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Environmental impacts from the use of explosive weapons in Sri Lanka

The end of the Sri Lankan civil war, a conflict that lasted from July 1983 through to May 2009, may have ushered in an era of peace, but for many people in the most impacted areas of that island nation, particularly in the north and east, it was a hard peace indeed.  Tens of thousands of people impacted by this war, one marked by its repeated use of explosive weaponry, were left without homes and other civilian infrastructure.

Many houses, hospitals, roads, factories, farms and other places of business were damaged or destroyed. This left thousands not just without their homes but also without means of employment. With over 300,000 displaced by the violence and significant levels of explosive contamination in the North and East, it was clear that there would be significant issues surrounding land use in the years after the war.

In this section of AOAV’s report – analysing the reverberating effects of explosive violence long after the bombs have fallen silent – we will examine the environmental impacts of the use of explosive weaponry in Sri Lanka in all its aspects.

UXO

Landmines were used by both rebels and government forces throughout the conflict in the North. This left the land highly contaminated by explosive weaponry – not only landmines but also other explosive remnants of war (ERW) – including civilian areas such as schools and villages, as well as large swathes of agricultural and open land. This contamination has prolonged displacement, caused both physical and psychological damage, as well having had an impact on education and agriculture. In 2014, UNICEF reported there had been over 22,000 casualties from mines and explosive remnants of war in Sri Lanka, including at least 1,603 civilians. Whilst these numbers have significantly reduced since the end of the war, there continues to be casualties from these explosives each year up to the present.

Returnees to Vasavilan East, north Sri Lanka, returned to destroyed and overgrown homes after clearance and had since found two items of UXO.

For families that have returned to reportedly cleared areas, those that have witnessed harm caused by left behind UXO or continue to find UXO on their land, are reluctant to allow their children to play outside and hesitate to use the land for agriculture.[1] One man Vijithkanith said his father-in-law had recently been killed by UXO on his land while lighting a bonfire. Vijithkanith had concerns about the safety of his brother-in-law, who had learning disabilities and lived on the father’s land, as well as his children playing outdoors.

Clearance has been taking place over many years, starting even before the war had ended in Sri Lanka, and whilst most of the contamination has been removed, pockets of land remain highly contaminated over eight years after the end of the war. According to HALO representatives in the North, there were approximately 650 mine fields in need of clearance due to the war – of these about 70 remain, though some need reassessment. It is also estimated that around 2,500 people are still waiting to resettle on the land that remains contaminated, whilst other areas are needed for agriculture and other uses.

There have, however, been difficulties in clearing the land of landmines and UXO due to high levels of contamination. The levels of explosives and bullets used in the war have meant that metal contamination in the soil is so high that in some areas demining groups are unable to use metal detectors to carry out the work – slowing the operation considerably.[2] Furthermore, the extensive use of mortars and other forms of shelling, means that, compared to landmines, UXO distribution can be random and widespread, making clearance difficult as there is no pattern to the contamination.[3]

The impacts of UXO on displacement, agriculture and wildlife are discussed in the sections below.

Agriculture

During the war many crops were destroyed by bombing and the effects of war. For example, according to the Coconut Conservation Society, at least 50,000 coconut trees were impacted by the war. Whilst over 2.5 million palmyrah palm trees were cut down to make bunkers for protection from the bombardment and for firewood – palmyrah are the only tall trees that tend to grow in the north and east. The palmyrah tree not only provides fruit that is a staple food in the diet of the population in the impacted areas, it also protects other plants, people, infrastructure and wildlife from strong winds, as well as contributes to drought resistance by helping to retain water in the soil. Losing so many trees clearly, then, had impact.

For a long while, much of the land in the impacted areas remained unusable, due to securitisation, landmines and explosive remnants of war. This meant there was loss of income due to this, particularly on fertile land that could have been used to grow crops. Even when people have been able to return to their land they must contend with the damage left behind, including not just the destruction to homes, wells, crops and irrigation systems, but also the damage caused to the soil from the contamination and neglect, which can make it difficult to use, even years after.

Landmines and UXO

UXO also has a significant impact on agriculture. Beyond the damage caused by the inability to return to their land and maintain crops and livestock, when farmers do return to their land, there can still be risks from missed explosives. Further, for some, economic necessity has pushed the farmers to use areas where there are still risks from mines and other UXO.

Deminers in northern Sri Lanka.

