People first

The Sri Lankan Supreme Court rules against a mining project that would have displaced thousands of people

By Tharuka Dissanaike
Published: Thursday 31 August 2000

in a landmark judgement, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka halted a controversial mining project that had threatened to displace around 12,000 villagers. The bench took the government to task for the lack of preliminary investigations on the mine site. It also criticised the companies for trying to circumvent the country's environmental regulations.

The government had proposed to give mining rights for a phosphate deposit in central Sri Lanka to Freeport MacMoran Resource Partners of usa and Tomen Corporation of Japan for 30 years. The Eppawala mine is estimated to have around 26.1 million metric tonnes of phosphate. The proposed mine would have cut through an ancient irrigation system estimated to have been built around 2000 years ago.The Jaya Ganga or the main canal carrying water from a large human-made lake to paddy fields west and north of Eppawala would have been directly affected. The canal supplies drinking water to over 100 villages downstream.

However, the company tried to argue that the threat to villagers were not real as the project in an exploration stage. But the court found the company had tried to avoid the Environmental Impact Assessment regulations of the country, which makes public comment a mandatory procedure, especially for big projects. In the strongly-worded judgement, the court observed the company has assumed that by reaching an agreement with the government, it had tried to avoid the laws of the country. "That is an obviously erroneous assumption, for no organ of government, no person whomsoever is above the law." This is the first such large-scale mining project to be proposed in Sri Lanka. Environmentalists argue that Freeport MacMoran was really interested in the unknown quantities of titanium, which reportedly lie below the phosphate.

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