controversy pits rights lobby vs PERC
By Dinushika Dissanayake
The Eppawala phosphate deposit has been the subject
of much controversy regarding its development and exploitation rights
since its discovery in 1971 by the Geological Surveys and Mines
attempt in 1998 to grant excavation rights to a foreign company
was aborted due to massive public protests, which culminated in
a Supreme Court ruling that the proposed project would be in contravention
of the fundamental rights of the people.
the Public Enterprise Reform Commission (PERC) issued a public advertisement
calling for expressions of interest from investors to develop the
Eppawala phosphate mine.
move has once again triggered a debate and last week the Citizens
Trust, a group promoting civil rights, with the participation of
both emminent lawyers and scientists held a discussion on the implications
of a fresh attempt to develop the site.
thrust of the discussion was the responsible development of the
deposit. The stance taken by the Citizens Trust is that the site
should be developed involving the ideas of the scientific community
so that the government will be able to look at not only the traditional
methods of mining but also other methods which are more environmentally
friendly. The Trust was also concerned that mining rights should
be granted only to a company with a clean eco-friendly track record.
issue of great concern was that the mine should not be used for
export purposes since the phosphate deposits in the world are fast
depleting. According to the National Science Foundation report made
in 1998, the deposit found in Sri Lanka could be expected to last
for 200 years if it is used to meet national needs only.
the U.S. Geological Survey based in Denver, Colorado has issued
a warning that the known phosphate reserves in the world are expected
to be fully depleted in 50 years and the remainder of the reserve
base is expected to be depleted within the next 100 years.
has been found that the 10 main phosphate-producing countries and
their reserve bases possess about 90 percent of the world's phosphate
reserves. "Based on current extraction rates and economic conditions
in the 1990s, more than half these countries will have exceeded
the life of their reserves in less than 20 years," said Professor
H. Sriyananda, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Open University,
at the phosphate seminar quoting a Food and Agriculture Organization
PERC advertisement has called for investors to develop the deposit
"for domestic and export markets, conforming to applicable
laws". The implication of whether the development of the site
for both the export and national market would result in a dramatic
depletion of the deposit was also a topic of discussion at the meeting.
was further discussed that the mining of the phosphate deposit on
a large scale would result in many hazards to the environment. Situated
240 kilometres from Colombo and 130 kilometres from Trincomalee,
Eppawala falls within the district of Anuradhapura, renowned for
its ancient water reserves and cultural landmarks.
National Science Foundation in its report to court in 1998 had suggested
that it should be mandatory that the track record of any company
that is given mining rights in Sri Lanka should be carefully scrutinised.
proposed (1997) mining agreement was to form a joint venture, simply
called "the company," of which U.S. based IMC-Agrico was
to control 65 percent, and the Japan-based Tomen Corporation, 25
percent. IMC-Agrico is a U.S based firm whose phosphate mines in
Florida and associated processing facilities in Louisiana have been
the focus of severe criticism by environmentalists.
Sriyananda emphasised the example of Nauru, an island which was
rich with phosphate deposits at one time but which is now comparable
to a waste land, with vegetation only to be found in the coastal
regions. "The Naurians were once the second richest people
in the world," said Prof. Sriyananda, "but they were recently
declared bankrupt because of the excessive 'strip' mining of phosphate".
was further discussed that as a result of the excessive mining on
that island various health problems such as diabetes and cholesterol
were linked with the stripping of all vegetation from the island
for mining purposes. The scientists agreed that this may well be
the fate of Sri Lanka if the mining is not undertaken in a responsible
buffer zone which surrounds the Eppawala phosphate deposit is 675
square kilometres of land surrounding the 56 square kilometres of
the deposit. The Kala wewa - Jaya ganga eco-system runs within the
buffer zone, close to the deposit itself. Further, numerous tanks
and ancient water reserves are situated within this area, causing
serious concerns as to whether they will be polluted by mining activity
within the area.
a letter by the Pugwash scientists, which was quoted by D. L. O.
Mendis, a civil engineer, the mining activity at Eppawala is described
as involving "… the imminent destruction of an ancient
soil and water conservation ecosystem in the pursuit of short-term
financial benefit, desired by the state." Further, the damage
that can occur to the relics of Sri Lanka's ancient civilization,
which lie close to the phosphate deposit was also extensively discussed
at the meeting.
lies close to the Eppawala deposit site and Professor Sriyananda
said that an appeal had been made by Pugwash to UNESCO to add the
ancient Kalawewa-Jayaganga eco-system to its list of protected sites.
Prof. Sriyananda also discussed the population shift, which may
occur due to extensive mining and the social implications, which
a more legal note the conditions which must be met in granting excavations
rights to a private company were extensively discussed by the lawyers
Court decision in 2000 held that an initial attempt to form a joint
venture with Freeport McMoran (which later was merged to IMC Agrico)
and a Japanese company to mine the site was in contravention of
the fundamental rights of the citizens of Sri Lanka.
held that if the deposit is to be exploited, a comprehensive exploration
and study of the deposit including its location, quantity and quality
of appetite should be made by the Geological Mines Bureau in collaboration
with the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka and the National
Science Foundation (NSF). It was also made mandatory that the results
of such exploration should be published.
