Eyes closed, mouths shut, standing idly by
Sri Lankan wildlife authorities unaware of what is going on in their own backyard
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
The Wetahirakanda Nature Reserve (Tier IV) is a highly protected area and a designated wild elephant corridor connecting the Udawalawe National Park to the Lunugamvehera National Park, and through it runs the A2 Highway, that is the Colombo-Galle-Hambantota-Wellawaya Road.
Climate Action Now Sri Lanka (CAN Sri Lanka), a volunteer-driven local initiative, recently shared that they had discovered a large number of H&M labels buried in this protected area amongst other waste in a garbage cluster.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, CAN Sri Lanka stated: “A few months ago, we heard from one of the team members about a section of the Wetahirakanda Nature Reserve (Tier IV), which serves a secondary dual purpose as a wild elephant corridor, being highly polluted due to the trash that’s being dumped there. We organised a group of volunteers to go there on 3 October and managed to clean up most of the waste and sent the recyclable waste for recycling.” They added: “During the clean-up, we came across a bunch of H&M labels in a specific location that was around 50 metres inside from the Colombo-Galle-Hambantota-Wellawaya Road.”
They shared that as they were collecting them, their volunteers realised there were a lot more buried in the ground, and they managed to collect thousands of H&M labels, all of which had been discarded along with the other non-recyclable waste they found during the clean-up.
Considering the brand name attached to the discarded labels, we reached out to the clothing retail company H&M, and H&M Group Communications Press Officer Laura Engels stated: “We take this extremely seriously and we are currently investigating how this could have happened and will make sure that the necessary steps are being taken.”
The Wetahirakanda Nature Reserve (Tier IV) is protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance as per the Extraordinary Gazette No. 1239/28 (dated 7 June 2002). Therefore, it is under the governance of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). However, when we reached out to the authorities, the information regarding the incident had not yet reached them.
DWC Publicity Officer Hasini Sarachchandra said: “The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance has declared the area of state land described as Wetahirakanda to be a national reserve for the purposes of the Ordinance and is therefore accorded the same protection, and so these areas are protected, and discarding garbage in these lands is illegal.
“However, we have not yet heard about this particular incident but we will take measures to look into the matter as it is serious.
“The area has experienced issues in the past; back when the Mattala (Rajapaksa International) Airport was being built and then the Southern Highway, it did face many issues, and so we will take measures to look into the matter.”
We also reached out to the office of the Southern Wildlife Region which overlooks the protected areas in the South. Speaking to DWC Southern Wildlife Region Assistant Director Channa Suraweera, under whose purview the Wetahirakanda Nature Reserve (Tier IV) falls, he shared that he too was unaware of this particular incident and that once they receive the geotag of the location they will investigate further.
We asked Suraweera about the nature of the protection afforded to these areas, and how they execute the protection that is given to them via the Ordinance; he shared that essentially, the way they go about it is by setting up demarcations and signposts in order to make the public aware that they are in fact protected areas. “We have DWC boundary poles and signboards put up. We do not have patrol officers and such who are deployed; however, there are certain stations sanctioned across these protected areas, starting at the best stations at the primary level and then range offices which have rangers who are given the task of monitoring these areas.”
He said that the primary protection of course comes from the fact that they are gazetted and the assumption is that the citizens of the country are aware of the Gazette. However, practically, this is not the case and so they put up signposts to help keep people in line.
While the authorities were forthcoming with the information they shared, it was rather disappointing to learn that while even someone with just a passing interest in the environment has heard of this issue of the garbage cluster, none of the relevant authorities appeared to be aware of what is going on in their own backyard.
Soon becoming a trend
Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Executive Director Hemantha Withanage addressed this matter of the relevant authorities either lacking interest, resources, or the knowhow to follow through and enforce the law.
Withanage commented on this particular incident where the garbage cluster was discovered, sharing that it is often a middleman who is carrying out these activities, not the waste company itself. He said: “There was an incident that happened during the height of the pandemic where toxic plastic containers in four lorry loads were being burnt in Kataragama, and those involved were apprehended by the Police.
“There was another incident with regards to liquid waste where five bowsers of waste were dumped in Modara and the court has since intervened in these activities,” he said.
He shared that this dumping of waste in protected areas is soon becoming a trend due to the highway waste manufacturers taking their waste to be dumped in the South. All the designated dumps are now full, including the dumps in Muthurajawela, which also originally started with compostable waste.
He pointed out that there is a serious lack of awareness and knowledge amongst the local authorities in charge of protecting these lands, stating that every industry must be required to apply for an environment protection license which covers the element of waste management. Officers at the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) are unaware of the critical questions they must ask when they issue these licenses, especially how these industries plan to discard their waste.
“People are saying that you can tell the CEA anything and they will believe it, which to an extent is true as they are simply unaware,” said Withanage. He further explained that there is no knowledge on sanitary landfills of liquid and solid waste, and at this point the acquiring of this license which is there to protect our ecosystem has become just a routine matter.
A good example should be set
Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform Environment and Legal Officer and Environmental Conservation Trust Director Sajeewa Chamikara also shared his thoughts, stating that often it is in the hands of the authorities to set a good example, and they simply have not done so.
Chamikara said that this particular area in question is highly protected and its protection falls under the DWC, and he stated that he can say with certainty that this is a result of the bad example set by local authorities.
He said there are 58 garbage dumps used by these local authorities which are totally illegal and are situated in areas protected by the Forest Department and under the Ordinance, and the reason they continue to operate is because the CEA has repeatedly failed to take effective and necessary action. “Now people think that they can get away with it, because everyone is just doing it with no consequences,” he said.
As a result, Chamikara shared that due to these areas being sensitive plots of land, these foreign pollutants not only fuel the human-elephant conflict (HEC) as a result of the constant encroachment of these lands and disturbance to elephants’ corridors; they also really affect the biodiversity of these protected areas.