In the 1980’s, the Department of Railways sold a considerable amount of railway rolling stock to a Pakistani scrap dealer. They were cut up using local labour and exported. At that time, I tried to save some of the brass nameplates as mementos of an era that I realized would soon be lost. Unfortunately I was refused this opportunity.
The Sunday Times this week carried a story about the illegal salvage of shipwrecks in our territorial waters to be sold as scrap metal. Bearing in mind that these ships form part of our underwater heritage as an island nation that has been the centre of a major trade route for centuries, this is sad news.
The availability of these ships in our waters projects the importance of the island in the international shipping route between the Mediterranean sea and the China sea and early Roman, Arab and Chinese writings wax eloquent of the role played by this little island in world affairs.
Our waters hold many such treasures and can be used to trace our history. These very wrecks make Sri Lanka one of the preferred wreck diving sites in the world and in the long term if well managed could become an asset to the Sri Lankan tourist industry.
Shipwrecks provide ideal habitat for fish while providing an ideal surface on which the coral can grow.
If left minimally disturbed, they become beautiful coral beds teeming with a variety of marine life.
Removal of these ships spells the demise of these populations. While such actions might bring great profit to a few shortsighted individuals, they deny the nation their right to an underwater archaeological heritage and long term gain through the generation of foreign exchange.
The recent establishment of the coastguard fleet which should be under the jurisdiction of the Navy as in most countries worldwide and not under a private organization is a valuable step towards the protection of this island’s maritime riches.
They will have the capability and mostly the authority to protect the wrecks from illegal exploitation.
In all seriousness, it is time Sri Lanka moved away from short term projects that benefit a few, to visionary long term projects for the benefit of the larger population. We have the choice.
Ashley de Vos,