Unnoticed and Untracked

By Sayuni Masakorala | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 24 2020
Echo Unnoticed  and Untracked

By Sayuni Masakorala

Lucrative ornamental and aquatic plant trade may earn the big bucks but is profit orientation more integral than the ecosystem components which sustain life, is a question that needs no pondering over. However the answer to this question may seem otherwise looking at the lapses in the execution of policies by stakeholders in tracking down potential aquatic and ornamental invasives which could pose a threat to our ecology. 

Despite the fact that Invasive Alien Species ( IAS) issues are accepted as concerns to be dealt with urgently, sectoral policies and the central regulatory framework for minimising the risks posed by invasive species still remain uncoordinated, which acts as a visible setback in the execution of domestic laws.

Lucrative trade of  invasives; ‘looks can be deceiving’

Though much attention is given to perceivable issues of large scale, issues associated with IAS are often given a blind eye associating such issues with less prominence. However, the gravity of invasive species is that they are naturally apt in adapting to any environment condition which eases the introduction to native biodiversity, making it quite a challenging issue as it could lead to native ‘ecological armageddon’.

 IAS can be introduced to the environment naturally or most commonly due to human activities. The most mainstream trend patterns direct us to the ‘lucrative trade of ornamental and aquatic plants’ promulgating the spread of potential invasives.

The trade of ornamental and rare aquatic plant species has become a mainstream commercial venture today. Various eye catching aquatic plants and rare ornamental plants receive much demand in the import/export trade market. What lies covered under this facade is largely an unregulated business sphere which is often not pleasant; 

as traders who are driven by commercial avarice are often seen turning to illegal methods in obtaining such species, with no awareness of the threat that these plants can pose if escaped into native environments. Despite trade of aquatic plants being prohibited and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red listed species being illegal, smuggling still continues unbeknownst to Government watchdogs, which is a serious concern.

The multi-stakeholder approach

IAS issues need to be dealt with a sense of urgency. However the regulatory framework for minimising the risks posed by IAS in Sri Lanka still remains underdeveloped and not well coordinated. In the Sri Lankan context, we are still able to observe the rapid spread of ornamental and aquatic invasive plants such as ‘Water Hyacinth and ‘Salvinia’ at an increasing rate. Realising the need for a multi-stakeholder driven process for effective management of such invasives through an early detection and rapid response system based on restoration, the ‘National Policy on Invasive Alien Species’ was adopted in 2016. 

To find out whether the national policy and the laws implemented have been effective over the past few years especially with regards to the increasing trend of importation of ornamental and aquatic plants, we spoke to Director, Biodiversity Secretariat, Ministry of Environment, R.H.M.P Abeykoon. He said, “Under the National Policy on Invasives we consider ‘all’ potential invasives which could have the possibility of adopting the ‘invasive’ status in the future. Thus, the policy does not scrutinise specific plant groups alone, such as ornamental aquatic plants, as it caters to all plant groups. However, considering the growth in such industries, there needs to be more attention paid with regards to ornamental invasives.

“The national policy centralises all relevant stakeholders and we spearhead ‘IAS Cell Units’ comprising specialist representatives dealing with invasive species’ issues. A permit is required to import any new plant species for commercial or scientific purposes. Further headed by the ministry, relevant stakeholders are required to abide by ‘Risk Assessment Protocols’ which comprise ‘Pre-Entry Risk Assessments’ and ‘Post-Entry Risk Assessments’.

 Pre-entry risk assessments are conducted for newly imported plant species based on research findings. Post- entry risk assessments on the other hand are conducted to identify invasives which have already inhabited the native environment. Factors such as population density, distribution and socio- economic impact on the surrounding environment are considered in evaluating their level of invasiveness.”

When inquired about the post-risk assessments with regards to common aquatic and ornamental invasives such as Water Hyacinth (Japan Jabara) and Prosopis Juliflora (Kalapu Andara) he stated that the Irrigation Department alongside the Mahaweli  Development Project engages in restorative efforts at coastal rehabilitation and that they plan on conducting post-risk assessments once every five years considering the knowledge and techniques that need to be updated on new invasive species.

Effectiveness of  sectoral policies 

Speaking with us Director, Seed Certification and Plant Protection Centre, Dr. Dayani Perera, spoke on the role of the Agriculture Department on curbing this newly emerging threat. “Before the importation of plants, planting materials or plant products, it is necessary to obtain a plant importation permit from the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS) of the Department of Agriculture. 

