Imminent Disasters? Exploiting Sri Lanka’s Mineral Resources

Ashley de Vos, in The Island, 16 August 2017, where the heading runs thus: “The exploitation of minerals of Sri Lanka”

If there is an asset, should it be exploited to the fullest in the shortest period of time? The traditional view would be based on very careful and controlled use. Today, in the global market place an asset is viewed very differently. As most investors in a business are interested in an ever increasing the bottom line question of eventual sustainability raises questions that need answers. Unfortunately, all exploitation has limits and if profit is the only criteria, whatever the pontification, it cannot and is not sustainable in the long term. It will always be a short term solution, to what could be a long term disaster.

The recent news line of the great interest shown by a very prominent Chinese mining company into mineral exploitation in Sri Lanka is disturbing and requires careful review. The Chinese are well experienced in exploitation of minerals. They have already bought up a number of mining rights in northern and north-western Australia. The extraction method would entail open strip mining and the removal and export of the material in the shortest period of time, without any value addition benefit for Australia.

They are doing the same in Afghanistan. A very important and hitherto unknown large Buddhist Silk Route site ‘Mes Aynak’, discovered during the initial exploration for a copper mine,was given until December 2016 for an immediate rescue excavation, a daunting task indeed. No one is sure what happened in the end. The purchasing of mineral rights across the continent of Africa would also be on similar lines. ‘According to World Trade Asia, over 80 percent of China’s imports from Africa are in mineral products’.

‘China’s commitment to FDI and infrastructure investment in Africa, regardless of it being for the implicit purpose of enabling easier exportation of oil, is aiding African development in the process. Chinese workers and companies alike are involved in building roads and railways and other such infrastructure development projects.’ The Tan-zam railway completed in the 1970s to connect the copper mines in Zambia to the Tanzanian Indian Ocean port of Dar-es-salaam, is an engineering marvel as it travels through totally unchartered territory, with over 5,000 Chinese being sacrificed to lions during the duration of the project construction. Interestingly, ‘today the west seems to be concerned about a closed imperialistic loop, which, as experts on imperialism, could be a sentiment borne of their own colonial experiences with Africa that they see China now closely imitating’.

Peter Navarro, a business professor at the University of California-Irvine described the US understanding of this loop as, “China goes in, builds the infrastructure, and uses that country’s infrastructure to extract their resources, takes those resources back to China, builds finished goods, and then ships them back into that country to sell. The bottom line is poverty instead of prosperity in countries that have incredible natural wealth“. Serge Mombouli, onetime Congolese Ambassador to the United States stated, “The Chinese are business people. They are not a charity organization. They are coming for business and any contract that the Chinese sign with African country, those are contracts that are negotiated.”The Chinese mining enterprise has reached South America as well.

‘There is truth to Navarro’s claims, Angola accounts for 50 percent of China’s oil imports and China has invested USD 2 billion in infrastructure development, yet still 70 percent of Angolans live under the poverty line. The same can be said for Sudan and in Nigeria 80 percent of the country’s revenues come from China’s oil importations, but the money is not trickling down. China’s reliance on African oil, in particular the case of Sudan, has highlighted political scrutiny from western countries, particularly the US’, perhaps based on jealousy. ‘If China wants to remain long term trade partners with its largest oil exporters it may need to consider the social and humanitarian ramifications of its trade policy and revise how it could contribute more to establishing more stable future bilateral relations’.

The US is critical of China’s role however, if the US establishes itself, it could be as bad or significantly far worse; a very clear picture of their patronising role in the Middle East is something Sri Lanka should view with concern as the US gets ready to establish a second base in the Indian Ocean. To quote Henry Kissinger, “America has no friends, only interests”

Sri Lanka has many special heavy minerals, including Thorium. Two decades ago there was an Australian with permission from the government exporting sealed barrels of a sand material. No one was allowed to access the site by the special armed guard protecting the site, however, due to the protests it was stopped. The government of Sri Lanka should not issue mineral mining permits without a proper and careful evaluation of what is there, its extent and what could be permitted to be taken out. This is often done without even understanding or appreciating the possible damage to the valuable and precious resource and eventually to the environment?

Layers of Garnet sand accumulated over thousands of years in the sand dunes, along the south coast has been sold or negotiated for sale to a company, they state that they will extract the layer of garnet sand and reconstitute the sand dune. A dune that has taken thousands of years to form cannot be reconstituted by human hands. Ilmenite along the north east coast was a resource that had been sold in the late 1960s to a Japanese company at Rs. 25.00 a ton. Mr Hara the Engineer in charge announced at that time that the company was making a profit of $ 4 Million per year, while the Geological & Mines Bureau was making a loss. The project was subsequently given to the Provincial Council which gave it to an Indian Company for exploitation. The Indians built the Pulmudai Hospital for the people, but more for use by their staff. Rutile the base for Thorium, was sold for Rs. 606.00 per ton. In many countries as these are metals of the future they are stockpiled, instead of selling their precious resources, on the understanding that the real value will rise to astronomical heights in the future. Desperate Sri Lanka has no such plan.