Court held that any project promoter must obtain the approval of
the Central Environmental Authority according to law, including
compatibility with decisions of the superior courts of record of
Gunesekera, an eminent fundamental rights lawyer, explained that
the judgement was a landmark decision in that the Supreme Court
interpreted that not even policy decisions of the government can
infringe on the people's rights. "Even if it is a policy decision
it must be a reasonable and fair policy decision," he said.
Gunawardane, another environmental lawyer, said that the selling
of the Eppawala phosphate deposit would be ultra vires the decision
of the Supreme Court and may even amount to contempt of court if
the stipulated conditions are not carried out.
discussion also included the profit factor that the government would
look at if the excavation rights were handed over to a public- private
partnership. According to the 1997 agreement, which was aborted
due to the Supreme Court ruling, the Sri Lankan government (GOSL)
was to have received just 10 percent of the total value of the raw
phosphate. Those present at the discussion last week agreed that
this would be a minute share of the profits, which the private company
would be able to make from the deposit.
Sriyananda quoted Philip W. Anderson, Nobel laureate physicist at
Princeton and one of the leading theorists on superconductivity
as saying that Anderson considers Eppawala as one of the most scientifically
important and unreported stories in the world.
of the profit margin granted to the GOSL under the proposed consortium
of 1997 Anderson had said that it compensated the locals on a "…typical
Third World scale with a minute fraction of the profits - profits
which hardly exist if one were to count the true cost of the project."
final topic under discussion was the production of phosphate for
domestic use. Currently Lanka Phosphate Ltd, a public company holds
the excavation rights of the Eppawala phosphate mine.
Chairman Dr. Chandana Udawatte told The Sunday Times FT that the
company currently has exploration rights in 1700 hectares of land.
Since the mining is on a very small scale, they do not consider
a buffer zone.
Lanka Phosphate Limited (LPL) produces 45,000 tonnes of Eppawala
Rock Phosphate (ERP) and High Grade Eppawala Rock Phosphate (HERP).
Professor Sriyananda said that the low solubility of these products
makes it necessary for the government to import a large amount of
the more soluble Triple Super Phosphate (TSP), Imported Rock Phosphate
(IRP) and Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP) at a huge cost.
phosphate such as TSP is used for the cultivation of paddy and vegetables
while ERP and HERP are used for tea, rubber, and coconut. The NSF
in its report in 1998 has recommended that Single Super Phosphate
(SSP) and Partially Acidulated Phosphate Rock (PAPR) should be produced
in Sri Lanka to replace the more expensive TSP, which is currently
being imported at a large cost to the government.
PERC website estimated that LPL produces 40 percent of the total
requirement in the country. Fertilizer for paddy, which amounts
to 50 percent of the requirement is not fulfilled by LPL because
it doesn't produce the more soluble forms of phosphate. It was agreed
at the discussion that the mining of the deposit to meet domestic
needs was both cost effective and desirable.
scientists discussed the various methods by which the low soluble
phosphate could be converted to a higher solubility. The direct
application of phosphate to crops is a method which is currently
being used by residents around Eppawala. This is done by mixing
phosphate with peat or straw and then applying it directly to the
is another method by which the raw phosphate is converted into the
more soluble forms such as Single Super Phosphate. Retired engineer
D.L.O. Mendis said that Sri Lanka should look at the option of using
sulphuric acid to dissolve the raw phosphate as is done by Chinese
seems to be a serious lack of awareness on the part of the administration
of the scientific options available which will be environmental
friendly," he said.
PERC website refers to the use of sulphuric acid to dissolve phosphate
but also notes that it would not be cost effective to import it.
Mendis said that a sulphuric acid plant existed in Sri Lanka 15
years ago and that possibility of producing it locally should be
looked at rather than importing. He said that this option would
be far more cost effective than other methods used to convert phosphate
into a more soluble form.
also said that if the sulfuric acid could be made available to the
farmers, they could manufacture their own soluble phosphate to be
used in paddy cultivation. The PERC website further notes on the
other hand that if soluble phosphate is to be manufactured in Sri
Lanka, then TSP and Ammonia manufacturing plants would also have
to be established locally.
Chairman Dr. Udawatta said that currently they are exploring the
possibility of producing Single Super Phosphate locally using acidulation.
He said that since Sulfuric Acid is not available locally, they
were importing it from India.
will be applying it on a research basis for the next three harvests,"
he said. The company has already produced five to 10 tonnes of the
more soluble form of phosphate, which can be used for paddy cultivation
as a substitute for the imported TSP. The discussion ended on the
note that the public must be vigilant when it comes to the exploitation
of natural resources whether by state or private entities. It was
agreed that the option of litigation should be seen as the last
resort to prevent public assets being flagrantly misused by authorities
for short-term financial benefits.