Extending beyond the horizons into the forest area of Pachchanor in Kinniya Muthur in the Trincomalee District is a long strip of track, neither carpeted, concreted nor gravelled. Treading along this terrain, through paddy fields battered by natural catastrophes or anthropogenic activities of humans, any tourist would be led to an open area, similar to a desert.
Although this trail appears to be a boulevard due to its width and length extending straight into the forest, it would never be used as a passageway because of its uneven surface with pits where wild elephants may romp in splashing water during rainy days.
This eerie track is however frequented by large trucks running along whirling dusts that veil the trees in the surrounding, tainting their natural green and painting them in brownish colour. Anyone would soon realise that these trucks are used to transport sand mined from the deposits made by the overflowing Mahaweli River during its lifespan of thousands of year.
The fleet of trucks loaded with sand running towards the main road indicates large-scale illegal sand mining carried out on a few licences to give purported legality to a racket. Severity of these mining activities is not known to many and remains unexposed by the media due to the difficulties engaged in gaining access to the location.
However, we underwent a daunting task to gather first-hand information on this concern. When we were close to our destination, we saw a police constable guarding a big mound of sand. Later, we came to know a police guard has been placed there as it was a production of a case relating to illegal sand mining.
We also saw several vigilant men in Welimankada, as it is called by the racketeers and miners, scattered to pass information of imminent threats by relevant authorities. Almost all miners possess mining licences. Yet, one observing their behaviour would ponder about the conditions when they witness indiscriminate mining in any location convenient to them and the rudeness of the machine on the hither to untouched earths disturbing the other sensitive features of the isolated natural surroundings and also the manner in which huge trucks transport the sand through the tender and pristine natural beauties and also disturbing wild animals and birds.
Besides the businessmen involved in these rackets, some mining spots are said to be operated by an officer responsible for enforcing the law, an ASP. It is said that subordinate officers remain quiet about these malpractices of their seniors. About a hundred trucks from various parts of the country arrive at the mining site daily and return with truckloads of sand.
Sand is scooped not only from the Mahaweli bank near the sea, but also from the nearby lagoon. There are huge mounds of sand in a radius of two kilometres from the bridge over the Mahaweli River.
There are several regulations forbidding the use of backhoe machines for mining operations. But it is a common sight to see the hustle and bustle of this heavy machinery operating from within the river itself.
There is also another police officer involved in sand mining. He is known to collect money from other illegal miners as bribes. Yet another police officer has been blamed for soliciting bribes and gaining profits by introducing truck owners to the racketeers.
Earlier, a complaint had been lodged at the Trincomalee Police Headquarters over the unlawful behaviour of police officers.
In one instance, a few police intelligence officers who learnt that a whopping sum of money was offered to the corrupt police officers reported this to the top level, but to no avail. Surprisingly, the unscrupulous cops have got the intelligence officers who brought their fraud to light transferred.
However, two top police officers in the Eastern Province who were engaged in the sand mining racket were transferred.
Commenting on this, a police officer attached to the police station in Kilinochchi division said: “Our superior has a good rapport with racketeers. He lets loose the ones who bribe him and arrests those who fail to do so. Whenever subordinate police officers take illegal miners into custody, they are threatened and abused.”
Another junior police officer said: “The influence of a few police officers who are acquainted with these racketeers has made the duty-conscious officers to stay idle, thereby allowing the racketeers to continue their businesses. People blame us saying we are not taking actions against the illegal sand miners, but the truth is that we are helpless.”
Meanwhile, a resident of the area said the main road was being damaged by the trucks that carried heavy loads of sand very frequently.
“People say illegal sand miners have the support of two politicians in the area. There are provisions under a number of acts such as the Coast Conservation Act, Forest Conservation Act and National Environment Act to make a tremendous impact on the environment. Also are several government agencies like the Coast Conservation Department, Forest Conservation Department, Central Environment Authority, Geology and Mining Bureau.
The Irrigation Department, Mahaweli Authority and Divisional secretariats are responsible for enforcing the law against illegal sand mining. However, these agencies complain they have not been provided with adequate staff and other facilities to deal with environmental concerns. This situation has further empowered underworld figures.
Today, anthropogenic disasters have occurred countrywide with new strategies being followed by racketeers, often through the loopholes of the existing legal framework.
Thus, it is the Environment Ministry that functions under the purview of President Maithripala Sirisena that should shoulder the total responsibility. We hope the ministerial staff would focus on these concerns and take apt and immediate measures to stop this menace.
Excessive sand mining would spur earthslips in hill country
Environmentalist Dr. Ravindra Kariyawasam
Mother Earth is the source of all resources needed for peaceful living. Whether it is sand mining or anything else, what we are doing is irritations on this resourceful earth. Each grain of sand takes millions of years to form. By any single minor tapping done on it we are destroying a millennium.
We can construct things, but cannot recreate earth. Because of this intrinsic value, the earth deserves to be protected.
Sand deposits in Trincomalee are a protection ridge formed in an expansion of marshy land. Removal of the ridge will cause further penetration of water to the land causing marshy land to dry -- water retention pools are significant features of the local geology. Hazardous mining is being done around these water pools, causing soil erosion and ultimately earthslips.
There is also a court order on mining on the banks of Deduru Oya. There is a certain manner in which sand mining should be done.
There is adequate provision in the Sri Lankan legal system regarding the subject matter, but the racketeers don’t adhere to them. They also seem to have the blessings of the politicos and the police.
The flood plain of the Mahaweli River, which spans between Welikanda and Trincomalee, is formed with soil being washed away from the interior of the country. This shows how sand mining can cause earthslips in the hill country.