There are special gem stones being washed off the different peniplanes, with even the possibility of diamonds being found in the south as a by-product of Sri Lanka’s original connection with Gondwana land and the shifting continents. Thankfully, some years back, an attempt by a powerful group together with foreign collaboration, to promote a proposal to mechanically dredge the rivers for gem stones, was stopped before they got too far. This dredging would have destroyed all the endemic lifeforms inhabiting special pockets along the streams and rivers and would have added to the destruction and erosion already perpetrated by the many mini hydro projects operational and or proposed along most mountain streams in the hill country.

The question that may be asked is what happens when all these resources are extracted out of the ground to be enjoyed by someone else? Is this not exploitation to benefit a select few in the short term? What happens to the human populations in these countries, after they have been raped of their resources and what happens to the deep open pits left behind? Maybe “Open Pit Tourism? The way to go. For example, the Congo a large country with unbelievable riches, raped for decades by the colonial rulers and corrupt leaders, is today one of the poorest countries in Africa. Wake up Sri Lanka!

Some years ago, Sri Lanka experienced an early attempt by a foreign company with Japanese/American and local political backing, in its attempt to exploit the whole of the Eppawela rock phosphate deposit within a very short period of 30 years. The 10 mile buffer zone round the deposit insisted on by the company as an insurance against the deposit extending far beyond what is known today, stretched up to the sacred city of Anuradhapura and the Sri Maha Bodhi and even ignored the many historic remains existing in between. The exploited material was to be taken by special train to Trincomalee to a processing plant where the sulphuric acid tanks were located and the excess residue from the process, the mountains of phosphor gypsumwas to be collected in Cod bay with a new sea dam, constructed across its short mouth closing it off from the Ocean. Over time the leeching of this phosphor gypsum into the sea, could affect the future of all marine life in the deep channel going north east out of Trincomalee.

‘Phosphor gypsum is a carcinogenic substance and getting rid of it is difficult. Gypsum stacks represent a serious environmental threat to Central Florida and other American cities. According to the EPA, 32 million tons of new gypsum waste is created each year by the phosphate industry in Central Florida alone.’

As noted by the popular Tampa Tribune, “The gypsum mound is near capacity, and a wet spring or a tropical storm could cause a catastrophic spill” To prevent such a spill, which was all but inevitable, the US – EPA recently agreed to let Florida pursue “Option Z”: To load 500-600 million gallons of the waste water onto barges and dump it directly into the Gulf of Mexico.The dumping of the waste water into the Gulf represents the latest in a series of high-profile embarrassments for Florida’s phosphate industry; one of the most dramatic of which happened on June 15, 1994 As noted by the St. Petersburg Times, “Spills from these stacks have periodically poisoned the Tampa Bay environs.” One spill, in 1997, from a now-defunct gypsum stack in Florida, “killed more than a million fish.”

‘Resting atop the phosphate industry’s gypsum piles are highly-acidic wastewater ponds, littered with toxic contaminants, including fluoride, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, and the various decay-products of uranium? This combination of acidity and toxins makes for a poisonous, high-volume, cocktail, which, when leaked into the environment, wreaks havoc to waterways and fish populations. Due to big company pressure these cities have not been able to evacuate these mountains of the Phosphor gypsum’.

Only a few Sri Lankans realise that the ancients did make use of the fertilizer at Eppawela, but in a more subtle and sustainable manner. They did not dig it out of the ground, instead they used the monsoon rains to wash over it. The Ela has no bund on the side of the deposit but only on the side opposite to the deposit. Rain water run off over the deposit carried a very small, but sufficient amount into the Ela. This is then taken along with the water in the canal to the fields of Anuradhapura. This intelligent use ensured that the deposit was in use for over two thousand years and still available for another couple of thousand years, if not misused. This is ancient philosophy and knowledge at its sustainable best.

The cry raised by the Farmers and the Temple priest in Eppawela, with the support of the prime mover the well-known photographer, the late Nihal Fernando and other committed environmentalists, sounded a very loud ‘Apita Epa Wala’ against the exploitation. The sale of this deposit and the proposed open mining programme of the foreign group, finally ended in court. The brilliant judgement at the conclusion of the court proceedings by the very eminent judge Ranjit Amarasinghe, was a milestone in judicial history. This judgement should be read by all, including the political entities. All students of law interested in environmental issues should study the case. We have to educate yourselves on why these valuable resources should be preserved and not lost to a greed-driven herd?

Is the present excavation of the phosphate rock that is taking place at Eppawela, though small in relation to what was to have been done, helping to create the deadly cocktail? Now being transported along the Ela carrying water to the fields in the NCP and likely responsible for the new diseases experienced by the poor farmer? We will never know.


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