When AOAV met with HALO representatives in Kilinochchi, they explained that cattle still roam through minefields and often these animals end up falling victims to the explosives. In November 2017, the month before AOAV met with HALO, a cow in calf was killed in the Muhamalai minefield. This also means a loss of income for the farmer who the cattle belonged to, as well as a significant amount of future earnings.

Barriers to farming

For farmers that have been able to return to their work, many have faced further difficulties due to equipment being destroyed in the war. Despite this, in some cases production has been reported to have doubled and farmers have been able to move from subsistence farming to commercialising their work more effectively, though they are also facing greater competition, particularly from military-run farms.

Since the end of the war, Sri Lanka experienced a surge in GDP growth and though growth is expected as wars end the rise is also attributed to Sri Lanka’s development into a service-oriented economy rather than a traditional agricultural – which was also challenged by natural disasters.

Military occupation

Further, during the war, the military appropriated large amounts of land, much of which continues to be used and farmed by the military. AOAV were told in December 2017, that 150,000 army soldiers occupy at least 65,000 acres of land in the Northern Province and the military presence was growing.[4] Whilst there is the obvious economic and personal impacts of losing your land, the government farms have further economic impact: as the military own larger areas of land than the typical farmer, they can also sell the produce at lower rates than local farmers, increasing competition and forcing local farmers to drive prices so low that they now make a negligible profit.[5] Many communities that used to live from their agricultural work have seen this system collapse, forcing them to seek employment outside the community.[6]

Additionally, the Civil Security Department recruit ex cadres and other local Tamils to work on government farms, which though economically beneficial to those employed, has been reported to have psychological impacts. Most working on these farms suffered the impacts of the military’s weapons during the war, such as displacement or loss of homes and family members and now they are required to wear uniforms bearing the Sri Lankan military logos. For many, this has had reported psychological consequences, such as causing or exacerbating depression, but due to the levels of unemployment and poverty, they have no option other than to continue with this work.[7]

Land ownership

The huge levels of displacement, destruction of homes and lands, military occupation as well as considerable contamination from UXO and landmines, left land a deeply political issue. During the war, whole towns and villages were left harmed, with more than 350,000 homes damaged or destroyed.[8]

Military occupation

For those who lived off their land and used it for farming, the displacement and military occupation means that they are left without, not only a home but also, their livelihood. As the military now farms the occupied land, this has led to the strange and unjust predicament where those who used to own this land are paying the military for produce from land that used to belong to them and provide their income. Land protesters in Keppapilavu, whose protest was at its 281st day when AOAV met with them in early December, told of how, before they were displaced, the crops on their land meant they were economically independent. Now they were unable to build their livelihood through farming many and many are turning to loans, which they say they have no way of repaying. This has reportedly fuelled a number of suicide attempts, as many find themselves in further debt. Others at the protest report going hungry, in order to give their children the little food they have.

Protestors at Keppapilavu, Sri Lanka.

Protestors at Keppapilavu told AOAV that some at their camp, from other villages, had seen land returned. However, they had not been provided with any compensation and their houses remained destroyed. This meant they had to cultivate the crops and sell the produce, whilst they continued to live in the camp and save so they could then begin buying the materials they need to rebuild their homes.

Displacement and returnees

As families return to land, they have faced further difficulties. 350,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and whilst many have been rebuilt through the assistance of UN agencies and NGOs, over 100,000 still need building. In the years after the war ended, it was easier to access help from the government and NGOS but now it is difficult and there is not as much NGO or international support. Many recent returnees have not received funds to help with rebuilding and repairing homes. This is said to be due to both government failures and delays as well as a lack of accessibility and a knowledge of where to demand help from.[9]

Due to displacement, many have lost documents recognising them as the rightful owners. There is also the issue that families have changed – people have been lost in the war, other families have grown.  This can mean difficulties in fitting families into homes or trying to establish ownership when the head of the household went missing during the war.[10]

Landmines and UXO

When people do return they must also be wary of both Landmines and UXO. Casualties have even been reported after land has been declared safe – though this is in the minority, a 2015 UNHCR survey of 293 individuals from 113 refugee returnee families across 6 impacted districts (Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar and Trincomalee), found that 56% had not received Mine Risk Education (MRE).

Community relations also need to be rebuilt. In many cases, the families returning are very different from the ones that left.[11] This is particularly the case in areas with returning Muslims, who had been forcefully expelled in 1990 by the LTTE. In Jaffna only 20% (or 500 out of 2,500) of Muslim families have returned.

