Natural treasures left free for plunder
By Ranmini Gunasekara
The phrase 'Mother Nature is taking a break' is now common on social media, during the coronavirus lockdown. These words stem from the fact that we now enjoy far better air quality because of the lack of vehicles in our otherwise smog-filled cities. Most non-essential services and companies have also been forced to suspend operations, resulting in almost no chemical effluence released into our waterways.
While on the surface, nature might seem to be suffering less, recent reports of poaching and violence against rangers in National Parks show that illegal activities are ever more rampant in sensitive ecosystems.
Speaking with Ceylon Today, Environmental Activist and Convener of the Rainforest Protectors, Jayantha Wijesinghe said that with authorities scrambling to deal with the COVID-19 threat, illegal gem miners are capitalising on the chance to plunder the environment.
"Because of the COVID-19 situation, illegal gem mining has now increased because authorities are preoccupied with this new threat. Not only the Police, but also the Department of Forest Conservation and the Department of Wildlife Conservation face more limitations because of the Police curfew.
Although gem mining can be done legally, it is illegal mining that happens more frequently. People tend to mine in rivers, streams, catchments, and on sensitive and protected areas, where mining permits are not issued."
He added that it was also difficult to monitor how many locations are being illegally mined, as most of these activities occur in the heart of protected areas, in the dead of night.
"You can't count the number of illegal mining locations; this is one of the biggest issues we currently face. For each site we've found, there are ten more illegal mining locations we are yet to uncover; if there are 20 illegal gem mines we know about, that means there are at least 200 mines operating. Almost all the rivers in Ratnapura have at least a few points where illegal gem mining is happening, especially in the night, and sometimes even during the day."
Wijesinghe also highlighted that there were many illegal gem mining sites inside Sinharaja Rainforest as well.
"Inside Sinharaja, there are various mining locations including Pannila, Manikkawatte, Handapana Ella, Suriyakanda, Deniyaya, and these areas continue to be mined even amidst curfew. Then you have places like Dumbara Kiriella, Nivithiugala and Hapugoda in Kalawana as well."
However, Wijesinghe claimed that when he contacted the Sabaragamuwa Deputy Inspector General (DIG), the officer had not shown much interest in taking action against these illegal activities. He alleged that this was because politicians from the Ratnapura electoral seat were backing these gem miners.
"In the case of Nivithigala, the illegal gem mining issue was so massive that we had to reveal it to the media; thereafter, the Special Task Force went after and arrested some people. Now I've heard that the rivers in Nivithigala are also being mined again, but the Officer-in-Charge (OIC) at the Police station of that area did nothing, even when the Gramasevaka had notified him.
"Apparently they have been told by certain higher-ups not to catch illegal gem miners. Afterwards, I contacted the senior DIG of the Sabaragamuwa Province, who was similarly uninterested in apprehending these people. I finally called the office of the Inspector General of Police and reported this.
They told me that the DIG of Sabaragamuwa had other matters to attend to, like supervising the Police Curfew. I told them that this was part of his duties, as these people were violating curfew to conduct illegal mining activities, but he was still unsupportive," he complained.
However, Wijesinghe added that through the coordinated efforts of activists and villagers, two groups of illegal gem miners have currently been arrested.
"The Ratnapura District has pretty much been vandalised by illegal gem mining. We recently managed to get two parties arrested through our intervention. One group was in Rakwana and the other in Kalawana. But that was only two; there was another group in the Suriyakanda area, of which we couldn't manage to get anyone arrested, because the OIC in Kolonna is apparently connected to these illegal gem miners. We also know of at least five big groups inside Sinharaja Rainforest continuing to mine for gems illegally."
He further said that unlike before, villagers have trouble alerting authorities of the exact locations where illegal mining is being carried out. "The problem is that we don't have a means to access the place. Though some of the villagers say they have some idea where these activities are occurring, they also need to go and check the area for the exact locations to be sure - which they cannot do under the current situation."
Meanwhile, when Ceylon Today contacted the DIG of the Sabaragamuwa Province, L.S. Pathinayake, he added that apprehending illegal gem miners was not the need of the hour, and that the Police had far more pressing matters at hand with the COVID-19 situation. When queried as to whether or not these illegal gem miners are in violation of Police curfew, he reasoned that police curfew is imposed in the area between night and early morning, and claimed that gem mining happens during the day. He further denied any political influence.
He said, "We have far bigger priorities at the moment, and halting illegal gem mining is not our job. We also haven't received any orders from politicians; the Police do not take orders from anyone."