According to Gazette Notification No. 165/2 dated 02 November 1981, made under the Plant Protection Act, importation of any aquatic plant is prohibited. However, small quantities of aquatic plants can be imported into Sri Lanka only for scientific purpose under a plant importation permit issued by the Director General of Agriculture as per the regulation 14 of the above Gazette Notification.

“Since the importation of any aquatic plant to Sri Lanka is illegal pre-risk assessments were not carried out.  However we do conduct pre-risk assessments for any new species of ornamental plants or any live plants and plant products imported at the NPQS at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) upon Custom Declaration.”

When inquired about the invasives readily available in the market as ornamental plants, she stated that under their legal provisions they curtail and control the spread of invasives and that illegal trade of such plant species is beyond their control.

Expounding on the role of Sri Lanka Customs, Deputy Superintendent of Customs, Social Protection Division said, “Though there are no specific provisions under the ‘Customs Ordinance’ with regards to ornamental plants, provisions of the Customs Ordinance is applicable at the point of Customs where any new plant species imported to the country is required to go through quarantine approval by the NPQS Unit at BIA. In addition plants listed under the ‘Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance’ (FFPO) and some ornamental plants listed under the ‘Plant Protection Act’ are prohibited to be traded. 

Thus coordinated ‘pre-entry risk assessments’ are conducted by the Customs alongside the Agriculture Department and the Wildlife Department. Any illegal smuggling activities of aquatic plants or any ornamental plants mentioned under relevant provisions is prohibited under Customs Law.”

Expounding on the efficiency of policy implementations in curbing continuous illegal smuggling activities, Senior Environmentalist, Attorney- at-Law Jagath Gunawardana said, “As per the national policy of Invasive Alien Species, pre-entry risk assessments should be conducted in accordance with the legal provisions of stakeholders concerned. 

However, since the importation of aquatic plants is prohibited by a regulation made under the ‘Plant Protection Act’, there cannot be any risk assessments as it could legitimise an illegal action. Therefore there is no question of aquatic plants being subjected to pre-risk assessments. However, the significant problem lies in relation to the law in curbing illegal smuggling of such prohibited aquatic plants and restricted ornamental plants. 

Thus it is a concern as to why the Agriculture Department has not taken apparent action against these illegal actions and as to why the Customs face loopholes in detecting most of the illegal smuggling activities at the Customs entry point. Countless such illegally imported species have escaped from cultivation and have become potential invasives in wetlands all over the country. 

We are hitherto troubled with already existing aquatic invasives and we do not want to add more to the list of problematic plant species. The answer is simple, that is to implement the law as it is. Our question is that, why is the law being grossly violated and why has it not drawn any criticism from any relevant parties? Furthermore why have relevant stakeholders not taken effective measures in rectifying the continuous violations of law?”

Incidents of illegal aquatic plants  smuggling

We were able to get information with regards to a few incidents of smuggling of aquatic and ornamental plants which were seized by the Customs. According to the Sri Lanka Customs one of the recent smuggling activities indicates the smuggling of nine pots of aquatic plants in 2017 which is illegal under the ‘Plant Protection Act’. The pots were concealed in passenger baggage and contained a series of ornamental aquatic plant species such as Pogostemon helferi, Rotala Bonsai, Staurogyene repens and Golden Nam.

The second incident was detected in 2016 where the Customs was able to find the contraband at Colombo Parcel Post. According to records an individual residing in Anuradhapura town area had ordered a shipment from Singapore through EMS which was subsequently detected by Customs. 

Though relevant sectoral policies are in place there exist many loopholes in the execution of these laws. Most of the illegal smuggling activities of such potential invasives go undetected. This is visible in the status quo as most of such plants can be found readily available to the general public in areas like Diyatha Uyana.  

Ornamental and aquatic plant trade is a newly emerging threat which needs immediate attention whilst the central framework should be more coordinated for rapid responses in detecting banned aquatic plants and in conducting pre-risk assessments and post-risk assessments for restricted ornamental plants in minimising threat levels. Further continuous violations of law needs to be addressed moving forward in strengthening the effectiveness of these policies.

By Sayuni Masakorala | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 24 2020

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