.
What we are saying is stop acting like that. We strongly urge the law to be enforced regarding Muthurajawela. We also strongly oppose this decision.”
A political objective
Dr. Ravindra Kariyawasam, National Coordinator, Center for the Study of Nature said ;
Muthurajawela is the place where Samba similar in appearence to Muthu (pearls) was cultivated. There are a number of wetlands between Kalutara and Kalpitiya in Sri Lanka. Of these, Muthurajawela in particular has been designated as a protected zone. Accordingly, the area around the Negombo Lagoon has been divided as the Muthurajawela Sanctuary, the area around the Kelani River as the urban area in the Muthurajawela Master Plan.
The Department of Wildlife Conservation has taken steps to protect Muthurajawela using the provisions under the Fauna and Flora Ordinance. Despite such security, garbage was dumped in Muthurajawela and lands were marked and distributed. Such anti-environmental activities were carried out. If this is removed from the Department of Wildlife and given to the Urban Development Authority, it will not be protected by the National Environment Act or the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Therefore politicians will be able to give to companies saying that it’ for the development of Muthurajawela. That is the political purpose of handing over the Muthurajawela to Urban Development Authority.”
“We are against this”
Ven. Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thero of Surakimu Lanka organization said ;
“Muthurajawela is a swampy area. The total land area is about 1,128 hectares. In 1996, the area was declared a protected area by a special gazette notification. The Muthurajawela wetland is under the care of wildlife. A certain amount of land in the wildlife trust has been secured aside by a company.
In this, they have proposed to carry out an eco-friendly project. It includes hotels, golf courses and housing projects. We have identified all these as urban development projects. But we, the country have identified Muthurajawela as a wildlife sanctuary. The sanctuary belongs to the Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Accordingly, the Department of Wildlife is conserving this land. But what the Urban Development Authority is doing is developing this land. These two have been mistaken. Now the government says that the Urban Development Authority Act is the most powerful act to take back the lands acquired by this private company. That is a blatant lie.
In an instances where wildlife lands have been acquired forcefully, they can be acquired back to the department via a gazette notification at any time. Or you can sue. By seeking other tactics without taking such action, the handing over of the land to the Urban Development Authority will result in the return of this land to this private company with state sponsorship. Eighty percent of the land that has been captured by this company is wildlife land.
This sanctuary should not be removed from the Department of Wildlife and handed over to the Urban Development Authority. We are totally against this.”
Has not shown any strength
We also inquired about this from Dr. Jagath Gunawardena, a lawyer who has been involved in a number of environmental law violations and involved in protecting the environment.
“It is true that the Urban Development Authority Act is strong. But the purpose of the Act is not environmental protection. There seems to be a risk involved in declaring an area to protect the environment under a development act that does not aim at environmental conservation.
The second point is that financial strength is inconsistent. Because despite the compensation, land acquisitions are carried out under the State Land Acquisition Act. Then it does not matter whether the Urban Development Authority has money, the Environmental Authority has no money or the wildlife has money.
The third point is that we have not yet proposed such an acquisition. There is no proposal from the government. Then we will take care of it one day when the government has the financial strength to make a takeover. Fourth, the Urban Development Authority is generally a provincial authority.
However, its scope is to declare an area as an area belonging to the Urban Development Authority, submit development plans, implement and regulate development in that area. However, the history of the Urban Development Authority has not been so good. For example, in 1982, a kilometer inland from the high tide level was given to the Urban Development Authority from the coast.
That was as provisions to regulate development activities along that coast. Up to date, no such thing has happened. The Coast Conservation Department has only 300 meters. The Urban Development Authority has that 300 meters and another 700 meters to inland. Therefore, in the history of the Urban Development Authority, they have not shown such strength. Although buildings were demolished arbitrarily where it was needed, the Urban Development Authority has not shown real strength in regulating the country’s environment.”
There is no need to seek beyond the Minister of Environment
“Then if there is private land in a sanctuary, problems may arise in some instances. We admit that. The National Environmental Act is the best law to protect and regulate an area of private land in Sri Lanka.
When the two sections 24 (c) and (d) are added together, the Minister in charge of the Environment has the power to declare an Environmental Protection Zone and to issue orders under the Environment Act to regulate any activity in that zone and to prevent illegal activities. So we do not need to go beyond that.
When Muthurajawela exists as a sanctuary, if there is any weakness, we have proposed since 2016 to make this entire area an Environmental Protection Zone as a way to overcome it. Then there is the purpose of the bill and the environmental protection mechanism.
In addition, at any time it is violated and an action is taken, we can immediately issue an order under Section 24 (b) of the Act, make it a court order through the court and stop the relevant action. Therefore, I do not see any need for the Urban Development Authority to intervene in this matter. There is no need to hand over a portion of these lands to the Urban Development Authority unless there is no intention of transferring it later to a private entrepreneur or a government entity.”
“Everything is done under our supervision”
MediaLK inquired from the Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera regarding the allegations leveled against the government by environmentalists as well as the lawyer.
“We hope to develop the Muthurajawela Urban Development Authority in an environmentally friendly manner by handing it over. Otherwise we have no hope of building hotels or golf courses in this environment. We plant trees in this environment so that people can see the environment and animals. This area is being developed in the same manner as the Kimbulawala area by the Urban Development Authority.
The Wildlife Department does not have the funds to take action regarding Muthurajawela. The Urban Development Authority has the money to do this immediately. Also, the Urban Development Authority Act is effective. Accordingly, it has the potential to take over the land immediately. Even if the Urban Development Authority takes over, all development activities are carried out under our supervision and on our instructions. The first thing we are going to do is taking over this private land to the government. We do not have any intention of handing this to private sector after developing.”