By Ishani Ranasinghe
Why would the villagers living on serene Dedigamuwa hill go on a
hunger strike? A sudden boom that shatters the peace and tranquillity
of the area answers the question as villagers shake their heads
in defeat. Rocks strewn around give indications of the activity
on the hill - quarrying.
about 14 miles from Colombo on the Low Level Road through Kaduwela
or the High Level Road through Homagama, is now the site of a tug-o-war
between villagers who are attempting to retain this rich biodiversity
area intact and a businessman armed with a permit to carry out quarrying.
140-metre hill with around four acres at the peak is believed to
have rare fauna and flora similar to those found in Sinharaja. Like
the neighbouring villages of Nawagamuwa and Koratota, Dedigamuwa
consists of the tallest hills of the Colombo district. The panoramic
view from atop the hills covers green paddy fields and streams,
besides the far away World Trade Centre and other tall buildings
which shape Colombo's skyline.
than 100 medicinal plants were found here," says villager Nandasiri
Bamunuarachchi, adding that a few years ago the people behind the
quarrying burned a vast section of the area. He is referring to
the businessman's 37-acre area where quarrying is underway.
dynamiting of rock is also affecting the environment. The soil that
is being washed down from the hills is filling up Hettige Oya causing
the stream to dry up. "Soil has also filled up the once flourishing
paddy fields and made some of them barren," said Kumara Dharmasiri,
Convenor of the Organisation for the Protection of Nature and the
Environment of Kaduwela.
problems began way back in 1993 when this businessman, whom villagers
claim had political influence, launched large-scale quarrying operations
in spite of a ban by the Central Environmental Authority, says another
villager Jayantha Galagedera. He claims that huge boulders blasted
from the Dedigamuwa rock are transported in trucks though no permission
has been granted by the authorities to do so.
agitation by the villagers in March 2000, the area was declared
a conservation site under the Urban Development Authority Act, consequent
to which the businessman's permit was cancelled and the quarrying
reprieve was short-lived. Three months later, on June 6, 2000, the
Government revoked the order through the Gazette Extraordinary No
1187/11 and the businessman was issued a permit to resume quarrying.
The saving grace for the villagers had been that this time he was
only issued a B permit as opposed to an A permit. An A permit allows
the use of heavy vehicles and equipment while under a B, the use
of heavy vehicles is restricted.
the businessman's permit was cancelled when he used heavy vehicles
and equipment. "He once again got a B permit after an appeal,"
said Kumara Dharmasiri who alleges that the businessman continues
to violate the rules.
villagers, under the guidance of the Organisation for the Protection
of Nature and the Environment of Kaduwela, launched the hunger strike
not only because the dynamiting of rock is causing damage to environment
but also because it poses an imminent danger of landslide. The walls
of their humble homes have cracked and they fear for their lives.
villagers say their protests have resulted in money being offered
to keep them quiet. "Some of us were offered Rs. 100,000 to
leave the area," said an angry villager.
their appeals fell on deaf ears, the villagers turned their 11-day
hunger strike into a fast unto death, demanding that the destruction
of the historic Dedigamuwa hill be halted immediately. They have
now called off their death fast as discussions are on between Urban
Development Minister Dinesh Gunawardene and Central Environmental
Gunawardene told The Sunday Times that research by the University
of Moratuwa showed that Dedigamuwa hill was rich in bio-diversity.
"This is more of an environmental matter," he said assuring
that necessary action would be taken to conserve the area.
how quarrying continues if this is a high bio-diversity area, the
Minister said: "We do not issue or cancel permits. We can only
act on the powers that are within our limits."
authorities debate about who is responsible for stopping this destruction,
the Dedigamuwa hill is being broken rock by rock.
all politics, says businessman
"We have obtained permits from the Central Environmental Authority
and the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau," said the businessman
who is at the centre of the controversy, while denying claims by
villagers that he has no permission to quarry Dedigamuwa hill.
also dismisses allegations that the environment is being harmed,
claiming that he was issued the permit after a six-month research
by the authorities. "If there was a risk why would the authorities
give us the permit?" he asked.
more than 10,000 people working on the three hills of Dedigamuwa,
Nawagamuwa and Koratota, the businessman said his quarry provided
jobs to about 1,000 villagers."The group which is against this
is small and I believe this is all a political thing," he said.