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SRI LANKA: Massive Protest Against US Mining Project

Inter Press Service
March 30th, 2000

Scientists, trade unionists and priests joined farmers from a northeast Sri Lanka village on Thursday in a massive protest in the capital against government plans to hand over phosphate mines to a US-based transnational company (TNC).

''Leave? We will never leave this land even if the government and the US company go ahead with the project. We have grown up here. This land belongs to our children and future generations. We are prepared to die for it,'' said Kanthi Ambathale, a farmer.

She was among some 7,000 people protesting against the Eppawela Phosphate Mining project who paraded in front of the capital's main train station at Fort. The project has been delayed for years by opposition from the people.

The protesters, some singing, dancing and shouting slogans, held banners saying, ''We will never leave, leave, leave'', ''Land is our right'' and ''McMoran - traitors go home''.

The protest was spearheaded by the Committee for the Protection of the Eppawela Phosphate mines and was joined by Colombo-based trade unions, scientists and clergy from Sri Lanka's main religious groups.

Mahamannakadawata Piyarathana, chief priest of a Buddhist temple in Eppawela town, about 175 kilometers from Colombo, who heads the protest committee, said the people would not allow the government to destroy their farms, land and lives.

''We will fight for our rights. Under no circumstances will we allow this land to be taken away from us. A 100 people may die -- a thousand people may die in our battle for land rights. Yet we will not give up our fight,'' he told IPS.

Protesters say the government is close to signing away the immense rock phosphate deposits at Eppawela to a consortium of foreign mining companies led by IMC Agrico, a US-based group, for the manufacture of phosphate fertiliser for export.

IMC Agrico is a merger of IMC Global Inc and Freeport McMoran Resources Partners, which was the company first involved in the project. The project covers an area of 56 sq kms and would result in the re-location of some 12,000 people from 26 villages.

Buddhist temples, schools and a large number of government buildings also face destruction. Government officials have refused to comment on the project due to the controversy surrounding it.

Two years ago, Industrial Development Minister C.V. Gunaratne said in an interview in the 'Sunday Times' that the government decided to go ahead with the project because of the enormous financial worth of the phosphate deposits that have not been properly utilised since its discovery 25 years ago.

Other officials say the project has to go to a foreign firm as Sri Lanka lacked the knowhow, capital and machinery to tap this huge phosphate resource base.

The Eppawela project -- the only known phosphate resource in Sri Lanka -- was conceived in 1992 by the former United National Party (UNP) government but stalled when the People's Alliance (PA) swept parliamentary and presidential polls in mid-1994.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga made an election promise at that time not to go ahead with the project but subsequently went back on her word. ''She promised us. She told me at an election meeting in Eppawela itself that she would abandon the project. But see what has happened,'' said Piyarathana.

Prof Tissa Vitharana, senior advisor to the Ministry of Science and Technology, said the executive committee of the People's Alliance -- including ministers -- had agreed prior to the December 1999 presidential poll to abandon the project.

''But there's pressure from hidden quarters to sign the agreement. That's why this protest is taking place,'' he said, walking behind a group of protesters. Vitharana, and Science and Technology Minister Batty Weerakoon, also opposed to the project, were the only members from the government in the protest.

Weerakoon, a leftist politician who believes villagers should not be uprooted, is the lone dissenting voice in a Cabinet that is generally supportive of the project.

Vitharana said the foreign firm was planning to exploit an estimated 200 years of phosphate resources at Eppawela within a 30-year period. ''We will lose this resource for good in 30 years if we allow the foreign mining companies to come,'' he added.

Environmentalists say the annual phosphate output will jump to around 1.2 million tonnes compared to 40,000 tonnes at present. Local scientists say it is safe to extract up to 350,000 tonnes per year without disturbing the ecology and future use.

Under the proposed deal, the Sri Lankan government will be paid five dollars per tonne of phosphate extracted, while the mining companies will export it at world market prices currently at between 40 and 70 dollars per tonne. ''In simple economic terms, Sri Lanka is the loser,'' Vitharana said.

A.D. Yaswawathie, among 1,500 Eppawela residents who took part in the protest, said there are cracks in the walls of homes, after the small government project for mining began.

''If this happens to a small operation, just imagine our plight when a big company starts digging a 300-foot hole in the ground and uses loads of dynamite,'' she said.





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