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green swamp scenery
Monaragala, Sri Lanka

Crime and Environmental Destruction Around Sri Lanka’s Kumbukkan Oya

As the main natural resource of Sri Lanka, water has contributed immensely to the development of the country. 

For instance, the country’s significant agricultural economy is large part a result of various irrigation systems. 

Sri Lanka is a country of about 103 major rivers. Of these, about 20 are year-round tributaries, and the rest are seasonal tributaries. The size of the rivers varies according to the area and varies from about 10 sq. km to 10000 sq. km. geographically; the land area of rivers is about 9% of the total land area of Sri Lanka. 

Similarly, waterfalls are one of the most important components of the country’s water resources. In addition to these, a large numbers of springs are found all over the island. 

It is estimated that there are 1544 such springs in Nuwara Eliya district, 204 springs in Kandy district, 319 springs in Kurunegala district, 210 springs in Monaragala district and 288 springs in Matale district. 

Thus far, 3540 springs have been identified throughout the island . Apart from these, underground limestone rocks in the arid areas of Sri Lanka also play an important role in Sri Lanka's water resources. These groundwater areas play a major role in supplying water for drinking and agricultural purposes. 

Kumbukkan Oya is one of the most important water sources in Sri Lanka. It originates in the Lunugala area in the Central Highlands and is the main source of water in the Monaragala district. It is the 12th longest river in Sri Lanka and the 18th largest river in terms of flow. Its catchment area receives an average of 2115 million cubic meters of rainfall per year. It is estimated that about 12% of this water reaches the ocean. The river has a catchment area of 1218 sq. km and is the 14th largest catchment area in Sri Lanka. 

close up riverbed with large tree roots
The most important ‘Kumbukan Oya’ is ravaged by destructive human activities such as illegal gem mining, and sand mining. About 6000 farming families including Kumbukkan, Puttala, Maduruketiya, Parawila and Okkampitiya directly benefit from this river. The river also forms the basis of their main source of livelihood, agriculture / Credit: Lanka Leader.

In general, the Monaragala district is home to low-income communities.  

There has been an increase in the number of people involved in illegal gem mining in the areas around Kumbukkan Oya. While this is a grave environmental issue, the plight of the people involved in this life-threatening illegal activity is also precarious. 

hole in the dirt
One of the locals, 'Kandasamy', says that residents were initially engaged in gem mining on a small scale in their border river areas / Credit: Lanka Leader.

According to Kandasamy, the excavation of gemstones used to take place illegally, but not on a large scale, and the environmental impact was negligible. 

In recent times, it has evolved into a business venture. Today, the land adjoining the river is being bought at great cost by the rich in surrounding areas. Kandasamy says traders who recognize the poverty of the people in the area are taking advantage of it. 

Monaragala district has a naturally dry climate. The drinking water problem here has existed for a long time. It is the opinion of the locals that some selfish people who do not realize the need to conserve water here have embarked on mining activities that threaten the natural resource. 

Mohan, a resident of the area, said that in Monaragala, the river  is connected closely to local communities’ way of life. “So, we have to protect it. Today, illegal gem mining is taking place in various parts of the river,” he said, adding that this is happening today with some locals and people hired under contract. 

"Kumbukkan Oya water used to be suitable for drinking but today it has turned into river mud due to illegal activities such as sand and gem mining. In this context, biodiversity is greatly affected by such illegal activities. It is observed in many parts of Kumbukkan Oya today. Although this is a crime, many locals are involved, and no one informs the security forces. So, this illegal activity is taking place widely," he added. 

It is known that traders outside Monaragala outsource this illegal work to local people. Residents say that a permanent solution to the problem has not yet been found, despite occasional police harassment. And the fact that human lives have been taken away by such illegal activities is evidence of the danger.  

Thus, the river has become dangerous. Individuals involved in gem mining are making barriers across the river. 

Mining activities have led to massive excavation pit in the area. As a result, when they aren’t closed properly, people and livestock who live near the river are at risk.   

In January 2022, a cow that went to the river to drink water fell into a pit and died. People who come to the river for bathing are also greatly affected by the river’s dangerous state. The natural beauty of the river has been damaged. 

Mohan, a resident of the area, said he was concerned that various environmental issues such as soil erosion and massive tree felling were emerging along the river.

When contacted, Dammika Lakshman, the chief coordinator of the Monaragala Social Security Center, a civil society organization explained:  

"Monaragala is a district with an agro-based socio-economic background. Most of the people here are middle- and low-income earners. So, they use the natural resources here to make a living. Kumbukkan Oya, located in the district, is an important source of livelihood for them," he said. 

But today, the river is subject to severe environmental problems due to illegal gem mining and sand mining. 

According to Dammika, there is strong political patronage behind this illegal gem mining. These illegal activities are taking place on a massive scale today, he pointed out. 

portrait of man in pink shirt
Dammika said that politicians in local councils and other positions are involved in illegal gem mining / Lanka Leader.

“Behind this are politicians in local councils and other positions. Although in the early days the local people were involved in gem mining illegally on a small scale, it did not become an environmental problem," said Dammika.

"Today, it is being carried out on a massive scale by the locals with the help of politicians. The big bosses who come here from areas including Colombo and Ratnapura are buying up lands owned by the people and engaging in these illegal activities,” he said. 

