In Pannala, People Bear Witness to Environmental Disaster in Sri Lanka

Group of people stand in a crowd
Mojo News
Sri Lanka
In Pannala, People Bear Witness to Environmental Disaster in Sri Lanka

Protecting the environment is not an optional responsibility. Environmental health directly affects the survival of human beings. These days, sand, clay and gravel are being smuggled to many areas in the Kurunegala District in northwestern Sri Lanka. The most affected areas are Ma-Oya and Thambakanda where villagers emphasize that politicians and government officials in the area are responsible for the devastation. 

Thambakanda is named for the time when copper was produced in this area during the reign of the king. In the days of the king, local communities believe the mining was carried out in a way that did not harm the environment as more thought was given to the future. 

Map of Kurunegala District, Sri Lanka
Map of Thambakanda, in the northwestern Province, Sri Lanka. / Credit: Mojo News. 

"Today, most of the area is inhabited by farmers, but a small group of people in this area, with the knowledge of the rulers of the country and with their patronage, cut down the mountains and destroy the catchment areas and wreak havoc. The rulers should be responsible for this. We ask the rulers to come to this village and do us justice," said the Chief Incumbent of the Himbudawa Gangarama Temple, Ven. Karadagolla Somaratana Thero. Currently,great environmental destruction is currently taking place in several villages belonging to the Pannala Police Division. Ven. Somaratana Thero pointed out that sand, clay, and gravel excavations are being carried out at more than 50 places in the village of Thambakanda, at present. 

Group of people stand in a crowd
A group of local farmers gather around in Thambakanda. / Credit: Mojo News. 

Copper Mountain  

"Thambakanda" is a beautiful village in the Pannala Police Division in the Kurunegala District of the North Western Province of Sri Lanka. The river flows through the middle of the Ma-Oya village and provides water to the village. The three villages of Thambakanda, Sandalankawa, and Hendiyagala are located in the vicinity of the "Thambakanda" mountain range and more than five thousand families live here.  

Farming is the main livelihood of the people here. Apart from paddy, coconut, betel, pineapple, banana, pepper, and rubber are also cultivated here. Local communities have also been engaged in the pottery industry since ancient times. 

The pottery industry, which was once a handicraft industry, has undergone a gradual transformation and is now becoming a large-scale operation using large machinery.  As a result, the majority of small-scale artisans in the area are losing their shelter and livelihood. Local religious leaders, as well as residents, say local politicians and government officials are responsible for all these damages. 

Rape and police 

“There are no rulers in our province or in our country who can listen to these things. The racket in this area is being carried out by a local politician and a provincial politician of the present government who is part of the Pradeshiya Sabha – the local legislative body. This politician has deployed the police in the area to crack down on the villagers who oppose these activities. There is a gentleman named Suresh in the village. He gathered and organized villagers against these activities. Do you know what the politician did? He falsely accused Suresh of raping a woman, " said Ven. Karadagolla Somaratana Thero. 

He added: "I do not intend to mention  the names of the perpetrators of the environmental pollution as I do not speak to them." 

Man stands facing the camera
Suresh Tharanga / Credit: Mojo News. 

Violations of the law 

The effort taken by Suresh Tharanga — the Secretary of the Thambakanda Janasarana Development Society — to stop this environmental destruction should be recognized.   

If it were not for the police and government agencies in the area, many believe this destruction could have been stopped.  “There is no drinking water for the people in the area. It has been a month since the floods; because of this, we have no way to cultivate. Who will give us water to drink and cultivate?" asked Tharanga. 

It is not clear if there is a politician or a government official in Pannala who can answer the question asked by Suresh Tharanga. 

Priyangika Sajivani came to this village ten years ago. When she came to this village there was no shortage of water for the people here, but the water shortage started to worsen about three years ago. 

“My husband has been growing betel for about 20 years. When I came to this village, this village did not have such a water problem. Now we have to pay for water and cultivate it. The problem we have is the lack of a good government official. Or a politician.. The "Thambakanda" mountain that once shone in our village is now being mined on four sides. The cutting has begun. Now it [the mountain is] about 20% reduced. The rest will be cut in a month or two. If there is anyone in power, this destruction must be stopped." 

