Centre for Environmental Justice
Political Pressure to degazette Wedithalathive Nature reserve has now come to the peak under the new political regime. This attempt was began in 2017 in order to cultivate exotic prawn species “Litopeneus Vanname”, however, a report prepared by the Department of Wildlife Conservation showed that degazetting will have detrimental results to the habitat. Yet, the NARA, NAQDA and the BOI are putting continuous pressure on the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife and the Department of Wildlife Conservation to go through a parliamentary process to degazette the same.
What is Wedithalathive Nature Reserve?
The Wedithalative Nature Reserve is situated in the North Western coast, adjoins the Vankalai Sanctuary in Mannar District. This Reserve enriches with a vibrant ecosystem consisting mangroves, sea grass beds, tidal or mud flats, salt marshes, and the coral reef which support habitat to hundreds of animal species as well as the plants. According to some research adjoining Mannar Bay is repository of over 3600 species and it provides 30percent of the fish catch in Sri Lanka. Moreover Wedithalathive Nature Reserve lies within the only Dugong habitat in Sri Lanka. Especially this ecosystem provides the livelihoods of fishermen in the area and it is a hub for blue swimmer crab which creates foreign exchange into the country as a sought – after sea food. In 2014, an Integrated Strategic Environment Assessment was prepared for the Northern Province and one of the major recommendations of this report was declaring Wedithalathive as a Nature Reserve. This action was taken under Section 2 (1) of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance No. 22 of 2009 by the Gazette Extraordinary No. 1956/13 dated 1st of March 2016.
The intention of the NAQDA, The project
After declaring Wedithalathive Nature Reserve, in 2017 the National Aquaculture Development Authority (NAQDA) requested the Government to de – gazetted the Nature Reserve for the purpose of carry out an aquaculture project in this particular area. As it is mentioned, NAQDA’s project was mainly focusing on the inflow of foreign currency to the Economy of Sri Lanka. Under this aforesaid project it has been proposed to grow fish and shellfish including exotic prawn species which originates from the Eastern Pacific Ocean.
Despite economic benefits from the aquaculture sector, it could result in many detrimental environmental consequences. Most importantly due to de – gazettement of Wedithalathive Nature Reserve and converting to prawn farms as the first lines of defense against coastal area it would be lost mangroves and destroy the ecological value of the area too.
Prawn culture already destroyed over 3000 Ha mangrove forest in the Puttlam lagoon system. Thousands of fishermen lost the fish catch and the livelihood due to the dumping of tea seed cake and other chemical to the lagoon system. Today Puttalam lagoon system is almost a dead system. It won’t be different for the Wedithalathive nature reserve. As a result of fish being contained in limited spaces at high densities their waste which contains dissolved nutrients such as nitrogen may cause hazardous conditions in the surrounding area. Consequently it could be depleted the water of oxygen and create ‘dead zones’ near the aquaculture sites. Moreover the spread of various epidemics is almost instant due to the high population of fish kept within the limited spaces.
It will kill the nutrient cycle to the Corals and Sea grass beds and ultimately will lose the last habitat of the Dugons and rest of the endangered ocean species.
Legal controversy over the Wedithalathive Nature Reserve
Wedithalathive Nature Reserve has been declared under the section 22 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) on March 2016. Under Section 2(4) of the FFPO, it has been stated that the relevant minister can alter the boundaries of declared area following a parliament approval. Also the discretion of the minister in relation to this matter has been limited by Section 2 (5) of the FFPO and it says “in the case of any change of boundaries or disestablishment of a National Reserve, a study shall be conducted and such study shall include an investigation of the ecological consequences of the proposed change”. In 2017 the cabinet decision was taken to de – gazetting the Wedithalathive as a protected area. Accordingly, the Cabinet ordered the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) to carry out the investigation and a full environmental Impact Assessment. NARA has approved only 1000 hectares out of the requested 1500 hectares as the remaining 500 hectares is highly sensitive. Also the report highlighted that the permanent damages to the significant biodiversity of Wedithalathivu is possible if the project if the protected status is removed. The report further highlighted that if the reserve de – gazetted it could be lost the significant of the biodiversity of Wedithalathivu forever. Moreover the NARA report emphasized that ‘further studies are needed’. The report produce by the NARA recommend further studies in order to fully identify the significance of this habitat and under such circumstances it is too early to take decisions especially such as de – gazetting the area.
Despite the national laws Sri Lanka also bound to number of international conventions in relation to protection of mangroves. In 2018, Sri Lanka adopted the Common Wealth Blue Charter where it pledged to champion the collaboration on mangrove restoration. Along with Indonesia, Sri Lanka submitted a resolution to the United Nations environmental Assembly in order to calling global community to take actions on the global health of mangroves in 2019. As a result of following international guidelines, Sri Lankan government took recent step to form National Policy on conserve and sustainably utilize mangrove ecosystems in Sri Lanka in January 2020. However the Wedithalativu area also yields considerable area of mangroves alone its coastal line and the proposed project could jeopardize above plan of Sri Lanka to conserve its mangrove ecosystem. Therefore decision to de – gazette the area violates number of legal national and international rules and we request to follow the proper procedure abide with the existing laws.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reported the Dugongs as vulnerable on global scale. Years ago Dugongs were common in the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar off the north and north-western coast of Sri Lanka. Till the mid – 20th there was a high demand for the Dugong flesh. As a result of over demand of Dugong flesh, the population of Dugongs was rapidly declined. However in 1970, the Sri Lankan government brought a legislative protection for the Dugongs as a solution for the drastic decline in Dugongs. Accordingly under Section 30 of the FFPO, it is illegal to kill, harm or sell a Dugong or any part of a Dugong anywhere in Sri Lanka’. The Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Act No. 02 of 1996 also provides provisions to protect the marine mammals including Dugongs and turtles in Sri Lankan water. It can be mentioned number of International Conventions which Sri Lanka signatory to conserve the Dugongs. In 1990 Sri Lanka became a party to the Convention on Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) and under this convention parties were directed to protect the species such as Dugongs via the agreement called Memoranda of Understanding (MoU). In 1979 Sri Lanka ratified CITES the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and this is also one of the significant international conventions on protecting endangered species like Dugongs. Moreover Protection of Dugongs is covered under the Convention on Biological Diversity which is adopted by Sri Lanka in 1994. The Department of wild life Conservation is the National focal point of implementing the rules of aforesaid international conventions. Unfortunately Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Department has missed the protection of Dugongs because it failed to take necessary steps to avert the decision of degazettment of Wedithalative Nature Reserve which lies habitat of the Dugongs.
It can be clearly seen that under Sri Lankan legal framework we have enough laws to raise our voice against the decision of de – gazetting the Wedithalative Nature Reserve. Of course, Wedithalative is a shelter for numerous numbers of Fauna and flora species as well as endangered animal species including Dugongs. If it is allowed to the decision of de – gazetting the Nature Reserve, it would pave the path to violate number of National and International laws in relation to it. So the relevant Government Authorities has to take back the step of the decision of gazetting the Wedithalative Nature Reserve.(END)