Australian Titanium Sands Limited (TSL) Company’s Multi-billion Mineral Sands Extracting Project In Mannar Island Meets with Protests of People Due to Existential Concerns Over Environmental Consequences

By Mimi Alphonsus and S. Rubatheesan

For over a decade, an Australian company has tried to secure mining licences to extract heavy mineral sands from the ecologically rich region of Mannar Island—the fourth largest ilmenite deposit in the world—with little success.

Renewed attempts to push the project further were met with protests by locals over land usage and severe existential concerns about the environmental consequences.

The Australian company, Titanium Sands Limited (TSL), along with their local subsidiaries, have engaged in exploration activities covering vast swathes of Mannar Island.

Its preliminary scientific studies found key minerals such as ilmenite, rutile, zircon and garnet. According to data from the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB), Mannar Island has 53 million metric tonnes of mineral soil.

The company has secured land access agreements for mining on 296 acres, according to the company’s responses to the “Basic Information Questionnaire” (BIQ) submitted to the Central Environmental Authority (CEA). The Sunday Times obtained a copy through a Right to Information (RTI) request.

TSL is currently in discussions with GSMB to secure a mining licence with a pending environmental impact assessment (EIA), which is yet to be finalised due to protests by local communities.

Environmental concerns

The CEA’s Environmental Assessment and Management Division Deputy Director General, N.S. Gamage, told the Sunday Times that they were unable to conduct the required preliminary scoping study before beginning the EIA since residents vehemently opposed the project.

“The project proponent then approached the Presidential Secretariat, which requested a meeting to share information with the public at the Mannar District Secretariat,” said Mr. Gamage.

On May 13, a multi-stakeholder meeting was held at the Mannar District Secretariat to “brief” the local communities, fishermen unions, and civil society groups. There were heated exchanges between company representatives and local communities, who argued that if mining at a depth of 2 to 10 metres is allowed on low-lying land like Mannar Island, it would lead to saltwater contamination and flooding and ruin the fertile soil.

One concerned local among the audience was heard saying, “Don’t try to hoodwink our people with your lies. This is our land. We won’t accept any report you bring forward. If you pay enough, they will write any number of lies in it.”

Mannar District Secretary K. Kanakeshwaran also acknowledged receiving multiple complaints and petitions from local communities opposing the multibillion-dollar project.
During the meeting, the mining company representatives downplayed the short- and long-term impacts of the project.

Sivanesan Somanathar, an environmental consultant commissioned by TSL, said that an EIA would be necessary to assess all environmental risks and that many concerns could be mitigated.

In his presentation, he said there would be “no dewatering” and “no saltwater intrusion” and assured replanting of whichever vegetation the landowner preferred after the project’s completion.

The project BIQ submitted by the company to CEA indicated short-term impacts on soils and land use, surface and groundwater quality, and drainage and hydrology, as well as medium-term impacts on the landscape and visual environment.

GSMB’s Senior Director of Geology Starin Fernando dismissed claims that exploration drilling below the water table is harmful. “However, at the mining stage, if it goes below the water table, there will be saltwater intrusion,” he said. However, he said GSMB does not deal with this problem, and the National Water Supply and Drainage Board should provide tentative solutions.

Environmentalists and conservators raised serious concerns about the long-term impact of the project on a rich biodiverse region like Mannar Island, which is home to 874 hectares of mangrove plants and located in the global migratory path of some 400 bird species.
The 31,135-acre Mannar Island where the proposed project will be implemented is a highly populated area with 70,379 people residing there.

For Dr. Soosai Anandan, a retired Professor of Geography at the University of Jaffna, this project sounds the death knell for local habitats and communities who are still struggling to revive the rural economy after the end of the civil war in 2009.

“This project, if implemented, will not only change the landscape and terrain of the island as a whole but further accelerate the existing livelihood issues such as access to safe drinking water, farming and fishing,” Prof. Anandan said.

“The island is already below sea level. When they drill and mine in this sensitive region, the seawater will seep through the land, posing a threat to farming and drinking water,” he said.

Land Issues

Another point of contention has been land access for the project. “My family had 35 acres of palmyrah land for generations,” said a resident of Olaithoduvai who sells palmyrah toddy, fronds and firewood for a living.

“It is our ancestral wealth, but we don’t have title deeds for it. When they brought in these private land ownership laws decades ago, our people did not know how to get this land registered,” he explained. “Suddenly, big landlords from other villages started to fence it up in recent years, and, shortly after, big machinery appeared. I can’t access the palmyrah forest on that land and earn my income.”

Other residents are fearful that their livestock will lose access to grazing lands due to landscape changes. According to the BIQ, 60% of the lands proposed for mining are forested areas, and the project will require the removal of topsoil and vegetation.
The Sunday Times inspected government survey maps and spoke to the Land Title Settlement Department to understand the land problem. In several areas where TSL claims that land access agreements have been procured, ownership is tagged as “claimant not known.”

Mannar has hundreds of acres of land with unclear ownership or disputed cases, partly due to delays in drawing up a “village plan” by the Land Title Settlement Department but also owing to decades of wartime displacement. As a result, communities that have lived and worked there for generations are vulnerable to land grabbing.

Local officials who requested anonymity told the Sunday Times that TSL and other companies have been procuring land on Mannar Island by signing agreements with individuals who have made a “declaration deed,” a legal document claiming ownership.

“The government will only register a property if they are 100% sure of its ownership, but a company need not adhere to the same standard and can make agreements with whoever claims the land and is willing to give it to them,” explained the official. “Once they make a declaration deed, they transfer it a few times so it has a history and becomes normalised.”

Although not illegal, the official believes the process is being abused.

Villagers whose lands were utilised for exploration activities allege that middlemen, who collected land details and approached them individually with false promises to secure land access, later handed these properties over to the mining company.

“This way, they can pay a small sum to the aggrieved family and get them not to claim the land.” Another resident said she and her family agreed to hand over their lands to a big landowner as they had no deeds to challenge his claim. “They promised to pay us money in return, but I haven’t received a cent,” she alleged.

Saliya Galagoda, TSL’s local representative, acknowledged that large landowners were fencing off properties in sand mining areas, but he said they were doing so of their own volition and solely to increase the price when mining companies try to access the land.
Mistrust in the project also stems from years of secretive practices adopted by various companies to secure access to the land. Residents said that for years, local companies and brokers approached them for exploration by saying they were “checking the water,” “researching sand,” and part of a “government project.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former broker who worked for one such company said that they would use “politically big people” to ensure villagers didn’t question the project too much. “Because people knew who I was in the community, they let me enter and explore their lands,” he said. “I don’t feel good about it.”

TSL’s Galagoda, who took over the project in 2021, said that since he started working, things have been done “correctly.” “We paid Rs. 12,500 for every single hole that was drilled,” he added.

While the application for a mining licence at the moment covers a relatively modest area, TSL currently has over 17,000 acres—more than half of Mannar Island—under retention. According to the GSMB licensing process, TSL has one to two years to apply for and receive a mining licence before retention expires permanently.

Courtesy:Sunday Times