The National Gem and Jewellery Authority of Sri
Lanka (NGJA), claims to “implement strategies and policy priorities
for the development of the gem and jewellery industry of this country”.
Amidst this hyperbole, however, a recent investigation carried out by
the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), stripped off the so
called ‘reputation’ of this authority. On August 8, 2007, precisely at
11.32 am., a group of gem miners were taken into custody, along with a
permit issued by the NGJA. This permit clearly violated the provisions
of the National Environment Act. Worse, when the writer inquired after
the scene, from the Divisional Manager, NGJA, District Office, Matale,
she was reprimanded. “These allegations are ridiculous. Our mining
operations cannot be stopped by such allegations. In fact, our industry
is fast expanding. I am personally trying to acquire DWC-owned land to
mine gems. You better remember that!” he lashed out.
Environmental degradation has always been part and parcel of
gem mining in Sri Lanka. Invariably, this profit-driven exercise takes
its toll on the environment, and weakens the bases of several sensitive
ecosystems. Recently, however, an investigation conducted by the DWC,
brought destructive gem mining practices into focus. This investigation
was carried out in Wasgomuwa. It not only unravelled the destruction of
gem mining but also, the direct involvement of the NGJA, in such
On August 8, 2007, around 11 .30 am, DWC officials of the Wasgomuwa
National Park, raided a land of 2 acres, along the left bank of the Kalu
Ganga. This land has been frequently subjected to extensive gem mining.
This 2-acre plot is located in the Kiri Oya Range and was approximately
25 metres away from the river bank.
The Kalu Ganga is considered a boundary of the Wasgomuwa National Park.
It is a major tributary of the Mahaweli River, which winds its way down
through the Knuckles mountain range and flows through the Matale
District. (Note: There are two rivers called ‘Kalu Ganga’. One is a
tributary of the Mahaweli River, which flows through the Matale
District, while the other is a major river in the Kalutara District.
This article concerns the tributary in the Matale district.)
At the time of the raid, the group of miners was in possession of a
permit issued by the NGJA. It bore the number 11012 and belonged to
Alwitigalage Hemapala, residing at Hath-thota Amuna, Kaluganga,
Dunkoladeniya. The permit was valid from 11/04/2007 to 10/04/2008.
Several persons involved in gem mining were also arrested. This group
included Gamladdalage Ranjith, of Hatahaththa, Pandula Mahesh of Gal-lalla
of Ratnapura, Ranga Shrilal Hapuarachchi, of Bibile Gal-lalla, Anura
Ranjith of Avissawella, Kodithuwakku Rathnapala of Avissawella, Gamini
Kumarathunga of Avissawella and Abesingha of Bakamuna.
The unpleasant dialogue
All stories have two sides. The Nation spoke to the
Divisional Manager NJGA District Office, Matale, R.K. Ranjith Nimal
Randeniya, for his side of the story.
“Recently, a DWC investigation revealed that gem miners were carrying
out extensive mining operations, violating the regulations of the NEA.
They also had in possession permit No. 11012, which too was violating
the provisions of the NEA.” The Nation told him.
“Look here, we have our own laws. Like the DWC, we too are a government
institute. We are governed by the National Gem and Jwellery Act No.50 of
1993. Our authority does its best to unearth Sri Lanka’s precious gems.
Only we have the right to do that. We also understand that while working
with other government institutes, there can be many clashes. That’s
natural. Media people, like you, shouldn’t be making a big deal of
“The gazette 1454/4 of 17/07/2007 prohibits the usage of backhoes and
certain machinery, when mining gems on river banks. But your permit had
provided for the usage of a backhoe.” The Nation reminded him. “We have
the right to give our miners the necessary equipment. Without such
equipment, how can they mine? For us, it doesn’t matter whether they
mine a bank or forest or whatever, but we always give permission for the
necessary equipment. If our permits allow the usage of such vehicles,
you do not have a right to question all that. We own our permits. Not
other government institutes.”
“Your permit only allowed one backhoe. But the DWC discovered two
backhoes at the scene. The Nation explained.
“Come on, did you see two tippers there?” he implored. I was just about
to say that The Nation is in possession of photos featuring 2backhoes,
but in a quick twist I decided to say otherwise, just to gauge his
response. “I didn’t see them myself, but I got the news that there were
two backhoes at the scene”, I told him. “Ah, there you are. You
shouldn’t believe what others tell you. Personally, I know these people
never use two backhoe!” he said.