In addition to cutting down the Thambakanda, digging sand from the Ma-Oya and cutting into the banks of the Ma-Oya River to obtain clay soil is another destructive activity that is rampant.  

As a result, in some places, the Ma-Oya has widened by three or four hundred feet. In addition, a number of new reservoirs have been created along the Ma-Oya and remain as large pits. They have been named King's Day tanks.  

Some of them have been named Johnny fit, in Nishantha fit, and Bennett fit. Communities continue to raise the alarm that government lands are being destroyed by government-affiliated politicians and their supporters. 

River bank of the Ma-Oya River
The banks of the Ma-Oya River. / Credit: Mojo News. 

Pannala Divisional Secretary Samantha W. Bandara strongly condemns these actions.   

"I have nothing to do. I have not recommended any of those licenses. I made it clear that the people were against it. It is a great environmental disaster. This has been going on for years. And this is destruction done to Ma-Oya. There are large reservoirs on both sides. I told the Pannala police. Police say the smugglers fled when they got there. Then I got there in my car. At that time, 14 backhoes were wreaking havoc on the environment. As soon as he saw me, a backhole went in front of my car. But I was able to hand over these machines to the police. I stopped the gravel pit where the license was issued and started an investigation against me. I suggested handmade clay for the brick business in the area. Three such licenses have been issued. They happen properly. But the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau says it is not possible to provide such machinery. I have sent a number of letters against it. But provided by the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau Licenses have terms. Then there is no regulation. 

Working for a bribe 

The Pannala Divisional Secretary as well as the public have made several serious allegations against the Pannala Police and the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau. When asked, the Pannala Police Officer-in-Charge denied all these allegations.  

Chairman of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, Anura Walpola, also commented that he was not in a position to stop the sand smuggling. 

"If there are irregularities in the places where we have issued licenses, I can stop them and from time to time I can do one or two raids," he said.  

But, he pointed out, there is no staff for the Bureau to continue raids. “I must also say that there was no way to inform me when the licenses were issued. Now all I have to say is that I need to be informed. I have had something to say since then. Our company has been issuing licenses at random for the past few years. That curse is what we have to pay for. The other thing I say is that there is no proper mechanism to handle public officials,” added, before noting that it is necessary to find out who is involved in sand smuggling in the region. 

Northwest Voice 

Wayamba Handa, an environmental organization, calls for an end to environmental destruction in the northwestern Province. The Wayamba Handa Environmental Organization has taken the initiative to stop illegal construction and has also taken steps to stop sand, clay, and gravel smuggling in the Pannala area, including from the Anavilundawa Ramsar wetland and Deduru Oya river. 

Ajith Gihan, a media spokesperson, at the organization, points out that the issuance of mining permits without proper investigation has helped facilitate this environmental destruction. 

“In Pannala in Sri Lanka, the main reason for this [widespread] environmental devastation is the deforestation in this area. As a result, several new reservoirs have been created in the area. Due to this situation, a great deal of environmental destruction has taken place in this area. Look for records anywhere in Sri Lanka. Take gravel, clay, sand, soil in one place. This situation has worsened over the years. Due to this, the farmers are the most helpless. They have no water to cultivate. A month after the floods, the village's water sources dried up. Now, who will answer that?" 

Dirt track road with a digger in the backgound
The Banks of the Ma-Oya River widened by clay mining. / Credit: Mojo News. 

People's power 

The kings who ruled Sri Lanka ensured the country would be self-sufficient in rice and betel. But today, many citizens believe the politicians who rule the country, as well as government officials, have completely destroyed the environment, and the country's agriculture, and there has been a situation of emerging food shortages. 

In the face of all this devastation, officials are pointing fingers at politicians and politicians are pointing fingers at officials. But, both sides still have the chance to fulfill their responsibilities. The people of Pannala say they are ready to take on the responsibility of controlling and protecting their area themselves, a people's force being formed against injustice. 

This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Tamil by Mojo News on 15 February 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: A group of local farmers gather around in Thambakanda. / Credit: Mojo News. 

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