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.

Nimashi Amaleeta
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 operations.
DWC’s investigation

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 these.”

“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 reminded.
“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!” He concluded.


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 ears.


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 pumps.

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.











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