Sallitivu: Environmental crisis looms amid bureaucratic blunders
Although the land is a limited resource, Sri Lanka abounds with scenic territories rich in biodiversity. Sallitivu Island on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast in Batticaloa is one such place. The island is 2.7kms in length and 155m in width, but its ecological value and rich biodiversity are more valuable than this small strip of land.
Generally, when assessing the environmental sensitivity of an area, the biological value of its plant community is taken into consideration. According to a recent report (2015) issued by the Department of Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management, Sallitivu is home to about 50 endemic plant species. Among the Sallitivu plant community, one species is facing extinction from Sri Lanka, four species are facing extinction, and four species are considered to be at risk of extinction. In addition, a dense mangrove cover surrounds the island and its coastal vegetation has intensified its ecological importance.
However, due to what environmentalists call an “illegal” project, the island’s fauna and flora are on the brink of destruction.
The problem and conflicting answers
The Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) has said the authorities have completed the first phase of the ‘illegal’ project initiated in March 2017 as a tourism promotion venture. It includes a resort under the theme of “Leisure and Pleasure Pristine Eco Culture”.
Conflicting statements made by state officials regarding the project have prompted environmental activists to raise questions about the legitimacy of the project.
The EFL quoted a senior officer of the Department of Coastal Conservation and Coastal Resource Management, as saying that the department had not approved the project.
However, the then Batticaloa District Secretary has stated that the first phase of the project was completed only after approval was obtained in 2016. When asked to produce written evidence, she presented documents, according to which the Ministry of Tourism Development had approved the project. They also contained names of implementing agencies and details of the revised budget.
These documents indicate that the project is going ahead without approval from the very agency responsible for Sri Lanka’s coast conservation — Department of Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management. But the issue also raises questions about the Tourism Development Ministry’s authority to provide written permission for projects on coastal land which carry immense environmental value.
Neglecting the law
Sections 14(1) and 14(2) of the Coastal Conservation and Coastal Resource Management Act No. 57 of 1981 underline the legal requirement to obtain written approval from the Department of Coastal Resource Management for any construction in a coastal area of general environmental importance. Obtaining legal permission from the department is vital to properly identify and prevent potential threats from artificial constructions to the biodiversity of an ecologically sensitive area.
It appears this project, which has severely affected Sallitivu’s biodiversity, has overstepped the law.
Some additional issues
According to the Eppawala case judgment which interprets Sri Lanka’s environmental law in a situational way, environmental resources are a public trust and must be protected not only for the benefit of one generation but also for several generations to come. Given the ecological value and biodiversity of Sallitivu, it is, no doubt, a public trust that should be preserved for generations to come.
To preserve such public trusts, environmental feasibility studies and situational analyses should be carried out before starting construction projects in high-environmental sensitivity areas. Even though the then-district secretary was able to produce documents of approval, she did not produce an Environmental Impact Assessment Report or an Initial Environmental Examination report. This, along with the absence of official permission from the Coast Conservation Department, gives rise to questions about whether a proper feasibility study or environmental assessment has been conducted and about the project’s legality.
The project should have been properly monitored to minimise the potential damage to the environment. This is the way forward in achieving sustainable development goals. However, the waste management mechanism implemented alongside the project is also proof that the project was not prepared in keeping with the principles of sustainable development goals.
That the project has not received the Central Environment Authority approval makes any assessment of the damage caused to Sallitivu difficult. Faults in the garbage disposal and sewerage system, and the project’s failure to conform to the standards of the Central Environmental Authority are major areas of concern. Some environmental organisations question how the project went ahead against such an illegal backdrop.
Challenging the questionable action of the District Secretary, the EFL filed a Public Interest Litigation (CAW 143/2018) in the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal issued an interim order temporarily suspending project activities in Sallitivu until August 06. Such legal action should be commended, for they seek to minimise further damage to the biodiversity of Sallitivu due to official blunders.
We should not oppose development projects if they conform to the country’s environmental laws. But no development project can be carried out without causing environmental harm even in a minor way. However, the balance between environmental concerns aimed at minimising the damage to the environment and economic benefits from projects is often ignored or even upended due to the disregard for standard legal and established procedures. If projects such as Sallitivu are implemented in accordance with the established procedure, they would certainly bring positive results. Hence, that should be our focus.