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Cardinal joins battle to save Sri Lanka's diverse wetlands

Development projects aided by corrupt officials threaten Muthurajawela marshland despite its protected status

Cardinal joins battle to save Sri Lanka's diverse wetlands

The Muthurajawela wetlands are home to 102 species of birds. (Photo: Facebook)

Environmentalist Nuwan Saparamadhu has been advocating protection of the Muthurajawela wetlands, an area of natural beauty that supports Sri Lanka's fishing industry.

Activists and villagers are trying to protect the wetlands from a multi-use development project planned in the area.

Saparamadhu said the fishing industry is the main source of livelihood for people in the area and the two main canals along Muthurajawela are an integral part of that natural beauty.

According to a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Muthurajawela is home to 209 species of animals along with 194 species of trees, 40 species of fish, 31 species of reptiles, 102 species of birds and 48 species of butterflies. It has 18 out of 22 mangrove species.

The wetlands and Negombo lagoons are also important in treating the mangrove community, which is a unique creation of the lagoon. It was declared a sanctuary in recognition of its immense biodiversity in 1996. The wetlands are home to 194 species of flora belonging to 66 genera and 209 distinct species of fauna.

It was also named one of the 41 internationally important wetlands in Sri Lanka by the Asian Wetland Inventory in 1989.

Saparamadhu said the area is a breeding ground for fish and prawns and a source of vegetables, fruits, herbs, mangroves, fresh water, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds, butterflies and timber. It also contributes to natural flood control.

Environmental degradation recently began at Muthurajawela, which is vital to the environment. Signboards indicating sanctuaries in the area have been removed and replaced with boards claiming private ownership of the land.

Residents of surrounding villages staged a protest in Ja-ela town on Jan. 14 against the clearing and filling of 700 acres of the wetlands to construct a golf course and several buildings.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said the clearance work means the people of Gampaha district would have to face many problems including the threat of floods.

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"There are several churches in this area and it also endangers the lives of our people living there. The country belongs to the people and not the rulers, corporations or foreign entities," he said.

Cardinal Ranjith, who is the archbishop of Colombo, said that according to gazette 947/13 published on Oct. 30, 1996, the wetlands have been identified as a sanctuary.

"It is a question of who handed over this protected area of about 800 acres to a private company. We request the government immediately suspend the development project to be implemented in the Muthurajawela wetlands system," the prelate said at a special press conference on Jan. 7.

"Corrupt officials cannot be allowed to sell the country's resources in this way. I urge the relevant authorities, government officials and the political leadership to take immediate action to stop this environmental destruction." 

Priests, nuns and laymen rallied to protect the Muthurajawela sanctuary in 2017. They organized two protest campaigns against dumping garbage in the area.

Ven. Pahiyangala Anandasagara Thera, leader of the environmentalist group Surakimu Sri Lanka, said people should be vigilant about the devastation that could be caused by the development project.

The chief Buddhist monk said that in addition to destructive development projects, several illegal activities are taking place in the area, including illegal farms, illegal settlements and illicit liquor smuggling.

Sajeewa Chamikara, an environmentalist from the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform, said the wetlands support natural flood control as a buffer zone and are important for a highly diverse ecosystem.

"The marshland was listed as one of the 41 most important wetlands in the country and was recognized as one of the top 12 wetland systems in Sri Lanka," said Chamikara.

"The landfill will affect the survival of Negombo lagoon, including the breeding grounds."

Hemantha Vithanage, executive director of the Center for Environmental Justice, said it is a problem that even the institutions responsible for protecting such a valuable resource are following a silent policy.

"Even the Supreme Court had filed cases to protect Muthurajawela and even though it had given orders to protect these lands, it is surprising that such fraud still takes place," said Vithanage.

"Although many environmental problems have arisen in the area, it is unfortunate that the Wildlife Authority has not been able to protect it." 

Saparamadhu said the government had promised to protect the environment when it came to power, but what has happened now is that politicians and their friends have been allowed to benefit their businesses and the government remains silent about it.

"Several private sector companies receive state patronage to clear and fill the highly sensitive environmental zone," said Saparamadhu.

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