These people have sold their own land and today they are hired to do gem mining for a daily wage, he said. 

"Through our organization, we have on several occasions taken counter-measures against this illegal gem mining. We mobilized the public and staged demonstrations, but it did not fully benefit us. Religious leaders in our area, as well as civil society and the media, have strongly opposed this illegal activity. One of our regional journalists who were involved in the illegal gem mining was attacked. This shows the strength of the gangs that carry out such illegal activities. They often wield political power. We mobilized the farmers and fought against this. We also clarified which people and government departments are responsible for this. People today are clear, but the government has not taken appropriate action. They do not implement the relevant norms properly. Together, we can prevent these illegal activities. Appropriate standards for gemstone excavation should be duly followed. The damage to the environment is an injustice to the future, for which the National Gem and Jewellery Authority, the Divisional Secretariat, the Department of Forest Conservation, the public and civil society should work together to develop a mechanism against this illegal activity," he said. 

The income from legal gem mining should be available to the people of this area. Civil activist Dammika is of the opinion that the region’s people and environment cannot be sacrificed to traders from outside. 

man in chair wearing a beige shirt
Mr. Jothikumar, Chairman of the Monaragala District Interfaith Committee / Credit: Lanka Leader. 

"I am from the Kumbukkan area in Monaragala. Kumbukkan is our native land. Monaragala is a district with a traditional agricultural background. Kumbukkan Oya is the main source of livelihood for the people here,” Jothikumar says. 

Today, Kumbukkan Oya has become a high-crime area. He too adds that the main reason for this is illegal gem mining, as well as illegal sand mining in riverine areas. 

In the beautiful Kumbukkan Oya and the Puttalam area,there are more than 5000 farming families. But today, illegal gemstone mining has caused environmental impacts such as environmental pollution, erosion, and massive tree felling 

The water management project started by D.S. Senanayake in Okkampitiya area is no longer properly managed. Today, Kumbukkan Oya is the main source of drinking water in Buttala, Okkampitiya, Attaramandiya, Malikawila and Kalavillarugama. 

Today, riverine areas are experiencing severe environmental pollution due to projects centered on Kumbukkan Oya and illegal gem mining.

"It seems that the government departments that have to pay attention to this issue are not paying enough attention to these illegal activities. Thus, we mobilized the public and waged struggles to educate them. Due to this, we were able to block the operations of the chemical power plant that was to be set up here,” he said. 

Although protests by civil organizations have temporarily prevented illegal activities, they have not been able to ban them completely. 

Jothikumar agreed that gem stones are an important mineral in Sri Lanka. “We can use gems as the national resource of the country when they are properly regulated and handled," he said. 

Although licenses are issued by the National Gem and Jewellery Authority, licenses are not used properly. If the permit is also issued, Jothikumar says there is no need to expose individuals who are taking part in these illegal activities.  

"If the government departments do not handle this properly, there will be a shortage of drinking water in Monaragala district within a short period of time. Biodiversity also disappears when this beautiful environment is affected,” he said.  

His interfaith organization will continue to work to amplify the message that “man cannot live without destroying nature.” 

blue road sign
The National Gem & Jewellery Authority / Credit: Lanka Leader.

"We are in a tough position regarding illegal gem mining. And the occasional encirclement with our Authority regarding the resulting environmental impacts and destructive activities. Let's do it but some of the public is working to help with this," said Chambika Ginigama, Assistant Director, Monaragala District of the National Gem and  Jewellery Authority.  

Ginigama said that it cannot be controlled completely without the cooperation of the people of the area. 

Four thousand permits are issued annually by the National Gem and Jewelry Authority for gem mining. Out of which only about 500 licenses are issued by the Monaragala office. 

“We receive complaints that many people are involved in gem mining activities in violation of the standards we provide. Locals are also illegally engaged in excavations in the vicinity of Kumbukkan Oya,” he said, acknowledging that this has become a major environmental issue today. 

"We are working with the Special Task Force and the police to prevent this. Illegal excavations often take place at night, so we can't control this with the limited staff we have. Similarly, we are implementing the 'Surakima Ganga' program in collaboration with the Divisional Secretariat, the Department of Forest Management and the Department of Irrigation. Through that project we also plan to manage such illegal gem mining and sand mining," he noted, adding that he hoped such illegal activities will be prevented in the future. 

He added that they plan to educate the public about the environmental impact of this and to issue a greater number of legal permits to operate in accordance with the law. 

What can we do to protect our environment? 

It has become clear that government departments do not have sufficient legal strength to prevent such illegal gem mining. 

Those who are arrested for such crimes are ordinary people, while those with the political background and money to carry out these excavations through them are not punished. Only those who work for daily wages are arrested. 

This reporter has observed that those apprehended can be released without going to court by pleading guilty and paying one-third of the fine imposed at the time of their arrest, and then getting back into the same business. 

It is through such activities that Kumbukkan Oya is losing its charm.

Landslides now occur along the banks and massive ditches are dug into the river. The river, which used to be a clean stream, is now pale yellow and large trees are being cut down. The gangs involved in the work of destroying this environment must be brought to justice. 

This report was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published byLanka Leader on 2 February, 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Landslides now occur along the banks and massive ditches are dug into the river. The river, which used to be a clean stream, is now pale yellow and large trees are being cut down / Credit: Lanka Leader.