By Rathindra Kuruwita
A private steel and cement manufacturer was planning to dig 256 acres from the Pettigala mountain, part of the Galbokkayaya mountain range, to extract the calcite, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) said. Calcite is used as a building material. , abrasive, agricultural soil treatment, construction aggregate, pigment, pharmaceutical and other applications.
“The company, with the help of some senior government officials, is trying to intimidate people and violate environmental laws to gain control and dig up the environmentally sensitive area. Recently, the Divisional Secretary of Embilipitiya called a meeting between representatives of the company and the Department of Forest Conservation. He did this to persuade the Department of Forest Conservation to hand over the land to the company,” Chamikara said.
The civil society activist said Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration removed “other state forest land” from the jurisdiction of the Department of Forest Conservation through Circulars 01/2020 and 02/2021 . The administration of these lands is now the responsibility of the divisional secretaries.
“In 2001, these forest lands were taken away from the divisional secretaries because they authorized projects that were destroying the environment. Deforestation increased after these forests were placed under divisional secretaries. Land has been donated to private companies that violate all environmental laws. In some parts of the country, an increase in the intensity of human-elephant conflict is the result,” he said.
Previously, the same company received a permit to mine calcite from a 10-acre piece of land in Ilukpelessa Forest Reserve under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, Chamikara said.
“Although the Department of Forest Conservation did not authorize any excavation, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) granted the company a license (EL/419) to dig at Pettigala Mountain. been issued in contravention of the Forest Conservation Ordinance The GSMB cannot issue permits to excavate land controlled by the Department of Forest Conservation The GSMB was established by the Mines and Minerals Act (No. 33 of 1992) and two of the functions of the Bureau are to assess the commercial viability of the extraction, processing and export of such minerals; and to regulate the exploration and extraction of minerals and the processing, trading and exporting such minerals, through the issuance of licenses Section 28 (01) of the Act states: “No person shall explore, extract, transport, process, trade or export minerals except under authority or otherwise than in accordance with t to a license issued in that name under the provisions of this Act and the regulations made thereunder.
“The GSMB was created to ensure that the country’s minerals are used systematically and sustainably. If this company wants calcite, the GSMB could have found suitable land. Instead, the GSMB supports the destruction of a sensitive forest area,” he said.
Chamikara said most cement manufacturers use sedimentary limestone stones to make cement. However, this company wanted to extract calcite, a metamorphic rock.
“The GSMB should have asked the company why they didn’t use sedimentary limestone like the others. The company should have been asked to establish its factory in a place where there is easy access to the minerals it needs to produce cement. However, they established the factory in Hambantota, and I guess they didn’t do a feasibility study beforehand. They only look for raw materials after establishing the factory in Hambantota, probably for political reasons,” Chamikara said.
Chamikara said that under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, company officials used their political connections to harass villagers who opposed attempts to take over forest land. Police arrested several youths in nearby villages based on complaints filed by company representatives.
“Not only the police and the GSMB, senior officers from the Territory Commissioner General’s Department also supported the company. A senior officer wrote to the Department of Forest Conservation and asked them to hand over the land to the company for the excavation of the minerals,” he said.
Chamikara said senior officers from several government agencies intervened on the company’s behalf due to political and monetary influences.
“Attempts to seize the land for the excavation have not ceased. The fact that senior state officials are willing to violate environmental laws shows that there is no rule of law in the country. Officers from CID and the Ministry of the Attorney General must intervene and thwart these attempts,” he said.
The Galbokkayaya mountain range is linked to the Sankapala mountain range and a number of tributaries of the Walawe river i.e. Meegaha Ara, Karandi Ara and Karameti Ara start here. Karandi Ara powers the Puhulyaya, Panahanduwa, and Emitillanketiya tanks.
“These reservoirs provide water for 250 acres of rice fields. Galbokkayaya Dola, which starts here, powers a drinking water project that provides water to 2,000 families in the area. Another drinking water project, namely the Ulpatha – Thiththawelpatha project provides water to 1500 families. There are 72 species of birds and 53 species of butterflies in the mountain range. By digging here, the company is endangering a sensitive ecosystem as well as the source of water for thousands of people,” Chamikara said. Lanwa Sanstha Cement Chairman Nandana Lokuwithana was not immediately available for comment.