Sri Lanka: MONLAR blows whistle on another land grab in wetland sanctuary

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Only a few wetlands remain in Colombo, and they are in danger, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) says.

Chamikara said that Urban Development Authority (UDA) and Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation (SLLDC) have recently begun developing the wetlands around the Sri Mahindaramaya Temple, Ethul Kotte.

“The two institutions started reclaiming the wetlands within the Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte Sanctuary without following any environmental laws. The decision to develop the wetlands was given by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in March. Although the Wildlife Conservation Department initially opposed the development project, it has chosen to remain silent,” Chamikara said.

The MONLAR head said that during the last two decades SLLDC and UDA had destroyed a large number of wetlands in areas such as Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte and Bellanwila and Attidiya.

“The two institutions have no idea about the importance of these wetlands. Because of their activities, part of Colombo is prone to floods, and the government has to spend colossal amounts of public funds on flood prevention initiatives. The reclamation and alienation of wetlands and their conversion into lakes have taken their toll on the environment. Wetlands have a remarkable capacity to hold water, but they lose that capacity when they are turned into lakes.

Chamikara said migratory bird species that arrive at the wetlands too had been affected by haphazard development projects. When the wetlands in the lowlands close to the sea are excavated, salt water travels inland and salifies the soil.

“The main reason is that the SLLDC and UDA do not have any idea about the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat of 1971 or the National Wetland Policy and Strategy for Sri Lanka of 2006,” Chamikara said.

Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte Sanctuary is home to a large number of animal species, Chamikara said. “There are 147 indigenous and migratory bird species in this wetland. There are also 18 species of indigenous fish in the canals in the wetlands.

“There are also eight amphibian species besides 67 butterfly species in this sanctuary. Among the butterflies are Tailed Jay, Crimson Rose, Lime Butterfly, Blue Mormon, Lemon Emigrant, Common Jezebel, and Plain Tiger.”

Chamikara said the area was declared a sanctuary on 09 January 1985 by gazette no 331/8. It encompasses 1,110 acres. Anyone who harms the integrity of the wetlands can be produced before a Magistrate as per the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance.

“The Magistrate can fine anyone found guilty, send the perpetrator to prison, or both. The Department of Wildlife Conservation has the power to take action against those who violate the provisions of the Ordinance. Therefore, the Department is responsible for putting an end to illegal actions inside the sanctuary,” Chamikara said, adding that Sri Lanka had been a party to the Ramsar Convention since 1987.

Sri Lanka has 198,172 hectares of wetlands under the Convention.

“In 2018, Colombo was declared the first capital to be accredited as an International Wetland City by Ramsar. However, it is estimated that in the last few decades 40% of the wetlands in Colombo have been lost. The World Bank says each year Colombo loses 1.2% of its wetlands, and if it were to lose all its wetlands, the city would be flooded annually costing as much as 1% of its GDP in flood damage. Despite all this we continue to destroy our wetlands,” Chamikara said.

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