Years of War Leave Sri Lankan Ecology Damaged

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: Environmental News
| Date: 20000317

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, March 17, 2000 (ENS) - The lengthy ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has not only claimed over 60,000 lives and proved to be a major drain on its resources, it has also devastated the rich biodiversity of this island nation.

The use of heavy explosives has destroyed not only human lives and buildings, but also natural vegetation, trees and parks in wilderness and urban areas, agricultural land, domestic and wild animals and birds.

Over the past five years, the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the government troops have cut down more than 2.5 million palmyrah palm trees (Borrasus flabellifera) in the country's north and east, where the battle is still raging.

Map showing area claimed by the Tamils. (Map courtesy Sinhaya) The figures are based on a random survey conducted by the Palmyrah Development Board, which has undertaken an ambitious palmyrah plantation program to reduce the loss. "We are trying our level best to compensate the indiscriminate felling by planting seeds," M. Packiyanathan, chairman Palmyrah Development Board told ENS. The ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka began in 1983 when young people from the minority Tamil community - 19 percent of the country's 18.5 million people - took up arms demanding a separate homeland for Tamils. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a formidable guerrilla organization, wants a separate nation, Tamil Eelam, carved out of the Tamil dominated north and east of Sri Lanka.

Fierce fighting between the guerrillas and government troops began in 1995 when the armed forces pressed ahead with an offensive to establish control over the northern Jaffna peninsula and also the northern parts of the mainland, some 400 kilometers from the capital Colombo. The Tamils retaliated, overrunning government positions in the area.

As the battle raged on, both sides fortified themselves building bunkers, defense lines and camps for soldiers. Trees were cut to build thousands of bunkers and for firewood. Palymrah palms fell a victim to the war, as these are the only tall trees that grow in the arid climate of the north and east.

Soon after the government's armed forces captured the peninsula in 1996, they moved on to the northern mainland. The government ordered its troops to open a land route to Jaffna, which is currently accessible either by air or by sea. That was the beginning of the longest military campaign in Sri Lanka's history.

Scene following LTTE attack in Colombo March 10, 2000. (Photo courtesy Sinhaya) The campaign was called off after 19 months, but not before it had inflicted damage on the environment. Government troops moved ahead along the Colombo-Jaffna highway pushing the Tamils back. Bulldozers followed the infantry and artillery units, clearing 500 meters (over a quarter mile) on both sides of the road. All houses and trees were flattened so that the soldiers deployed in the area could have a clear view. During the military offensive over five million trees, including 2.5 million palmyrah trees, were uprooted.

Illegal logging with no forest wardens in place to stop it was facilitated by the collaboration of some elements of the Sri Lankan armed forces with the illegal loggers.

"It was a major loss to the nation and has led to a major ecological imbalance in the region, Packiyanathan said. Palmyrah trees act as wind breaks, protecting the villages from getting blown away by strong winds which are common in the north and east.

The palmyrah fruit is a staple of the people's diet in rebel held territory. They have restricted access to food grains owing to the economic embargo imposed by the government on the rebel-held territory a decade ago.

Sri Lankan soldier in Jaffna (Photo courtesy Colombo Chronicle) "It is a drought resistant tree, which helps retain water in the soil. It also has medicinal value, said Janaka Keethi Nikawala, a research officer at Palmyrah Development Board, who recently developed an antibacterial compound from palmyrah fruits at Upsala University in Sweden. Based on Nikwala's research, the Palmyrah Development Board is now marketing herbal medicines made of palmyrah for skin and bone infections and food poisoning. "It strengthens heart muscles and the palymrah sap is a good cure urinary tract infection, Nikawala said.

The palmyrah plantation program developed by the board has taken off in eastern Sri Lanka. But in the north where most of the trees were felled, officials are still struggling to find areas away from the conflict zone.

"We are planting a million seeds a year, but in the north most of the area is a theatre of war and there are no people living there. In other areas there are frequent clashes between the armed forces and the LTTE so its dangerous to work there," Packiyanathan said.

The conflict has ruined at least three national wildlife parks in the north and east of the island. These parks were closed down a decade ago after the fighting broke out. The rebels or government troops have now occupied them. The use of heavy explosives has destroyed not only human lives and buildings, but also natural vegetation, trees and parks in urban areas, crops and agricultural land, domestic and wild animals and birds.

"The wildlife has disappeared, Most elephants have moved towards the south, while other animals were killed in war, said Dr. Sarath Kotagama, head of environmental science department Colombo University and former director of the Wildlife Department.

Dr. Nadarajah Sriskandarajah (Photo courtesy ACTS) An article published by the Academic Society of Tamil Students (ACTS) calls the environmental situation in the north and east of the island "an environmental crisis." The 1999 article by plant ecologist Dr. T. Saverimuttu, animal sciences expert Dr. N. Sriskandarajah, and poet, author and traveller V.I.S. Jayapalan says, "Some of the effects of the current war on the environment are irreversible or will require extended periods of time to rectify." Bombardment has destroyed wells in the Tamil held Jaffna peninsula, they say. The underground water system is a network of caverns in a porous limestone bedrock, the potential for pollutants to be spread over a large area is very high, according to Sriskandarajah's team. Chemical residues from bombs and shells and biological pollutants from fecal material and human and animal bodies have been the major pollutants of the water supply.

In the seas, naval battles and the use of depth charges by the Sri Lankan Navy to dissuade underwater attacks, have resulted in the death of marine life, disruption of the sea bed and localized pollution by chemicals and fuel oil.

The effects of the damage caused by coral mining, the disturbance caused to the local ecological systems and the residual chemicals in water and soil will remain unrectified for a long time, the ACTS authors say.

Effects of deforestation and clearing of natural vegetation can be redressed by reafforestation programs, even though the recovery of such vegetation would take long periods of time, say Saverimuttu, Sriskandarajah, and Jayapalan.

They suggest that once the conflict is resolved, some of the deforested areas could be converted into firewood and timber plantations. Afforestation programs would boost employment locally in addition to bringing benefits to the environment.