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Vimukthi Weeratunga Gives Voice to Voiceless In Protecting Sri Lanka’s Wildlife

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Vimukthi Weeratunga

Vimukthi Weeratunga

By

Marianne David

We are raping our own heritage due to human-centric thinking, asserts Environmental Foundation Ltd. Director – Operations Vimukthi Weeratunga, pointing out that land management is key to protecting the forests, trees and animals, which are Sri Lanka’s lifeline.

While EFL fights battles on behalf of the environment on the legal front, Weeratunga says there isn’t sufficient awareness among the citizens of this country, despite Sri Lanka being one of the few countries in the world that has given an environmental right to every single citizen in its Constitution.

Weeratunga is a wildlife biologist who is very passionate about and deeply committed to preserving the country’s wildlife no matter how high the personal sacrifice – a fire that was ignited when he first stepped into Yala at the age of six. He describes his journey in conservation as one where every single moment has been a memorable experience, representing animals who have no voice or power to fight.

Following are excerpts of an interview with the Daily FT:

Q: Could you tell us about your childhood?

A: I was born in Kurunegala, then I moved to Polonnaruwa, from there moved to Hambantota, then moved back to Kurunegala, and then to Kalutara. My father, W.A. Kumaradasa, was a civil servant who served the poorest of poor at that time. I think he realised that he needed to let us experience the hardship endured by the people living in the dry zone, mainly in Jaffna and other areas. He took us everywhere – at that time it was us three brothers and later on there were two additions.

At that time the dry zone was fully infested with malaria and suffering from a lack of water resources. People were just trying to survive with the bare amount of resources. He was a very poor farmer’s son who became a civil servant and he wanted us to experience the hardship of people battling for survival. While he was letting us experience this hardship, he also showed us the beauty and pristine condition of the country by taking us to Yala, Wilpattu, Sinharaja and all these places, which were not explored at that time.

Q: Is it during this time that you passion for wildlife came to life?

A: Yes, Yala was part of my life. My father used to come to this area with us all the time to relocate villagers, talk to the farmers, and go to the Sithulpawwa Temple. At that time the Sithulpawwa Temple was a seasonal temple. People would come there during that season, have a festival, then close everything down and go away. Just imagine that situation at that time with absolutely no transportation and malaria all over the place.

I am now immune to malaria because I had it so many times. My mother at one time was actually afraid that she would lose one of two of her children to malaria; it was that bad. But my father thought it did not matter even if he had to lose someone because it was part of nature. He wanted to show us hardship no matter what.

I went to school in Polonnaruwa, Hambantota and Kalutara. These were not big schools; all small schools with children of farmers and fishermen. I used to mingle with these small people and I think it shaped a lot of my personality and my life.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to be involved in wildlife and conservation as a profession?

A: In 1985 I was lucky to join the Forest Department as a research assistant. It was an accidental thing. I was a math student but I didn’t do my A/Ls well. There was an opening at the Forest Department and it was a mid-level job, not a professional one. I thought it was interesting and anyway my heart was with nature all the time so I thought I would try it out. That became a real fortune for me.

Q: Which animal is your biggest passion?

A: Every single animal is my passion because I am looking at nature’s big picture. Yes, we are looking at one or two species as icons, but what we are doing is, by protecting the habitat of those species in the spotlight, we are automatically protecting many other kinds of living things. We need iconic figures – poster animals. The leopard is one of them, as is the elephant. In scientific terms, they are keystone species as well. That’s the shield, the face of it. Actually the real work behind it is huge and revolves around the conservation of many more animals and things. That is what conservation looks at.

The panda bear is global example, while the polar bear is another.

Conservation looks at keeping these animals in front while looking at the big picture. With these icons, we try to appeal to the sensitive nature in human beings. We all like the beautiful ones and through these beautiful ones, we carry out the campaign and ensure the conservation of all.

Q: Could you outline your most memorable experiences in this journey of conservation?

A: Every single moment is a memorable experience. That is why I keep on coming to the wilderness. It’s so dynamic and keeps changing every second in every way – from the weather and cloud patterns to animal movements, that is the beauty of it. People don’t realise how beautiful it is. If you come to a wilderness area, you will see that it changes every second. You will see amazing things every few seconds.

Q: Is nature photography also something that you’re passionate about?

A: Photography has become a passion but also a notebook. I record everything and look at the time changes and what has happened 30 years ago.

Q: For how long have you been doing this and in what capacities?

A: I started in 1985 so it’s been almost 30 years. I started at professional level after my graduation in 2001. I managed to go to the US to pursue my higher education in wildlife management at the Oregon State University in the United States. I have a degree in wildlife biology. I then came back to Sri Lanka although I got a fantastic opportunity to work in Botswana. Upon my return I joined the world conservation union, the IUCN, which is the largest conservation agency in the world. I joined the Sri Lanka Country Office as the Head of the Species and Biodiversity Program, which was the main element of IUCN.

Q: When and why did you join Environmental Foundation Ltd. and what does EFL do?

A: After five years of international organisation experience, I thought that I needed to give that experience to a smaller place in Sri Lanka, where my heart always is. As a result I selected Environmental Foundation Ltd., which is a very small non-profit organisation.

EFL carries out a lot of environmental conservation and environmental activism through litigation. We fight battles on the legal front. For example, if somebody is polluting the environment, we go after the agency which has a mandate to prevent pollution on behalf of the country. If somebody is cleaning up a forest, we don’t go after the person doing it; we go after the Forest Department, which has a mandate to protect forests on behalf of the people of the country.