“There was also other prohibited machinery at the scene.” The Nation
“As for these prohibited machinery, we don’t agree with other people’s
definitions. What may seem prohibitive to the DWC, is not prohibitive to
us at all. We need those machines to mine gems!” he spoke up. “An NGO
named the Sri Lanka Nature Forum complained that our miners were causing
havoc in and around the banks of the Kalu Ganga. I received their letter
on September 8, and the very next day, I deployed a team to raid the
scene. See how efficient we are? We don’t dilly dally: we act on the
spur of the moment,” he further explained. “Upon investigation, we
understood that Alwitigalage Hemapala, who possessed permit No. 11012,
had violated certain conditions. So, we imposed a fine of Rs. 16,000 on
him. He paid it on September 13. (Receipt No. 245/337). You should also
understand that his fine earned the government Rs. 16,000. That’s yet
another service our industry renders to the government!” Though it
sounded quite absurd, if anything, having got to know the character, I
guessed it best not to comment on it. Yet, it’s noteworthy that the
immense damage caused to the environment, by gem miners, costs much more
than just Rs 16,000!
“You said the miners had violated certain conditions. What are they?”
The Nation inquired.
“Well, they had been releasing effluent, pumping water…etc. I rate these
as minor offences,” he replied.
Speaking up, The Nation reminded him “yes, you were right. They were
pumping water from the Kalu Ganga and releasing effluent back to the
river. But condition 6 of your permit had clearly specified that miners
should refrain from impacting any stream or river adversely.”
“Come on, those are, practically, unachievable. And what’s the big deal?
All people make mistakes. May be, they committed minor offences, by
violating the conditions. But, do you expect us to arrest the entire
operation and cease the industry, all at once?!” he implored.
“And, you should know this too. Our industry needs land. In fact, we are
aware that many land areas serviced by the DWC, harbours gems worth
billions and billons of rupees. So, we are looking into ways of
acquiring their land! And on the other hand, miners will dig even into
the bowels of the earth, if they sense the presence of gems. Nobody can
stop that. That’s the nature of this business. Besides, our industry is
ever expanding. No one can stop that either. We need land, that’s it!”
Lame excuses of the DWC
The illicit gem mining operations in and around the Wasgomuwa
National Park came to light following the raids conducted by the DWC and
the Police of Laggala-Pallegama. Yet, it’s noteworthy that gem mining
has been a long standing business in Wasgomuwa and continues to do so.
These recent raids, inevitably, beg the question as to why the DWC
refrained from such operations in the past. Their most sought-after
excuse is that the staff of the Park is insufficient, to conduct such
operations. Perhaps, the DWC should understand that it does not require
an entire army to conduct an effective raid. Having a few, well-trained
officers should suffice. On the other hand, there should be effective
means of communication and transportation, for the recruitment of
personnel, whenever the need arises.
The Nation also understands that the degree of collaboration between
Park personnel and the Police of the Laggala-Pallegama Divisional
Secretariat, is inadequate. Poor coordination greatly impairs raids and
consequent arrests. On the other hand, The Nation is also aware of the
fact that certain top officers accept bribes from miners, which in turn
has clearly contributed to the unabated nature of gem mining. These
situations should be soon remedied.
The most pressing problem with the Park administration is not inadequate
staff but, inadequate transportation, communication and the proper
facilities. Due to the lack of vehicles, regular patrolling is impaired.
Due to the lack of effective communication, recruitment has been
impaired. The Park offices and related facilities are located at such
distances that, by the time the personnel arrive, the miners have fled
the scene. Perhaps, the DWC headquarters should channel funds to remedy
the need of vehicles, and communication equipment and also upgrade
facilities. So far, The Nation learns, such requests have fallen on deaf
Breaching the law
The Gazette 1454/4 of 17/07/2006, drawn from the National
Environment Act (NEA) No. 47 of 1980, amended by Acts No. 56 of 1988 and
No. 53 of 2000, prohibits the use of certain machinery to mine gems,
within 60m of a bank reservation of any river that’s wider than 25 m.
The category of prohibited machinery includes backhoes and suckers with
The permit and its mining operation clearly violated the provisions of
the NEA. The mining site was located approximately 25m away from the
reservation of the left bank of the Kalu Ganga. This permit, No.11012,
also provided for the use of a backhoe to mine gems on the bank.
However, this permit only provided for the use of one backhoe. However,
at the time of the raid, the group were in possession of two backhoes.
Also, the permit did not provide for any other prohibited machinery,
other than backhoes. Nevertheless, at the time of arrest, the group was
in possession of such prohibited machinery viz, suckers and pumps.
Point 6 of the permit, provides that miners should refrain from emptying
soil and effluent into rivers, streams or on land, other than specified.
It further specifies that miners should refrain from impacting any
stream or river adversely. Also, none of the rivers and streams should
be forced to change direction of flow, during the mining process.
However, at the time of the raid, the miners were pumping huge amounts
of water into machines, and emptying the turbid effluent into the Kalu
Ganga. This effluent, in turn, adversely impacted the structure and
composition of the Kalu Ganga and the neighbouring Galwala stream
systems. Miners had also dammed the Kalu Ganga with huge sand bags, to
force the river change its course. This was done to build up a large
volume of water for efficient pumping.