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"Sri Lanka’s Tamils trapped between war and waste"

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2015: Protest in Chunnakam, Jaffna against the Uthuru Janani thermal power plant for dumping waste oil and grease deposits in the local well. 

Sri Lanka’s ecology and biodiversity are threatened by the continued repression of Eelam Tamils. To protect the land, international mechanisms are needed “to ensure accountability and help pave the way for egalitarianism and self-determination”.

 

The legacy of the war

Commenting on the still-lasting impacts of the brutal Sri Lankan war, Visvajit Sriramrajan, notes that many Tamil refugees who had sough asylum abroad have returned to see their land seized by the government, sectioned off, or no longer viable for agriculture.

The deterioration of land in the Tamil homeland can be attributed to shelling from gunfire and landmines by the Sri Lankan army. As the steeling casing of landmines and bullets, which contains a thin oxide film, dissolves and the soil composition degrades. This has left what used to be lush and arable land to become dead. Much of the land which is of high quality has been seized by the government and military.

According to the Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy’s 2018 Environmental Performance index Sri Lanka ranks 70th for overall environmental health.

 

Waste Management

The harm imposed on the Tamil homeland is not restricted to the traumatic legacy of war but is also perpetuated through poor waste management.

Taking Jaffna as an example, the city produces close to 70 metric tons of waste by close to 170,000 residents. This waste is largely dumped into the sites within the city such as Kalundai and Vannarpannai, or taken to areas such as Kakkativu, in northern Kilinochchi.

The municipality of Jaffna is restricted in its handling of waste management as the central government’s licensed electronic waste collectors are mostly in the capital of Colombo and nearby suburbs like Kelaniya and Kottawa. Sriramrajan notes that as a result “twice as many waste collectors exist in the Sinhala-majority south than in the Tamil homeland”.

Areas in the Tamil homeland such as Mannar and Mullaitivu, which receive less funding than Jaffna, similarly struggle without access to adequate waste disposal. As a result, people often burn rubbish in backyards or on curbs and thereby release carcinogens and particulate matter into the air.

The Sri Lankan government have commissioned a new Solid Waste Management Unit to improve and maintain landfills, but their projects have focused on Sinhala majority cities such as Dompe and Gampaha instead of Tamil areas.

 

Illiteracy

A further issue which plagues the Tamil homeland is that of illiteracy, which has not been addressed by the government’s Environmental Education Unit. They have conducted little to no education sessions in Tamil towns.  

Sriramrajan notes that prior to the war Jaffna had one of the highest literacy rates on the island but these statistics have decreased significantly, in part due to brain drain. Many highly educated and skilled Tamil labourers have migrated to countries in Europe, North America and East Asia.

The issue of illiteracy has hampered support efforts in the Tamil homeland. The government of Japan issued Jaffna’s Municipal Council around 15 million Sri Lankan rupees which funded four compact trucks for waste disposal. The effectiveness of this plan, however, was hampered due to large-scale illiteracy as notices about truck routes were largely dismissed by those who could not read the signs.

The government has not been supportive of this issue as many of the environmental disposal practices are often disseminated in Sinhala and English only. Such practices are deeply rooted in Sri Lanka’s history of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and successive government’s failure to address this inequity.

At the same time, Sriramrajan also criticises the four parties of the centre-left Tamil National Alliance as none of them have engaged in serious discussions over waste management.

 

Marine Diversity in the Tamil homeland

The ecological damage to the Tamil homeland has also been devastated due to imported waste from countries such as the United Kingdom. The Sri Lankan government has consented to the dumping of hundreds of containers of toxic waste since the end of the civil war.

This is devastating to the country as a whole but in particular, the Tamil homeland is known for its abundance in aquatic diversity. Coral reef fauna is necessary to support endangered species like the hawksbill sea turtle but is threatened by the rising sea temperature and mass coral bleaching.

Marine life is also threatened by international and Sinhala tourists who contribute to large amounts of pollution. The lacklustre waste management in the north and east can be attributed to its weak infrastructure.

Sriramrajan notes that budget allocation has consistently illustrated that;

“while the government considers Tamil areas important for revenue generation, it continues to neglect the livelihoods of the people and wildlife there”.

 

The role of the international community

Sriramrajan expresses doubt that a solely domestic mechanism can provide political, economic and ecological justice for Tamils as under the Rajapaksa regime “the persecution of Tamils has increased tenfold”.

Instead, he maintains that “an international mechanism is needed to ensure accountability and help pave the way for egalitarianism and self-determination”.

In concluding his piece, he states:

"The Tamil-majority northern and eastern provinces are rich in history, culture, and biodiversity, and unless Tamils are allowed the space to construct a system of political and environmental justice, Tamils risk losing it to Sinhala despotism and capitalist greed".

Read Sriramrajan full piece at Jamhoor