Ports, Reefs, and the Chinese: Sri Lanka’s Call for Justice

Ashanee Kottage is a freshman at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, who was born and raised in Sri Lanka.

The current ministerial crisis in Sri Lanka is a surprise to many, but not to the 600,000 people in the fishing trade, or to the environmentalists across the island. The inconsistency of election promises was evident to them when the China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) Port City resumed construction despite the call for an end from civilians due to its social and environmental impact.

The Colombo Port City (CPC) is meant to be a modern metropolis, reclaiming 269 hectares for a regional business, residential and tourism hub, but its future is bleaker than the government and the CHEC portray. As a freshman at Georgetown University, living in the U.S. half a world away, I am least impacted by the damage to reefs and depletion of resources on my island home, but it is still my home. As a citizen who hopes the country will maintain its identity of a prime coastal and eco-tourist destination, preserve its beauty, and invite people across the world not just to visit but to live and love, I am terrified of the current trend.

The government is failing; as the people, we can’t afford to.

Rachel Carson, marine biologist, author, and conservationist whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement, is relevant now more than ever. Despite an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study carried out in 2011, the project entails a host of environmental conflicts that ultimately endanger communities. In ‘Silent Spring’, Carson accurately points out that “our attitudes towards plants is a singularly narrow one. If we see any immediate utility in a plant we foster it. If for any reason we find its presence undesirable or merely a matter of indifference, we condemn it to destruction.” However, in the case of the CPC even resources with ‘utility’ aren’t valued.

Construction requires 3.45 million cubic meters of large granite blocks acquired through explosives from the hill country, where one-third of the population lives. The locals fear that the granite extraction combined with intensified rainfall will cause landslides. Dr. Gamini Jayatissa, warns that the EIA has no mention of explosion times, vibrations, possible landslides or impact on communities. In fact, it claims the impact of granite extraction to be ‘negligible.’

Furthermore, 65 million cubic meters of sand is to be obtained through mining sea bottoms. This means that the breeding ground for fish and coral reefs will be destroyed and coastal erosion is bound to occur. The damage to fisheries deprives the livelihood of 30,000 fishermen in Negombo alone, and 600,000 of all those involved in associated trades, contrary to the 10,000 fishermen that were referred to in the EIA. Moreover, since two-thirds of Lankan’s protein comes from fish, this damage could also cause food insecurity. Additionally, damage to reefs impacts biodiversity and compromises the island’s safety from storms and erosion. The absence of an expert on oceanography and ecosystems on the EIA committee means that the island paradise I left this September may not be the same when I return.

Problems are intensified as Sri Lanka offered China twenty-five years of tax concessions while simultaneously agreeing to provide all utilities for the operation of the Port, including more than 1000 cubic meters of water a day. The capacity for the island to do this is doubtful. For example, the Sewage Disposal System hasn’t been updated for 85 years and fecal coliform pollution in coastal waters has exceeded international levels of safety; with the condition already so dangerous the government hasn’t considered how the system could handle sewage from the Port. The likely outcome of health and safety standards deteriorating is decreased tourism. Ultimately, the government is left with neither tax revenue from an MNC nor income from a presently booming tourism industry, so what is this all for? It’s not to benefit me as the future of Sri Lanka for sure.

It is evident to many that the CPC appears to be a classic ‘white elephant’ project. Yet, accountability is a complex issue due to the range of actors. As 43% of the total marketable land is leased to the China Communications & Construction Company (CCCC) for 99 years – they have the right to grant the lease to any 3rd party they please. Nonetheless, final onus is on the Sri Lankan government, who should have known better than to bind themselves to such a project. The developers prepared the EIA report without impact assessment on sand mining, yet the Coastal Conservation Department (CCD) and the Coastal Management Department (CMD) granted preliminary clearance.

Most disappointingly, the current regime campaigned on the grounds of pulling out of the CPC, yet failed to live up to this promise. A fisherman commented to chinadialogue that “we supported the new government because they said they would cancel the project” yet all they did was temporarily suspend construction, and promise compensation that never reached the fishermen.

Holding respective authorities accountable is made even more difficult by the lack of accessibility to information. Carson referred to DTT thriving over selective spraying “only because the facts are not known”, the same applies to Sri Lanka. Minister Malik Samarawickrama claimed that “In opposition, we did request the government…to publish the relevant environmental reports but got no response.” The information asymmetry contributes to silencing voices.

However, there are some voices that manifest in different ways but are seldom heard. Carson gives a voice to nature as an entity; she frames this voice, not as one of victimization but as one of strength. She discusses the “Age of Resistance” commenting on insect resilience and Lankan civilians similarly attempted to fight back. The fisherfolk filed a case in the Supreme Court, the Christian Solidarity Movement campaigned and the Environmental Trust Fund called the EIA biased because it was prepared per the requirement of the construction company. Further, a 50-year-old fisherman voiced that “all we’ve got is hunger and anger. Those politicians pocketed all the compensation.” Civilians objected the CPC with the creation of alternative reports, media-based activism, petitions (over 300 petitions to the CCD and the Secretary of the President and Prime Minister), public campaigns, street protests (a six-day protest in 2016 and a massive protest in August 2017), marches and refusing compensation. Like the insects against DDT, my people are a force to be reckoned with.

Although civilians mobilized, scientists also have a role to play in the ongoing movement against the CPC. They need to do more to ensure their research is accessible to the people but also that it reaches policy-makers. As finders of the truth, they are crucial in social change. In the fight against DDT Carson praises the long list of “Specialists representing areas of the vast fields of biology – entomologists, pathologists, geneticists…- all pouring in their knowledge and their creative inspirations to the formation of a new science of biotic controls.” She also notes that the “skepticism of scientists” is a reason that DDT prevailed for such a long time, thus, highlighting their monumental role. Therefore, the aforementioned professors, doctors, researchers and scientists who are also activists are vital in the fight against the CPC. Dr. Ravindra Kariyawasm of the Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies warned that the CPC could exacerbate coastal erosion and if more from the scientific community stood with him change could have been achieved earlier on.

On the other hand, there are still proponents of the CPC too. The Chair of the Chamber of Construction Industry commented that any firm that can help Sri Lanka develop will be welcome. This is short-sighted as he fails to consider the human rights, economic and environmental implications that accompany Foreign Direct Investment. Furthermore, by the end of 20 years, 62,000 direct jobs and 30,000 indirect jobs are supposed to be created. However in light of the loss of jobs in the fishing industry and the tourism industry due to decreased health and safety and destruction of coral reefs, on net, the project in terms of employment is not very productive. In addition, tax concessions, the promise to provide all utility to the project, the debt trap Sri Lanka is currently in, are all likely to increase tax levels as the government attempts to survive in the long run. The people are hurt, the environment is hurt, who wins? The political elite and no one else.

Right now in Colombo, thousands rally in support of democracy. Some call it a waste of time, a pointless endeavor and a lost cause, but it isn’t. Although the problems of the constitutional crisis or Port City won’t be solved overnight, it is the voices of the people that are forcing the President to reconvene Parliament, caused the suspension of the CPC and prompted a supplementary study to be conducted. So wherever you are in the world, take to social media, take to the streets and rally in solidarity for accountability and for action because it is your future at stake. We are the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka for a reason. Those adjectives aren’t just decoration and neither is the environment, it is our home and we must do something to protect it.


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