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Australian company has a plan to mine sands

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Mannar Island is a bird paradise that survived Sri Lanka’s civil war

Two thousand flamingos and a war-torn island: controversy over Australian mine proposal

Have you heard of Sri Lanka’s Mannar Island?

Up to a million migrating birds seek sanctuary here each year on their gruelling journeys South, and thousands of flamingos call the island home too.

It’s also home to the survivors of a 26-year civil war, who are still rebuilding their lives and rely on the island for their subsistence livelihoods.

An Australian ASX-listed company wants to mine on the island for mineral sands – a booming global industry extracting vital minerals for a multitude of uses.

But Sri Lankan scientists, environmentalists, and human rights activists are concerned about the impact a mine could have, and dismayed about the lack of information on what’s proposed.

Science Friction investigates.

 

by environment reporter Nick Kilvert and Jane Lee for Science Friction

As a small child, Shreen Abdul Saroor remembers getting up before dawn with her father to spy on the masses of migratory birds that would visit her island.

The birds were on their way down the Central Asian flyway — a migration path that crosses 30 countries from Siberia to the Indian Ocean.

“We would hide somewhere and … we don’t make any noise,” Ms Saroor recalls.

“[Then we’d watch] them coming and landing in the causeway areas and then catching fish and taking off as a huge group covering the entire sky.”

Up to a million birds stop at Mannar Island, off the north-west coast of Sri Lanka, to feed during the winter.

The Vankalai Bird Sanctuary on the southern tip of the island is protected by the Sri Lankan government and has been internationally recognised under the Ramsar Convention for its importance to both local and migratory birds.

Ms Saroor also remembers climbing the swollen trunks and gnarled branches of the baobab trees — trees synonymous with Africa, Madagascar and Australia’s Kimberley, but also found incongruously on her tiny island.

“Even though I fondly remember these baobab trees, one thing that I really remember is how … [members of the militant separatist group the Tamil Tigers] put the mutilated heads of the Indian peacekeeping forces on those trees.”

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought a 30-year civil war with majority Sinhalese Sri Lankan military, in an attempt to create an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the country.

Ms Saroor had already left the island to study in Colombo in 1990 when the Tamil Tigers forced her remaining family off Mannar Island, along with all the other Muslim residents.

“Everybody overnight became refugees,” she says.

Since the war ended in 2009, many displaced Mannar Islanders have returned to re-establish themselves in fishing and farming communities. But the trauma still lingers and there are tensions over land.

Against this backdrop, an Australian company has a plan to mine Mannar’s sands.

There are fears for the island’s fragile ecology, agriculture and fishing areas — and islanders are worried they could be displaced all over again.

Company’s drilling triples estimate of island’s minerals

Mannar is the biggest island at the base of a narrow chain of limestone shoals known as Rama Setu or Adam’s Bridge, which stretches 48 kilometres north-west to join India.

The island is 26km long by 8km wide and has rich deposits of the mineral ilmenite in its sand.

Ilmenite is the main source of titanium dioxide, a valuable white pigment used in things like paints, ink, plastics and cosmetics.

In 2018, Perth-based company Titanium Sands advised the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) it entered an agreement with Srinel Holdings Ltd to explore the extent of the island’s ilmenite reserves.

In May this year, the company announced their exploratory drilling had tripled the previous estimate — to a total of just under 265 million tonnes.

Managing director of Titanium Sands, James Searle, says the company is looking to mine an area of the island that is 2km wide and about 8km long.

“That’s probably over a 30-plus year lifespan,” he told ABC RN’s Science Friction.

“On an annualised basis that’s probably … in the region of between 10 and 16 hectares.”

But some Sri Lankan scientists and environmentalists say they have been inadequately informed about the project.

‘The machines are moving in’

Ms Saroor’s younger brother is one of those who have made it back to the island, where he has a coconut estate.

“The first time I heard about this Titanium Sands mining is from him,” Ms Saroor says.

“He called me frantically and said there are machines moving in and out of those areas.”

Companies that Titanium Sands acquired started preliminary assessment with small-scale drilling on the island in 2015.

Throughout the totality of their study, which included a scoping study completed this year, the company drilled more than 3,000 exploratory holes with the deepest going down to 12 metres. The majority were between 1 and 3 metres.

According to Dr Searle, there has been no drilling in built-up areas of the island.

