Deadlock over rock
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.

Dedigamuwa, 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.

The 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.

"More 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.

The 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.

The 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.

After 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 stopped.

But 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.

Recently 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.

The 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.

Many 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.

As 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 Authority officials.

Mr. 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.

Asked 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."

As authorities debate about who is responsible for stopping this destruction, the Dedigamuwa hill is being broken rock by rock.

It’s 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.

He 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.

With 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.

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