Wildlife

Across Sri Lanka, there is considerable and increasing tension over land between humans and animals – elephants in particular. Whilst this has multiple causes, in many areas the conflict exacerbated these tensions. The huge levels of displacement caused by the bombardment during the war, the remaining contamination and a subsequent rise in tourism infrastructure after the war saw humans slowly encroach further into unpopulated areas.

Displacement

It has been reported that those displaced by the war often turned to subsistence hunting and, though there is no concrete data on the subject, this is reported to have had a serious impact on local wildlife.[12] However, some suggest that in the East, in areas that were abandoned during the war, some elephant populations may have been able to increase, though as resettlement begins it was likely that any increase will be short-lived.

The conflict also had an impact on elephant behaviour. For example, it has been observed that the elephant population in Northwest, since the war, only venture into open areas after dark – which may also impact future tourism development.

On display at HALO’s base in Kilinochchi, north Sri Lanka.

Landmines and UXO

Landmines also threaten biodiversity; destroying vegetation cover as well as killing wildlife. Around the world, many biodiversity-loss hotspots are severely affected by landmines.[13] In Afghanistan, landmines pushed the snow leopard to the brink of extinction. Whilst this type of impact has not been so disastrous in Sri Lanka, it has been reported that the biodiversity and natural resource base have been harmed by bombardment and landmines used throughout the war.[14] Certainly landmines and UXO has killed and maimed elephants – an endangered species in Sri Lanka.

When elephants are harmed it is likely that they may not be found for days and even when found, due to difficulty in finding suitable veterinary help and the keeping wounds clean, often they will have to be put down.[15] The impact from UXO and landmine contamination is likely to continue for longer for wildlife, with civilian areas targeted for demining first. On April 4th 2011, International Mine Awareness Day, two elephants were killed by landmines in Sri Lanka, after the Sri Lankan government decided to relocate the Sri Lankan Nature Conservatory to a former war zone containing as many as 1.5 million landmines.[16]

Post-war development

Whilst the impact of bombardment as well as the resulting UXO and contamination has had some impact on wildlife populations, what has had greater impact is the pace of the post-war development drive. As Sri Lanka has sought to increase development and particularly tourism infrastructure, this has seen the relocation of people into areas populated by elephants, leopards and other vulnerable species and has resulted in significant habitat loss. This exacerbates conflict between humans and the animal populations, which has led to greater levels of deaths for both humans and animals. 2016 saw one of the highest numbers of deaths from human elephant conflict, with 279 elephant deaths and 88 human deaths.

Conclusion

It has been said in the past that Sri Lanka appears to consider the natural environment more than some of its neighbours. However, the war is thought to have been a distraction from their environmental commitments for many years, while the post-war development drive have caused harmful effects to the environment and the people that survive from it in the impacted provinces and beyond.

The environment has been considered the ‘silent victim of war’, and it is clear that this remains the case in Sri Lanka. Little research has been carried out to understand the extent of the conflicts harm on the environment, particularly on vegetation and wildlife. However, it is clear that there have been significant consequences. It is likely that, particularly due to the drastic increase in militarisation of the region that still remains in the province today, the impacts on farming and agriculture will continue for years to come.

 

This article is part of AOAV’s research on the reverberating effects of explosive weapons. For the main report, ‘When the bombs fall silent’, see here. For an overview and some key findings, see here. Or, to reach other articles as part of this research, please see here.

[1] Jha, UC. 2014. Armed Conflict and Environmental Damage. Vij Books India.

[2] Reported by HALO representatives.

[3]  Reported by HALO representatives.

[4] Interview with the Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister.

[5] Interviews with local Tamils and organisations in the Northern Province.

[6] Interview with Jansila Majeed, Sri Lankan activist

[7] Interview with Samutthana representatives in Kilinochchi.

[8] Devoic, B. 2013. ‘Sri Lanka: Physical Reconstruction and Economic Development as Conflict Prevention Factors’, CIRR, XIX (69), 55-75.

[9] Interview with Jansila Majeed, Sri Lankan activist.

[10] Based on interviews with NGOs and residents.

[11] Interview with Jansila Majeed, Sri Lankan activist.

[12] Jha, UC. 2014. Armed Conflict and Environmental Damage. Vij Books India.

[13] Jha, UC. 2013. Weapons of War: Environmental Impact, Knowledge World.

[14] Jha, UC. 2014. Armed Conflict and Environmental Damage. Vij Books India.

[15] Jha, UC. 2014. Armed Conflict and Environmental Damage. Vij Books India.

[16] Jha, UC. 2013. Weapons of War: Environmental Impact, Knowledge World