“The population on the island is largely concentrated in a town down the landward end of the island, called Mannar Town. There are other coastal villages, other settlements around the island,” he says.

“Our exploration work is only being undertaken on areas where there is no habitation and where there is no active agriculture.”

It’s some of those undeveloped areas of Mannar Island that concern ecologist Sampath Seneviratne, who studies Mannar’s birds.

“Flamingos must be the most charismatic and sought-after in terms of beauty,” he says. “[But] spoon-billed sand piper, one of the rarest birds in the world and one of the most iconic species that are on the verge of extinction right now, has been recorded in Mannar.

“These birds require highly productive places to feed during their migration and during their winter stopover. So if the productivity drops, they can’t use Mannar, they have to go [to] other places.”

According to Dr Seneviratne, a public notice is usually issued when companies are given permission for mining exploration in Sri Lanka.

But he and his colleague at the Wildlife Protection Society only found out from a friend in Australia about the drilling, and they were surprised that local environmental groups knew nothing of the project.

“It was a big shocker, because how did people like us working in [Mannar] not know

Company accused of illegal conduct by Mines Bureau

Earlier this year in June, Titanium Sands was accused of illegal conduct in local Sri Lankan media reports.

The Sri Lankan Geological Surveys and Mines Bureau (GSMB) — the government body responsible for issuing mining and exploration licenses in Sri Lanka — reportedly said the company’s exploration was unlawful.

The GSMB told local media that under Sri Lankan law, Titanium Sands couldn’t legally acquire the rights to explore Mannar by purchasing the company (Srinel Holdings Ltd) that previously held the licenses.

But Dr Searles says the GSMB was “incorrect” and was responding to misleading social media posts.

“The legal advice and the legal structures are in total compliance with the Sri Lankan regulations,” he says.

The ABC contacted the GSMB but did not receive a response.

In November, a committee was put together by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Industry to look into the claims of illegal drilling.

Titanium Sands presented its case to the Ministry of Industry, but Dr Searle says he hasn’t heard anything further.

“I reiterate again that the licenses are held in a fashion which is in total compliance with the legal requirements in Sri Lanka

At the time Science Friction went to air there was no information on the company website about the committee’s enquiries into the project.

Asked why, Dr Searle responded: “We received enquiries on all manner of things and we don’t consider it to be significant.”

The company has since added a statement that says it “is not being investigated” although they have “provided information to the committee” which they say confirms the validity of their licences.

It also stated that the company has “no intention of pursuing a project that potentially impacts a Ramsar-designated area”.

Mannar ‘promoted as a promising resource’

Environmental scientist and senior director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, Hemantha Withanage, says he is concerned he hasn’t heard anything about the committee’s enquiries since the Sri Lankan federal election in August.

But, he says, the picture Titanium Sands is painting for their shareholders is not all it seems to be.

“On their website, they’re promoting Mannar Titanium Sands as a promising resource,” Mr Withanage says.

“How can somebody promote like that, without going through the environmental impact assessment process and getting the government approval?”

“We are very, very concerned about what this company is going to do in Sri Lanka,” he says.

But an environmental impact assessment and public consultation are the next steps in the process, according to Dr Searle.

“That would eventually [lead to], we hope, granting of mining licences and ultimately development of the project,” he says.

Mining would ‘dramatically transform’ the ecosystem

Mineral sands mining is considered to have a fairly low impact on the environment compared to some other forms of mining.

The process doesn’t involve chemical separation of minerals such as in gold mining, or digging vast open-cut pits such as with coal.

Titanium Sands published material online showing the location of their resources including exploratory drill holes near the coast.

Daniel Franks, program leader of the development minerals strategic program at the University of Queensland, says Titanium Sands’ scoping study, released 

to the ASX in June this year, reveals the size of the planned mine is extensive and includes areas just a few metres from the beach.

If the operation was based in Australia, the company would be unlikely to be granted permission to mine those areas, says Professor Franks, who is not involved in the project.

“Mining to such a wide extent would dramatically transform the ecosystem. It would also limit the land uses that the community already has for the island,” he says.

“If it was in Australia, which is the home company of the project partners, it would face some pretty steep obstacles to regulatory approval.”

Mining near active beaches can disturb coastal morphology and removing vegetation can leave sand dunes vulnerable to erosion.

