From Royal Treasure to Garbage Dump: Tragedy of Muthurajawela
By Ranmini Gunasekara
It was a dry Wednesday with very little to catch in the lagoon's murky, polluted waters. As Kumara moored his rundown fishing boat amidst the mangroves, the unmistakable smell of smoke stung his nostrils. He was unconcerned, as this was the norm - fires were lit and doused regularly as more and more garbage kept being dumped there.
However, reaching his house, he was surprised to find it enveloped in smoke, with his invalid wife coughing outside. Acting fast, he lifted his wife and carried her through the garbage-paved path to the main road for fresh air, before heading back towards the conflagration to save his boat.
Kumara's shack stands on the edge of the Muthurajawela wetland, in an area formerly known as the Pilapitiya paddy field, which was recently engulfed in flames due to a supposed 'bushfire'. The smoke from this fire eventually led to the Katunayake Expressway being shut down and the military deployed to douse it.
Located in the Southern region of the Negombo Lagoon, Muthurajawela - which translates to 'Swamp of Royal Treasure' - is Sri Lanka's largest saline coastal peat bog.
The marsh, along with the Negombo Lagoon, form an integrated coastal wetland ecosystem, which harbours over 194 species of flora and over 178 species of vertebrate fauna.
However, Muthurajawela's biodiversity is steadily declining, since parts of the marsh are used as garbage dumps by surrounding municipalities and Urban Councils.
Speaking with Ceylon Today, Environmental Activist and Wildlife Photographer, Thushara Palliyaguruge said that he first came to know of the garbage dumps through residents of Ambalammulla.
"The residents alerted me of this as soon as the fire broke out. Garbage is being dumped into the catchment area of Muthurajawela, and it will affect the flora and fauna, as well as people whose livelihoods depend on the lagoon," he said.
In 1996, the northern section of the marsh, which covers an area of 1,777 hectares, was declared a sanctuary under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance. The land is also recognised as one of Sri Lanka's 12 priority wetlands. However, despite this status, the wetland is provided very little protection in reality.
The Pilapitiya paddy field, now known as the Ambalammulla garbage dump, is located within the Muthurajawela wetland ecosystem, and has been used as a dumping site for solid waste by the Katunayake-Seeduwa Urban Council for over 20 years.
Palliyaguruge claims that the fire that took place on 19 February was not the first of its kind in the wetland.
"It was only last month that the country woke up to this tragedy due to the shutdown of the Katunayaka Expressway because of the smoke coming from Muthurajawela; but the Urban Council has been doing this for many years. As photographers, we have even captured pictures of this with our drones, so, they can't lie."
He also claimed that the Katunayake-Seeduwa Urban Council regularly burns the garbage here to flatten the site and make room for further dumping.
"They set fire to the garbage and crush the remaining ashes to the ground, so, they can dump more garbage on top. Otherwise, the dump would look like a mountain. To make maximum use of this already devastated sanctuary, they set fire to it regularly. They dig into the dump, put everything in and set fire to it.
"What's worse is that now they are making their road towards the catchment area of the lagoon.
I have evidence that even toxic e-waste and clinical waste is dumped into this area. On 19 February, they did the same, but things didn't go according to plan.
They set fire to the dump, but the winds were blowing towards the lagoon area, and then the dump, along with parts of the wetland, went up in flames."
He further claimed the Government has not conducted investigation or assessment of the damage done to the ecosystem. "There were even some Government officers there when I visited on the day I was alerted of the fire, but they did nothing. No damage assessment; nothing."
Palliyaguruge further alleged that a well-known businessman in Sri Lanka was also using the Ambalammulla dump for waste disposal.
"We suspect that all 256 containers of foreign garbage imported to this country have also been dumped here. The person involved is an inhuman businessman that dreams of becoming a billionaire through unethical means.
