The residents at Kirindiwala in Dompe are seething with frustration and anger as the authorities plough through a forest plantation to make way for a sophisticated garbage treatment plant — with South Korea promising a whopping Rs. 600 million for the project.
The arguments for and against the project are sound, but what is disturbing is that some 15,000 trees are set to be cut down. This has aroused the suspicion of the residents who say the place will become a hunting ground for timber racketeers and dumping ground for garbage from around the country.
|The forest being cleared for the garbage project.
|Kirindiwala residents protesting against the project
Local authorities insist that only the waste material from Dompe will be brought to this place but the people do not believe that story and have taken to the streets, cheered on by certain opposition politicians.
The most serious stand-off between the authorities and the residents took place at a playground on Wednesday when a pocket meeting to be addressed by Environment Minister Patali Champaka Ranawaka was stormed by angry residents and the organizers were booed out of the venue even before it could begin.
“We understand the urgent need for a solution to the mounting garbage problem facing the country but the authorities should take this project elsewhere and spare the forest,” T. Dissanayake, a teacher, said.
“It is difficult to understand why they need such a vast area to dispose garbage from Dompe. We believe the authorities want to make use of this site to dump garbage from other areas as well,” he said.
Mr. Dissanayake also charged that the project started off under a cloud of secrecy, with even the local Grama Sevakas being kept in the dark.
Kirindiwala Nature Protection Association Secretary Ruwan Jayatilleke said even though the authorities claim that only 15 acres of the forest will be cleared for this purpose, they strongly believed more land would be cleared and thousands of trees would be felled by corrupt officials.
“The project looks fine on paper, but we fear that the forest cover will be removed and in its place there will be a huge garbage dump and soon the area will turn into a desert,” he said.
Chandrapala Gunasekera who owns a small grocery on the border of this controversial forest fears if garbage starts mounting his business will start falling. “We have lived side by side with this forest for decades. It is a part of our lives and it should remain that way.”
|Dissanayake: Is it a secret project?
||Upali Gunaratne: Project defender
||Jayatilleke: Desert in Dompe
||STC chief Haputantri
He urged the authorities to shift their garbage project to another place and leave the village in peace.
The people have had their say but the authorities on the other hand are adamant to go ahead with the project, protests or other wise and towards this end they have drawn in the police for protection while work goes on deep inside the forest.
Dompe’s SLFP organizer Upali Gunaratne said the project was aimed mainly at containing the garbage problem in the area. He vehemently denied the claims that the area was going to become a central dumping yard for garbage from other parts of the country.
“These are stories cooked up by certain bankrupt politicians, who are behind the protests. The people are falling for them, purely because of their zero knowledge on the issue,” he said.
He said the project, funded entirely by South Korea, would provide jobs to the people of Dompe and would be environment friendly.
Mr. Gunaratne claimed that the area being cleared was not a natural forest but a plantation where, in any case, the trees had to be felled after 20 years.
He blamed JVP politicians responsible for the ongoing protests, but added that the government was firmly embedded to the project and that nothing would stop it.
JVP Provincial Councillor Waruna Rajapakshe said the project was planned in secrecy, suggesting that certain officials were on the take.
“If the officials are honest, they must first educate the local people on what they are planning to do before going ahead with projects that are alien to the country. True enough it may be a foreign-funded project but what is more important is the adverse fallout it could have on the environment and on the lives of the people living in the area,” Mr. Rajapakshe said.
“But this was not the case at Kirindiwala. First they bring in heavy machinery to clear the forests and later call in the police to frighten the people away when they start protesting,” he said condemning the high-handed action of the officials and the police.
Mr. Rajapakshe said he agreed that there should be a solution to the garbage problem facing the country but this was not the way to do it. “When we protest, the authorities label us as anti-government elements. There is serious doubt that the project would ever see the light of day. It is likely that they will start a small pilot project and then abandon the whole process after removing the valuable timber. In short it is a timber grab,” Mr. Rajapaksa charged.
Central Environmental Authority (CEA) Chairman W. Abeywickrema said the project was being carried out with the strictest guidelines and in keeping with international standards.He said the project was a hi-tech one and it would bring a solution to the mounting garbage crisis in the area. He claimed neither the environment nor the residents in the area would be affected by it.
“This is a solid waste management project which on the one hand will get rid of the garbage and on the other re-cycle the waste matter for fertilizer that could be used locally. The fears people entertain are baseless,” Dr. Abeywickrema said.
The South Korean Government has even promised to provide financial assistance for similar projects in other parts of the country depending on this success of the Dompe plant. “Therefore every concerned citizen of this country must give it a chance instead of protesting,” he said.
Dr. Abeywickrema said the CEA along with the local officials had launched a house-to-house campaign to educate the residents on what was really taking place and seek their cooperation. The people will also be advised against falling into the traps of certain politicians who have other interests, Dr. Aberwickrema said.
Meanwhile the State Timber Corporation has also become a stake holder in the project. It is supervising the removal of the timber from the forests to ensure that the state gets the proper value.
STC Chairman Chandana J. Haputantri said the bulk of the timber in the area was Acacia and Pynus with a few Jak and other trees.
Most of the timber will be taken to the STC depots while the firewood will be sold at the site, he said.
Environmentalist Jagath Gunawardene welcomed the Dompe project saying it was the best concept in controlling and treating the garbage issue. Sanitary land filling was the only way out for the garbage crisis, he said.
However he said a periodical check would have to be maintained once the project got under way, but other than that it was a safe way in garbage disposal with little or no harm either to the environment or the people.
Mr. Gunawardene said if the authorities had started such a project a decade ago there would have been zero garbage dumps in the city or any where else. “So they had to wait for a foreign handout to get things going in the right direction,” he said.
So at the end of the day when the protests are set to increase on the one hand and the authorities go ahead with the project on the other, the only sound will be the electric chain saws tearing into fresh timber. Only time will tell if the efforts were worth the trouble, time and money.