Managing director Dr Searle stresses that his company may not end up being able to mine all the resources they’ve identified, should the mine go ahead.

He says the company doesn’t intend to mine near beaches on Mannar, and that there is no economic incentive for the company to do this.

“Those areas along the shoreline are of no interest to us whatsoever because we consider them to be environmentally sensitive. We are much more interested in the interior, one to three kilometres away from the nearest coastline.”

But Professor Franks says the company’s assertion that it has no plans to mine near the beach “appears contrary to the scoping study released to the ASX” and that an update to the ASX might be in order.

Ms Saroor is also afraid the mine could damage the island’s groundwater.

“Mannar gets the smallest amount of the rain in the whole of Sri Lanka. So we totally depend on groundwater,” she says.

Professor Franks says the extent to which a sand mine could disturb the groundwater on Mannar depends on how deep Titanium Sands digs into the ground.

“I think there is a potential to impact groundwater systems. We’ve seen that in Australia where there’s indurated layers in the sand, that are impermeable and that can hold water,” he says.

“But I think the bigger impact is just the surface disturbance that’s going to happen across the island.”

Dr Searle, however, says the project will not affect groundwater or disturb beach areas.

“If it was to affect the groundwater, we wouldn’t be doing it,” he says.

“How you can make a statement that [this type of operation] would not be permitted in Australia is farcical.

“This sort of operation … has occurred over the last 50 to 60 years [in Australia] with an excellent environmental record.”

‘The people on the ground have the right to say no’

Rather than displacing people, Dr Searle says the mine will create between 200 and 600 jobs and that 95 per cent of those employed would be Sri Lankan people.

But Ms Saroor, who is now an award-winning human rights activist, is concerned about the impact on a community recovering from war.

She believes Titanium Sands should not add to the trauma of a community that is still rebuilding.

“At the end of the day, they are investing in Sri Lanka to make profit,” she says.

“So, my message would be to them to make sure not to profit out of a community that has been suffering in the last 30 years of the war.

“Think about the impact not only on the environment, but also on the people, and [then] make their decision.”

Mr Withanage of the Environmental Justice Centre says he could support the project, if it can be proven to be done in a way that benefits the local community and earns its social licence.

He says the final decision on whether the mine goes ahead needs to rest with the Mannar people.

“It’s not the Australian citizens who are going to make that decision.

“It is the Sri Lankan citizens going to that place, Sri Lankan government agencies, Sri Lankan courts… So they have to make that information available to Sri Lankans first.

“Australians are just going to buy the shares. The people on the ground have the right to say no.” –ABC



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It all began in the late 19th Century…

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During the time of British Imperialism when the Sinhalese were on the verge of losing their innate Sinhala Buddhist identity, and with the growth and expansion of the Christian missionary education in Ceylon, the need arose to educate them by combining the English language as a medium of education.

Amid religious restlessness, Sinhala Buddhist elites, some of who were heavily influenced by the Theosophical Society, stepped forward and became the life-blood of the Sinhala -Buddhist revival movement. Realizing the need and the necessity to empower young Buddhist girls on par with the missionary education, Mr. William de Abrew, a philanthropist and an affluent member of the Theosophical Society, followed by his son Mr. Peter de Abrew took the initiative to form a new structured educational institute in Cinnamon Gardens. They recognized the talents and administrative skills of the German born Educationalist, Mrs. Marie Musaeus Higgins who was also a part of the Theosophical society to commission the school, which they named, Musaeus Buddhist Girls’ School.

In 1891, Musaeus College was born in a simple mud hut with a thatched roof, with 12 girls. With time, it evolved into a grand edifice formed on a firm foundation laid by our Founders, Mrs. Marie Musaeus Higgins, Mr. Peter de Abrew, Col. Henry Steel Olcott and Ms. Annie Besant. At present, Musaeus College houses over 6,500 students and an academic faculty of 362. Both the National and British Curricula are followed by giving our students an opportunity to expand their horizons in this fast-paced competitive world.

