A UNESCO heritage site threatened by Galle port development

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The recently announced multi-faceted $200 million plan to develop the port of Galle at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, both as an improved commercial port and as a center for water sports and leisure accommodating ships from cruising, is an attractive proposition.

Indeed, the Public-Private sector project, considering national and foreign investments, promises to revive a port that has been in the doldrums since the last decade of the 19th century. In the following century, after having been the main port of Sri Lanka for 500 years.

Details of the development plan presented by Ports Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena are not yet available. Yet from the outline of the plan revealed to the media, it appears very drastic changes are being contemplated – changes that could negatively impact the port’s material heritage, marine and cultural archaeologists warn.

They say the port of Galle should be considered part of the “UNESCO Heritage Site” of Galle comprising the Galle Fort and the Old Town. Any damage to the port’s heritage could lead to the withdrawal of the UNESCO heritage designation.

The massive ramparts, bastions, buildings, lighthouse, clock tower and storehouse are the most visible features of the maritime landscape of Galle Harbour, which also includes underwater maritime archaeological sites and Sinhalese sites and significant Buddhists.

It is well known that the Bay of Galle is the resting place of a number of wrecked ships from the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras, and possibly even ships from the earlier Arab era. The rocks and reefs at the entrance to the harbor had disrupted shipping for centuries. But the wreck is invaluable to marine archaeologists for whom it is part of Sri Lanka’s heritage and therefore deserves to be preserved.

Marine archaeologist Lt.Com (Rtd) Somasiri Devendra recalled that previously there was another plan to develop the Port of Galle, as well as a marina. But there was opposition, first from UNESCO who said the project would impact the Galle World Heritage Site and lead to its delisting. An expert from Italy came and submitted a similar report to the Department of Archaeology.

“As maritime archaeologists, we also objected. And the Department of Archeology insisted that under the Antiquities Act an archaeological impact study had to be carried out by experts chosen by the department. Any decision on port should therefore be based on such studies and legal considerations,” Com.Devendra said.

In 2007, following discussions between the Department of Archeology of Sri Lanka and the Department of Maritime Archeology of the Western Australian Museum (WAM), WAM was engaged as a consultant to undertake a maritime archaeological survey of the port of Galle as part of an Archaeological Impact Assessment (AIA) process.

The scope of the consultation was to outline the impact of the then proposed Galle Port development on the underwater cultural heritage of Galle. The survey took place between 14 November and 2 December 2007. WAM staff were supported in Sri Lanka by the Department of Archaeology, the Sri Lanka Maritime Archeology Unit (MAU) and the Cultural Fund central.

It should be noted that WAM has been involved in maritime archaeological research in Galle Harbor since 1992. Remote sensing and diving research projects, undertaken in 1992, 1993 and 1996, have located a series of significant sites maritime heritage in the port, including Arab-Indian stone anchors.

A number of VOC (Dutch East India Company) ships are known to have been wrecked in or around Galle. Of particular interest is the sunken Dutch ship Hercules (1661). Then there are the wreck sites of Dolfijn (sunk in 1663); Barbestien (1735); Geinwens (1776). “These sites form an integral part of the values ​​for which the Port of Galle is seen to be important, i.e. as physical and archaeological evidence of Dutch colonial activity, port development and maritime trade in Galle, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia in general,” the WAM report said.

Further: “The European colonial fort and port infrastructure on the west bank are juxtaposed against the virtually untouched east bank, with the Buddhist architecture of the Peace Dagoba and other Buddhist sites of significance, Jungle Beach and Watering Point. Further evidence of the operations and construction of Galle Fort is present in the quarries and probable archaeological remains of Dutch infrastructure at Watering Point.

“Gibbet Island is likely to contain human remains and possibly graves related to executions and burials carried out during the period of Dutch occupation. The name given to Gibbet Island in early Dutch records is ‘Hercules Kirkhof ( trans cemetery)”.

The WAM team had located 11 iron steamship wrecks (excluding the two modern wrecks). The following ships are known to have been wrecked in the vicinity of Galle Harbour: SS Phatti Allum; SS Rangoon (southwest of Port of Galle). The WAM study indicates that two recent shipwrecks demonstrate possible impacts on Galle Fort and maritime archaeological sites.

“The modern wreck of a Singapore-owned Scorpio dredger consists of three parts. The main hull and machinery of the dredge are at the western end of the Gibbet Island breakwater where she was swept away by currents after running aground near the Hercules site in June 2007. Part of the hull of the dredge’s pontoon then broke away and was swept away by the currents to a position just outside the entrance from the naval base (this wreck appears to be directly above a wreck marked on Admiralty charts).

“While it is fortunate that none of these wrecks had a direct impact on the very important VOC Hercules or Avondster sites, nor damaged the walls of the fort, they demonstrate the natural hazards of Galle harbour, the potential large modern wrecks to end up in the same places as historic wrecks, and the real potential for modern shipping accidents in the Port of Galle, even with its current status as a minor port,” the WAM report warned.

If the port is expanded to accommodate larger vessels and increased shipping traffic, then the impact on the heritage landscape values ​​and amenity of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Galle Fort caused by the main port infrastructure , the increase in maritime movements and the increased risk of shipping-related incidents such as shipwrecks, oil spills at sea, dust and pollution from heavy road traffic must be taken into consideration, suggests the report .

“In order to preserve the heritage values ​​of the port, as described above, our recommendation is to relocate the navigation facilities to a less culturally sensitive region. The establishment of a port in Galle will have implications for the port’s proposed listing as a World Heritage Site. If Galle Harbor is selected for redevelopment, every effort should be made to minimize the impact of any constructed structure on the cultural and natural aesthetics of the harbour,” the WAM report recommended.

“Consideration of the heritage values ​​of the UNESCO site of Galle should be extended to the wider maritime landscape of the Port of Galle, which according to current plans will be significantly affected by the placement of major modern port infrastructure between the ‘Old Fort and Orient Bay Area, and the associated risks of increased maritime movements,’ the report said.

Finally, the WAM said the Sri Lankan Ports Authority would do better to focus on Hambantota and Colombo as sites for major port and infrastructure developments, and “limit development in Galle to upgrading and upgrading”. improvement of existing facilities in accordance with its present status as a minor port”. .”

But now, after giving China control of the commercial port of Hambantota for 99 years, it would be impractical to think of developing it as a recreation center.

However, ecologists and marine archaeologists say the Bay of Galle could be developed as a yachting and water sports center with improved facilities, while avoiding its development as a commercial port to attract large vessels.

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