Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Vidattalti­vu under threat

Tsunami of protests over moves to de-gazette part of this eco-sensitive Nature Reserve to set up a massive aquacultur­e project

- By Kumudini Hettiarach­chi & Ruqyyaha Deane

Serious concerns are being expressed by environmen­talists over moves to revive a proposed large-scale aquacultur­e project, after de-gazetting a part of the protected Vidattalti­vu Nature Reserve in the Mannar district.

Environmen­tal lawyer Jagath Gunawarden­a said that the proposal had been strongly rejected by the Department of Wildlife Conservati­on (DWC) which had appointed a technical committee to study the impact of the aquacultur­e project on the sensitive and unique environmen­t there.

While staunch conservati­onist

Dr. Malik Fernando strongly called it a “bad precedent” which would pose a major threat to all Protected Areas (PAs), Mr. Gunawarden­a argued that “you cannot take a part of a PA without having a severe adverse impact on the whole eco-system prevalent there”.

This third largest Marine Protected Area, close to the Vankalai Sanctuary, was declared a Nature Reserve by Gazette 1956/13 on March 1, 2016 and covers 29,000 hectares. This followed the area being identified as needing protection by the Strategic Environmen­tal Assessment ( SEA) of the Northern Province conducted in 2012.

Incidental­ly, during the war, the Sea Tigers used the coastal town of Vidattalti­vu as their base to control that coastal stretch.

The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance ( FFPO) under which Vidattalti­vu has been declared a Nature Reserve is very clear, says Mr. Gunawarden­a.

“Altering/ ceasing of an already declared Nature Reserve can only be done subject to Section 2 (4) of the FFPO.

The discretion exercisabl­e by the Minister in this regard is limited by Section 2 (5) of the FFPO which sets out that ‘in the case of any change of boundaries or the disestabli­shment of a National Reserve, a study shall be conducted and such study shall include an investigat­ion of the ecological consequenc­es of the proposed change’,” quotes Mr. Gunawarden­a.

The crux of the matter is that the use of a PA for any purpose would cause destructio­n to it, he said, reiteratin­g that around the world aquacultur­e has been found to be unsustaina­ble.

Aquacultur­e is the controlled process of cultivatin­g aquatic organisms for commercial purposes and Mr. Gunawarden­a underscore­s that investors are looking for gullible countries like Sri Lanka to carry out these harmful activities.

Citing Puttalam as an example, he says that after engaging in aquacultur­e in an area, you have to abandon those farms and move onto other areas.

“However much the National Aquacultur­e Developmen­t Authority (NAQDA) talks about eco-friendly technology, that becomes null and void if the site chosen is environmen­tally-sensitive and Vidattalti­vu is. Why don't they move north of Vidattalti­vu where there is adequate land for such a project, without touching this area which is ecological­ly important? The reason they have picked Vidattalti­vu is because for aquacultur­e to succeed, they need ecological­ly-strong areas with mangroves. They will use this area, cause massive destructio­n and then abandon it,” added Mr. Gunawarden­a.

T he Env i r o n m e n t a l Foundation Ltd. (EFL) too reiterates that Vidattalti­vu has a “rich and vibrant” ecosystem consisting of mangroves, tidal or mud flats, salt marshes, seagrass beds and coral reefs which support the livelihood­s of fishermen.

“It is a hub for the blue swimmer crab, a sought- after seafood, which brings foreign exchange to the country,” says the EFL.

Strongly urging the stringent protection of Vidattalti­vu which is “unique” in many ways, the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society ( WNPS) points out that this is the only area in the whole of Sri Lanka where mangroves grow on the coast, facing the sea.

While mangroves in other areas are in l agoons and estuaries, in Vidattalti­vu, the sea is like a lagoon and mangroves can take root in this sedimented coastal area. The coast is relatively protected from both the northeast and southwest monsoons.

Mangroves are vital in shielding the country from cyclones, storm surges and tsunamis ( as experience­d in 2004) and play a critical role in mitigating climate change, says the WNPS, adding that mangrove forests absorb up to four times more carbon per hectare than tropical forests, filter water, prevent erosion and contribute significan­tly to the livelihood of coastal communitie­s as they are the breeding grounds for fish, shrimps and other aquatic species.

If this aquacultur­e project is implemente­d, there is also the danger of diseases getting into the natural system as experience­d by Sri Lanka in the case of shrimp aquacultur­e in the MundelPutt­alam areas, the WNPS says.

Some other concerns of the WNPS include the impact of such a project on migrant birds and the iconic, rare and endangered dugong ( sea cow) which feeds on the sea-grass found here. While recognizin­g the need for investment and developmen­t of the fisheries industry, the WNPS suggests that other options such as high-value, nature-based tourism should be looked at without destroying unique Vidattalti­vu.

“A myriad ecological and health impacts could follow the introducti­on of an alien species of prawn without an assessment of the effects of the species in Sri Lanka. These include the loss of mangroves which are the first line of defence against coastal erosion; loss of nurseries for fish and shellfish; and loss of biodiversi­ty that comprise mangrove ecosystems and adjacent, ecological­ly connected littoral ecosystems,” adds EFL.

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 ??  ?? Mangroves on the Vidattalti­vu coast, the only area in Sri Lanka where they face the sea. (Courtesy WNPS)
Catch from the natural environmen­t, which could vanish when the aquacultur­e project is implemente­d. (Courtesy WNPS)
Mangroves on the Vidattalti­vu coast, the only area in Sri Lanka where they face the sea. (Courtesy WNPS) Catch from the natural environmen­t, which could vanish when the aquacultur­e project is implemente­d. (Courtesy WNPS)
 ??  ?? The extensive waterways within the mangroves ideal for kayaking and nature-based tourism. (Courtesy WNPS)
The extensive waterways within the mangroves ideal for kayaking and nature-based tourism. (Courtesy WNPS)

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