Musaeus College amidst challenges and obstacles

The Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019, followed by the pandemic situation soon after, disrupted the smooth functioning of schools and created a standstill in all aspects of our lives. Being visionaries, the management of Musaeus College, had already implemented digitalization of teaching and learning of the school, by purchasing Smart Boards and offering teacher-training, unaware that this will be a blessing in disguise during this unforeseen time. Thirty Master- Teachers had already been given training in this field and were well- geared to this challenge of using online platforms for teaching, learning and testing, by the time Covid 19 afflicted our island. Since the teachers were well equipped with the tech- knowledge, within a short span of time Muasaus College launched Microsoft Teams as their digital platform as soon as lockdowns were imposed. With this, Musaeus College became a pioneer and a model school where a virtual, structured, and formal teaching plan was implemented from the Lower Nursery classes to the Advanced Level classes.

By this time the College was in the forefront in completing the academic curriculum and received much praise from the school community and the general public.

We went a step ahead by introducing an evaluation system for all grades, paying special attention to students who were preparing for National and International academic examinations such as GCE O/L, GCE A/L, Cambridge, and Pearson Edexcel examinations.

The constant lockdowns at different time periods restricted our functioning and this had a huge negative impact on our students whose carefree school life had come to an abrupt halt. The teachers, understanding their students’ plight, took the initiative to continue with the extra-curricular activities and sports training through virtual platforms. Presently the school has more than 25 clubs and societies and many of these organized virtual Intra-school and Inter-school events. The students participated in International Competitions and won World Prizes.

A virtual Vesak festival, Debating Competitions, most Inter-House Competitions, Young Inventors, Wild Life Conservation seminars, five-day virtual Guide Camp, motivational sessions, and student Power Hours etc. were continued uninterrupted. Further, many other activities such as text book distribution, admission interviews, plant distribution for the newly admitted Grade 1 students and even an all-night Pirith Ceremony in memory of our Founders were conducted virtually and Drive Thru modes. The highlight of this was the ‘Drive Thru Prize Giving’ where 742 students received their prizes.

As Musaeus College reaches another milestone in her long epic journey of 130 years, we pledge to continue to carry forward the vision and legacy of our Founders into the future.

Long live Musaeus College.

Musaeus College celebrates

130 years of excellence

By Principal, Mrs. Nelum Senadira

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The Garden School

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Musaeus College in the 1970s shrouded and static in time, when my mind voyages among the gossamer memories of girlhood, to scale those high and hefty walls of that stronghold of discipline – that kept the girls locked in, (and perhaps, any romantic notions locked out?)

Beyond the ice dome of the Shrine Room with its single Wathusuddha plant, through the emerald green Tunnel alongside the Courtyard of exotic orchids the Reception Counter with its black dial-up telephone to the right; always alert – to the Parlor and Principal’s Office beyond opposite the cream-tiled Dining Hall; now regaled by the cords of a piano from the Western Music Room

(with its elaborate white metalwork cage); fronting the five-storied new building – its top floor inviting surreptitious morning siestas with an eye open for raids by prefects and teachers.

Thereafter, arrested,

by the aroma of deep-frying Chinese Rolls; to taste that distinctive Onion and Green Chili Fish Paste of the Tuck Shop Sandwich…

Then, in the distance, lecture theatres

and science laboratories outfitted with Bunsen Burners and a myriad of glass: beakers, droppers, test tubes, cylinders and syringes; overlooking the washing of white and navy blue cotton hung to dry.

Following the fawn grounds of the Tennis Courts to the left, across the walkway of a charming mosaic design to the Quadrangle of grass (lush at the beginning of term but somewhat threadbare towards the end – with the toll of dreaded PT, athletics, netball, and hockey); bordered by a pastel rainbow of classrooms, to halt – by that perimeter of flora and foliage

(a no-go, no-girls’ land for us).

Between the ornate wrought-iron palisade

(visited by a black Koha with a steadfast scarlet eye) and the simple white paling – a kaleidoscope of tropical tones and tinctures: riotous Bougainvillea and Hibiscus of every hue, the golden cascades of Ahala, swatches and strips of Barbertons, Ixora, Das Pethiya; faces and tongues of candy-red Anthuriums; fiery Heliconia hanging down; where once a Peacock was perched on the Takarang roof.

The spectacle too lurid to my liking at the time, but now recalled with the attachment of loss.

Passing by old Parakumba (or was it some unknown mysterious sage?) holding a sheaf of Ola leaves (which the girls chose to see as a slice of Papaya), shaped out of the gloomy-grey, phony-rock beside the pink lotus pond – was it to epitomize the education of men?

