The rape of the Maguru
By Marisa de Silva
Large-scale sand mining is polluting the Maguru Ganga area, which is claimed to be rich in biodiversity, especially endemic fresh water fish, according to environmentalists and residents.

Starting from the side of the Sinharaja forest, the Maguru, a 60-kilometre long rivulet of the Kalu Ganga, is being raped by greedy sandminers, they charged. Its banks from Boralugoda, Athale up to Gurulubedda are the worst affected, said Young Zoologists Association's Aquatic Group Instructor Shantha Jayaweera.

He said lowland wet zone areas such as Maguru Ganga area are usually rich in biodiversity. "The Maguru's clear waters and unique sand deposits on the riverbed created by the unusual 90 deree bends in the river, make it an ideal habitat for aquatic plants and species. Of the 73 fresh water species in the country, environmentalist have identified 44 species in the Maguru. Furthermore, 20 of this 44 species are endemic fish, and even five species found here are protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Apart from this, there are 150 species of birds in this area, making it one of the richest areas of biodiversity," Mr. Jayaweera said.

"The adverse effects of sand mining aren't limited to the environment. Even residents are affected because the water in the Maguru is contaminated by oil leaking from tractors and the sewage from makeshift huts the miners have built along the bank.

He said villagers complained that fish such as eels were not to be found in the river anymore. This was because fish eggs which lay on the riverbed are destroyed when mud settled atop the riverbed due to excessive mining, he said.

The miners have also excavated the river banks, using backhoes. Besides soil erosion, this has resulted in trees lining the bank to fall. As most of the fresh water fish rely on the shade for their survival, the lack of trees has serious repercussions on them.

Sand mining has also become a threat to certain species of fish such as the Red-Necked Goby that depend on camouflage for survival. "These fish cannot breed outside their habitat as they become prey to other fish," Mr. Jayaweera said.

The villagers also complain that the surge of heavy vehicle movements has damaged their road, which they had repaired by the local council several times.

Another problem faced by the villagers is crossing the river. As there are not many bridges across the Maguru, residents wade across the river to get to the other side. Now, they find it hard to do that because sandmining is making the river deeper day by day.

Although many of these miners may hold permits, its their non-compliance with the conditions stipulated in the permit that is the root cause of all these problems, according to Mr. Jayaweera.

He claimed that although the permit allowed mining for three days a week, mining activities continued for six days a week. The permit also stipulates the time during which mining is allowed and the amount of sand that can be excavated per month. But the miners hardly adhere to the conditions, Mr. Jayaweera said adding that political influence and corruption in the police were the two main factors that had led to the sorry situation.

In a desperate attempt to stop mining in the area, the Young Zoologists Association wrote to the Environment Minister in December, outlining the threat that mining was posing to the biodiversity of the area. The ministry had referred the letter to the Central Environmental Authority.

The CEA in response said that it would instruct the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau not to issue new mining licences or renew the permits. But Mr. Jayaweera said that according to the GSMB records, nine licences have been issued since this assurance was given.

D. Sajjana De Silva, Mining Engineer of the GSMB, said the licences were issued only for artisan or manual mining on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 6am to 6pm. "Only traditional mining methods such as the use of shovels and baskets are allowed under the conditions of the permits. Tractors cannot be taken down to the water and mining can only be done in specified areas to a depth of one metre at most," he said.

Officials from the GSMB make random visits to the mining sites to ascertain whether mining is done in accordance with the regulations. "If the officers discover that the miners have violated the regulations, they warn them, cancel their permits or demand that they remedy the situation. For example, re-filling pits that have been excavated beyond the permitted one-metre depth. They can also be fined up to Rs. 50,000 under the GSMB Act of 1992. If anyone is caught mining without a permit, a fine of up to Rs. 500,000 can be imposed for a first time offence while a second time offender can be fined up to a million rupees and a two year imprisonment, under the Act," he said.

But hardly has any offender been imposed such heavy fines. This is because the police do not charge the perpetrators under the GSMB Act. This has resulted in most offenders getting off scot-free. To remedy this situation, the GSMB has requested permission from the Ministry for authorisation to file action against the owner of the land where sand is unloaded.

Mr. de Silva said he had taken the matter up with Government officials and the police in the area. Baduraliya Inspector M. M. Hettiarachchi said most miners in his area had permits obtained from the GSMB or the Divisional Secretary but admitted that illegal mining was taking place in Athale, Gurulubedda and Panigala areas.

"It is almost impossible to apprehend illegal sand miners because they jump in to the river and escape when we raid," he said.

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