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Acrimony brews again over Pulmoddai sands

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The Sri Lanka government has called for investors to exploit the ilmenite rich sands along a fiercely contested stretch of the island’s eastern coastline, renewing resentment among the region’s Tamil residents, who protest they are denied a share of the benefits.

Mining in the Pulmoddai region, 52 kilometres north of Trincomalee, came to a halt in the late nineties following the sinking of two ships transporting ore by the Liberation Tigers amid the escalating conflict.

Sandwiched between Trincomalee – the Sri Lankan Navy’s most important base – and Mullaitivu – the LTTE’s naval headquarters, Pulmoddai is already in a strategically sensitive location.

But its valuable sands have also been a source of intense contention between the region’s predominantly Tamil inhabitants and the Sinhala-dominated government in Colombo.

Last week Sri Lanka’s Public Enterprises Reform Commission called for proposals from investors to exploit the rich minerals sands deposit operated by Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd in Pulmoddai and to manufacture and export value added mineral sands based products, the Sunday Times newspaper reported.

Ilmenite, rutile and zircon are the minerals derived from sands on the seashore and, unlike other countries that have to mine heavily to excavate mineral deposits, in Pulmoddai the minerals only have to be separated from the sea sand.

Ilmenite and rutile are used to produce titanium dioxide and in the manufacture titanium metal while zircon is used in the ceramic industry as a refractory in the manufacture of moldings.

Lanka Minerals Sands Ltd operates the Pulmoddai deposit, one of the richest mineral in the world, with a very low cost of production.

However, production ceased in September 1997 when the Liberation Tigers sank a ship carrying the mineral rich sand and since then the company confined its activities to selling its existing stockpiles.

The LTTE stated that it had only destroyed the Chinese-crewed Panamanian registered ‘MV Cordiality’ because it was being used to move ilmenite ore from the traditionally Tamil Pulmoddai area for sale abroad.

The LTTE had already hit another cargo vessel, the ‘MV Princess Wave’ a month earlier. A large explosion, possibly caused by a sea mine or an underwater charge, ripped a hole in the hull as the ship was loading sand off Pulmoddai.

The LTTE said that the second strike was carried out because the Sri Lankan government had ignored the warning served by the first. The Tigers also said that the attack “should not be construed as an act of hostility directed towards any particular trade or shipping organisation”.

Tamil resentment over the Pulmoddai sands was summed up by the murdered journalist Mr Sivaram Dharmeratnam, writing for the Tamil language Virakesari newspaper in 2004.

“In countries affected by civil war, often disagreements on distribution of national wealth are a root cause of the conflict,” he argued.

“The Sinhala nation, which earned several millions of dollars exporting ilmenite, an important natural resource of the Tamil homeland, waves the articles of constitution when rejecting Tamils demand for a small portion of the revenue.”

Successive Sri Lankan governments have continued a strategic project to secure the area since independence from Britain.

A large Sinhala colony was established in the nearby Manal Aru region (since given a Sinhala name, Weli Oya) by driving out the Tamils living there.

A significant Sri Lankan military presence has since been established in the Weli Oya area and in the villages around Pulmoddai.

Apart from targeting ships deployed to transport the ore out of the region, the LTTE has persistently frustrated the Sri Lankan government’s attempts to secure the Pulmoddai region, launching repeated harassment raids in the area.

In the light of Sri Lanka’s efforts to resume mining, renewed acrimony seems likely.

Ilmenite could prove a valuable source of revenue for the cash-strapped Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have said they intend to prevent the ‘plundering’ of the Tamil region’s wealth by the state “particularly as the proceeds are being used to arm the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan Army”.

The new investors are being sought to process the ilmenite after Lanka Minerals Sands Ltd recently began transporting Ilmenite from Pulmoddai to Trincomalee, with the aim of shipping from Trincomalee.

Company officials said they envisage prospective investors would process ilmenite to make synthetic rutile, titanium slag and titanium dioxide pigment, the Sunday Times said.

“We will short list the proposals and then negotiate with them on what sort of products to make,” a company official was quoted by the paper as saying.

The government re-commissioned the Pulmoddai Ilmenite factory last year sixteen years after it was forced to close when the Liberation Tigers blasted its fresh water supply lines from the Yan Oya River. The factory processes sand excavated from the beaches of Pulmoddai to separate ilmenite and rutile ores for export.

Almost 5 million tons of ilmenite are known to be in the region, which can theoretically be mined at the rate of 150,000 tons a year. In addition, rutile and zircon can be mined at the rates of 10,000 tons and 6,000 tons respectively.

The Pulmoddai beach deposit is replenished annually during the north-east monsoon and the reserve is estimated to last for over 25 years at an annual mining rate of 150,000 tonnes.

The Sri Lankan government’s main customers for ilmenite are Ishihara Sangyo Kaisha Ltd (Japan), ACI (US), Derby & Co (British), Currumbin Minerals Ltd (Australia), and Rare Earth’s Ltd (India’s state-owned firm).

Sandy treasures of Pulmoddai [SundayTimes,June 23, 2002 ]

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