Q: Do you feel that there is increasing awareness in relation to conservation, especially among the youth?

A: The youth is getting interested, but it is not enough. When there is an environmental battle, how many people are there to support us? It’s only a very few, just a handful. People think ‘that’s not my business’. However, what we really need to emphasise is that Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world that has given an environmental right to every single citizen in its Constitution. This is the Constitutional power of the citizen.

Every citizen has the right to a clean environment. When we fight environmental battles, we always use this Constitutional power and that is why we can go to highest Court in the country and say ‘I have a right to go against this person because my fundamental rights are being violated’. That is a very important thing but there isn’t sufficient awareness among the citizens of this country. That is the legal front on which the ELF is fighting and we have won many battles.

Q: Apart from the legal battles, what other areas is EFL involved in?

A: We carry out some scientific projects in addition to pilot projects in partnership with corporates. We not only fight for conservation on the legal front but look at conservation in scientific terms as well. We work at policy level with the Government trying to help it formulate rules and regulations and provide whatever other scientific support that is needed.

I sit on so many committees, like the National Environmental Committee, the National Bio Safety Committee and so on. That is the input that we provide to the Government for the sake of the environment. It’s not only myself; the whole gamut of EFL knowledge is a huge asset to the Government. On one hand the Government is angry with us in a way since we go to Court against the Government all the time, but on the other hand it realises that EFL is a very vital organisation. EFL has survived for 30 years with very minimal resources.

Sometimes when we conduct a campaign, people come and ask ‘why are you doing this?’ because they feel we are wasting our time. When you look at our bank statement, it is the proof of our integrity. The company bank statement, my bank statement, the way that we live – all this is the proof of integrity.

Q: You have made many sacrifices in the name of conservation and giving back to the country. Do you feel this journey and the sacrifices have been worth it?

A: It is worth it! With every cent I earn I have to feed my children, so I have to earn legitimately. I am perfectly happy. My parents ask me, ‘Why did you leave the US where you had so many opportunities, where people embraced you due to your experience? You could have had a good life; your kids and wife could have had a good life. Why do you do this?’ It doesn’t matter to me.

One of my brothers left the country. He is a top professional. So my mother asks me what the point is when I sometimes find it difficult to manage and have to ask my brothers for assistance. I think it’s much more respectable to ask for my brothers for some money than steal money. I am very happy. I will do whatever I can do as long as I have the power and the strength to do so.

Q: What are the key challenges facing wildlife in Sri Lanka?

A: The challenge is the management of land. We have been telling the Government and other policymakers that we have a fantastic treasure of wildlife in the country, on this piece of land. We have been working with scientists from all around the world. When they come to Sri Lanka to work with us, they say: ‘Twenty million people are packed in this small piece of land. Four hours of driving from the heart of the city, you are among elephants. Another two hours of driving and you are in the whale watching area. This cannot be seen in any other country in the world. But why are you guys messing things up? Why are you not managing well?’

It’s not rocket science. We can have a fantastic model for the world.

Look at Costa Rica, such a small place. They are doing so much of environmental work – it’s not rocket science, just pure scientific management. Land management is key for this country and includes conflict resolution. Why did we fight for the last 30 years? Over land. Land management is extremely vital not only from an environmental perspective, but also from a political and social perspective. When somebody is invading your land, that is a land matter. You may kill your neighbour tomorrow due to land. It’s the same with the animals.

We are representing animals who have no voice or power to fight, except for the elephant, which is giving a good fight. But the rest are just dying off without giving a fight because they are voiceless.

We have millions of voices; we have many ministries and ministers to look out for the people. EFL is representing the voiceless – the forest, the trees, the animals. That is why I keep telling politicians and policymakers to listen to us. There are millions to look after the human aspect, but only a handful to look after the trees and animals. The trees and animals are the lifeline of this country and not only in terms of the economy.

Q: How did the end of the war impact Sri Lanka’s wildlife?

A: We discovered that the natural resources in the north and east were in a precious situation, as they were 30 years ago – no trees have been cut, no wetlands have been filled, no garbage has been dumped. It’s in pristine condition. If you go from Mannar to Jaffna, birdlife is fabulous. In the southern coast, birdlife has been vanishing over the last 30 years. Birdlife is flourishing there. These areas were naturally protected because of the war.

Now after the end of the war, people are trying to just grab land. What are the main areas they are focusing on? The forests. This is because there is only one owner – the Forest Department. You apply pressure, you delist it, you change it, you go to Parliament where there are many people to raise their hands and you can change the law within 24 hours. What are you doing? You are destroying the lifeline of the future generation of this country. We are fighting for the rights of the next generation.

It is purely due to greed, a lack of appreciation and taking everything for granted. The people don’t realise the value of what we have. I want policymakers to look at water. The forest is the key for water resources. This country has been identified as one of the few countries in the Asian region as a water surplus country. We have to be very thankful that we have water, which is the lifeline for everything. But when you rape the land like this, there won’t be water for us. No politician can solve the problem of shortage of water.

We are not protecting the rainforests; we are not protecting the montane habitats, which is the heart of Sri Lanka. These are very precious. We are worse than the Colonial powers that stripped this land. This is our right; this is our heritage. We are raping our own heritage due to human-centric thinking. That’s the tragedy of it. There have to be compromises that are helpful to the country, which result in sustainable solutions. It’s very sad but I am still hopeful. I am optimistic that somebody will listen to us someday. COURTESY: DailyFT

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