"After the fire happened, I staged a protest at the dump site on 1 March. Several Media institutions came to cover it, but not one of them broadcast it. This is thanks to the advertising power that this businessman has - not one of our television channels want to say anything against him."
On 29 February, a day before the protest, a lawsuit was also filed against Palliyaguruge. He explained, "I don't know who filed it, and on what grounds. But even when I went to the Police station in Ambalammulla three times to get permission to use a megaphone, just to use to control the crowd, they refused to listen to me. Some were even terrified of losing their jobs.
"When the lawsuit was filed a day before the protest, I understood that these people were conspiring against me, and if even one thing were to go amiss at the protest, I would be held liable. So, I changed my plans and made the protest into a smaller gathering."
One of Palliyaguruge's main demands for Muthurajawela is that it be gazetted as a strict nature reserve.
"We demand that the whole of Muthurajawela wetland be gazetted as a strict nature reserve. So many people's lives depend on it. I would also like to remind our politicians and so-called leaders that when they promote Sri Lanka to all these foreign countries, the first glimpse that a tourist gets of Sri Lanka from the window of a plane about to land is this garbage dump. This is a shame upon our nation."
Threat to humans, animals alike...
Meanwhile, speaking with Ceylon Today, Nedagamuwe Mahanama Thera, of the Weththewe Nandaramaya Temple, said that the Ambellanmulla garbage dump poses a threat to humans and animals alike.
"The Muthurajawela wetland is not a small area. It spans a vast expanse of land, and from early days, it has boasted of so many endemic species and wildlife. It is also a vital component of many people's livelihoods.
It is a place where a lot of people cultivated paddy in the past. During the time of the British, it was known as a royal treasure, but these days, because of the Ambalammulla garbage dump, the wetland has been damaged. On one side, the flora and fauna of the area are severely affected.
Although I don't have an exact measurement, we suspect that about 20 acres of mangroves have now been destroyed because of this dump."
He further added that during the rainy season, the surrounding areas are also affected by swarms of flies and the pungent smell of the dumping ground. Some inhabitants also faced problems with drinking water.
Kumara first came to live in the Pilapitiya paddy field more than four decades ago. In his lifetime as a fisherman, he has witnessed the wetland devolve from a beautiful sanctuary into a garbage dump.
"When we first came here, this area was covered in water and this land was very beautiful, but the people who wanted to settle here wanted to reclaim the land to build houses. Since no one had the money to do this quickly, the villagers asked the Katunayake-Seeduwa Urban Council to reclaim this land through a landfill.
"The idea was to put down a layer of garbage and then flatten it with soil on top. I didn't like this idea, so, I disagreed with it, and stood up against the Urban Council on my own, but no one listened to me. I knew that the Urban Council was only looking for a place to dump their garbage, and they have now been piling it up over here for 20 years."
Kumara added that most of the inhabitants that initially settled in the Pilapitiya paddy field left because of the stench and flies. Now Kumara and his family are the only inhabitants living on the edge of the former paddy field, the place now known as the Ambalammulla garbage dump.
"Before, we used to sneak out in the night to watch the crocodiles. Now, you can only watch dogs and crows pick apart the garbage."
Meanwhile, when Ceylon Today spoke with Katunayake-Seeduwa Municipal Council Chairman, Sarath Peiris, he denied these allegations and asserted that the Ambalammulla garbage dump was not in the vicinity of Muthurajawela.
"I would like to be clear that we are dumping on an area called the Pilapitiya paddy field, which has nothing to do with Muthurajawela. Anyone can check Google maps and see that the Muthurajawela sanctuary is located elsewhere. If someone can prove that Pilapitiya paddy field is a part of Muthurajawela, I will resign from my post."
Whether or not the Urban Council is right to operate under this assumption, one thing is for certain: the fallout of the fires and pollution will continue to disregard boundaries - whether set by Google Maps or the Government - until something is done to save the 'Swamp of Royal Treasure'.
Pix by Dumindu Wanigasekara