Even then, it occurred to me where were the role models of erudite women?

Then, the solid wooden doors of the Art Room en route to the lime-green radiance of the two-storied Library Chamber lined with books upon books upon books, with the central spiral staircase leading to more worlds of words, long before the universe of the world wide web and internet.

Turning left to the Nursery adorned with characters of rhymes across from the shrubberies and greenery surrounding the half-circle of the white lotus pond, to the line of classrooms in the Western Boundary and sometime later, to the abundant vegetable beds of tender Ladies’ Fingers, deep-coloured Egg Plants, red Chilis as well as Plantain Trees laden with ripening Bananas.

Turning right to the Main Hall, the wooden stage which had seen the performances of many fledgling singers, orators, actors, dramatists, debaters and dancers; flanked by the pure white marble busts of Marie Musaeus Higgins and Colonel Henry Steele Olcott (enclosed in glass cabinets); and a sepia photograph of Peter de Abrew, but not of Annie Beasant – surprisingly missing…

The Theosophists whose philosophical vision led to the realization of a school for girls in the year 1891 – an autonomous citadel with its own hostel, kitchens, laundry, sickroom, sewingroom, potteryroom, boutique and bakery.

With that – I leave you with a topography of Musaeus, that garden school – now effaced and even replaced …. but perennial – in my mind.

Maithree Wickramasinghe

Past Pupil

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Lihini Fernando – being the change she wants to see

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by Zanita Careem

Lihini Fernando does not come from a political family, neither does she have political wealth to sustain her. However, it did not deter her from pursuing her passion to be the change she yearned to see in Sri Lanka.

An attorney-at-law, Lihini believes in empowering women as an empowered woman is living statement. Meeting her offers an opportunity to be amazed at a person who has enormous energy and infectious enthusiasm.

She traces her interest in politics from her school days. “I have always been vocal about discrimination in society and the injustice caused to women and children. Heading her own legal firm- Velox Partners, with a few other lawyers, as well as being an achiever at the 2021 Women in Management Awards in which she was awarded the ‘Inspirational Woman of the Year’ award for the category; Emerging Woman Politician, she also works in the family business of advertising and furniture.

What is remarkable about her is her belief that women have the capability to ‘stretch themselves’ above and beyond the status quo.

Passion for politics

Lihini also spoke on what inspired her to become a politician. Today she is a Municipal Councilor from Moratuwa. “I took up politics because of my passion for it and the passion for change,” said Lihini, emphatically quoting Mahatma Gandhi’s words- ‘be the change you wish to see in this world.’

Working with people at the grass root level and advocating social causes is indeed rewarding says Lihini. “Only honest, committed educated and capable people can change the political landscape of women in politics,” says Lihini calling for more women to take the centre stage in politics.

Specifically in Sri Lanka’s 2019 post-COVID context, the brunt of the ethnic war is borne by women who lost their loved ones across the ethnic divide, suffering debilitating loss whether psychological or economic. The real challenge for Lihini is the need to build up women for political leadership in order to foster and inculcate a capable and emphatic government. She strongly believes that women are the live wire, the decision maker, the strength of every family and hence they have the potential to be a decisive factor in decision making be in politics or the corporate sector.

Lihini is confident that Sri Lanka can address gender related issues. Women make up more than half of the population and in terms of eligible voters they lead men at 56% and outnumber males at Universities at 54%. Despite these impressive statistics, the representation of women in the active labour force is just 35%, reflecting the disappointing scale of gender inequality and discrimination against women, laments the young social and political advocate.

“There is very little done to address the wide discrimination against women or to provide them protection and empower them to be equal partners in the country’s growth and progress,” reflected Lihini emphasizing that women can support any decision-making role in the country and can even change dynamics of politics as well if given a chance.

As to why female representation in the economy and even politics is low, she responded: “the main reasons for that is the conventional stereo typical roles assigned and imposed on women as wives and mothers. We take pride in having the first woman Prime Minister in the world but our society still assigns separate roles for women and men and hence place severe constraints. We need to be encouraging and supporting, so women do not feel intimidated by politics perpetuated by the ruling class. There is nothing better than to see more women representation in Parliament. Sri Lanka still has hope. People can and must eradicate corrupt officials and hold leaders to account. Your right is not limited to a vote,” remarked Lihini in conclusion.

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