by Rohan Wijesinha & Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya
“The state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal.”
– Antonio Guterres, U.N. Secretary-General, December 2020
In Sri Lanka, the current Infection Fatality Ratio (IFR) for Covid-19, as per official figures in media reports, stands at approximately 0.5%. That is 1 in every 200 people who contract the virus sadly passes away. Yet, hope is on the way. The amazing development of vaccines, in record time, may soon help contain this pandemic. We caused it, and we will soon have the means to cure it.
On the other hand, if we continue to destroy our forests, irreparably damage our climate, pollute the land and sea, and jeopardize the country’s water catchment areas, then human mortality would not be contained at just 0.5%. Instead, in time, we would all, 100% of us, face extinction. We will take most other species into oblivion with us, as well. At the current rate of destruction, it is not inconceivable that this may happen in less than a hundred years from now. Is this the legacy that we wish to leave our grandchildren, the end game of life? They will curse us for it.
Visions of Prosperity
When old men hold the reins of power, their vision is often limited by the horizon of their remaining lifespan. A year ago, however, the country overwhelmingly elected a leader who though from political clan, was not a politician. He served the country as a soldier and, famously, as an arch military strategist, and was one of those mainly responsible for the ending of the War, and of the peace we now enjoy.
This strategy, this understanding from a different perspective, seemed to come to the fore in his Election Manifesto in which the now President, His Excellency Gotabaya Rajapkase, promised that decision-making would, in future, be based on the findings of science, and of those qualified with the necessary knowledge and experience to make such assessments. This was sweet sound to those of us who had got so used to living on the whims of political expediency, corruption and maladministration.
Of particular joy to the conservation community was, among others, the following undertakings,
The sustainability of land and water resource management will be ensured while taking proactive measures to increase national forest cover by 30%. Appropriate and definitive measures will be taken to identify areas for reforestation purposes…
• A strong framework will be established for the protection of national heritage of our country such as elephants, all other wild animals, and birds.
The Election Manifesto of His Excellency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka (Chapter 8, Pages 62 & 73)
Sadly, just over one year into his Presidency and a few months after his preferred political party was elected to Government in a landslide vote of the people, mainly to enable the President’s stated policies to take effect, these promises are beginning to wear thin. Reports appear daily in the media of wide scale deforestation taking place throughout the country, elephants continue to be killed and, now, leopard are suffering the same horrible fate, in greater number than before, and with equally brutal methods of slaughter being used. It seems that those of his Government do not follow the President’s ideals, or have other objectives of their own.
What is the true purpose?
This breaking of promise is never better demonstrated than in the Government’s latest initiative with regard to its management of ‘other State Forests’ which, it misguidedly, refers to as ‘Residual Forests’ thereby illustrating the lack of ‘science’ in its decision-making processes. A Ministry Circular MWFC/1/2020, issued by the Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife, reversed a decision taken under Circular 5/2001 to protect unregulated forests by placing them under the Forest Department. Apparently, Circular MWFC/1/2020 is to enable development of land that is not considered environmentally sensitive.
In 2006, the Government issued Circular 6/2006 which proposed the release of barren land and lands without forest cover for development. This circular ensures that all land that is not forested can be used for development. Since the Government felt that amendments to Circulars 5/2001 and 6/2006 were needed, and the enactment of Circular MWFC/1/2020 was necessary, it gives rise to a concern that denuding existing forests for development may be the real objective of Circular MWFC/1/2020.
There are some good aspects to this Circular, however, especially Clause 4.1 which states that
Care should be taken not to select lands belonging to the following categories for the purpose of releasing lands for economic and other productive purposes under this Circular.
i. Ecologically sensitive land areas such as rivers and streams
ii. Areas with steep slopes
iii. Feeder areas
iv. Wild elephant migration landmarks
v. Areas of historical cultural and archaeological significance
vi. Proposed sites for the task of conserving biodiversity in line with the environmental policies contained in the ” Vision of Prosperity ” and to achieve the objectives of enhancing forest cover.
vii. Areas to be conserved for the purpose of conservation of endangered plant and animal species
viii. Areas identified for future development activities of the government.
ix. Areas not suitable for development activities on other special grounds
x. Proposed areas for future community participation / social forestry use
Science or politics?
If the above exemptions are implemented in spirit of word, the only land available for development will be barren or without forest cover, because exemption (vi) above states that “…proposed sites for the task of conserving biodiversity in line with the environmental policies contained in the “Vision of Prosperity” and to achieve objectives of forest cover”, virtually eliminating any further forest clearance. Therefore, the first question we have is what was the necessity to introduce Circular MWFC/1/2020 as the two existing Circulars are adequate for achieving what the Government states it wants to do? Since the Government feels that Circular MWFC/1/2020 is needed, it begs the question of whether there is an ulterior motive of large scale deforestation despite Clause 4.1?
Let us give the Government the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Clause 4.1 and its 10 exemptions will be used to protect environmentally sensitive areas from development, then this is where logic ends for who is to make this decision? It appears that the District and Divisional Secretaries are to provide land for ‘economic and other productive purposes’ in consultation with the local Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and FD officials prior to releasing the lands, but how independent will this process be? It is well known that government officials are coerced into permitting questionable activities, particularly within environmentally sensitive areas, at meetings where local politicians are present. We have already seen this on public view when a Minister berated officials of an agency under his jurisdiction for upholding the Law, the Law that governs the very Ministry he has responsibility for.
No Ecosystem Services, no development
Future development in Sri Lanka relies on the availability of ecosystem services, which are services such as water availability, fertile soils, climate control and weather, to name a few. Every single one of us realizes that without such ecosystem services, Sri Lanka’s development will be hindered. So how do we ensure continued ecosystem services, for development in Sri Lanka? For that, we need to protect our ecosystems, which include forests and biodiversity. There is an abundance of scientific evidence which shows that higher the biodiversity, higher the ability of ecosystems to provide the services needed for development. So the rational way to ensure sustainable development of a country is to protect its biodiversity and ensure diverse ecosystems exist for the provision of much needed ecosystems services.
If His Excellency the President’s election promises were to be followed to the letter, that of science and the ‘qualified’ leading the way, then these same objectives could have been achieved under the continued jurisdiction of the FD and with an ‘Independent Body’ of capable and independent scientists and researchers appointed to assess the merits of releasing these lands prior to the final decision being made. Of course, this latter process will take additional time. However, in the best interests of the future of this country would it not be best to take such determined decision before committing to an irreversible process? Why the rush?
The wealth of our wildlife
A further welcome statement in the President’s Manifesto was the understanding of the enormous economic value wildlife earns, and can earn, for this country if properly protected and managed.
The protection of biodiversity does not only mean conservation. It is also a way to improve the national economy. Biodiversity will be incorporated into tourism, education and cultural events in a planned and systematic manner in order to boost the economy.
The Election Manifesto of His Excellency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka (Chapter 8, Page 64)
With the combined effects of deforestation, the continued killing of wild animals, and the blatant violations of the Laws of this country, there is unlikely to be any substantial populations of wildlife remaining for the President to see his vision see fruition. Human – Elephant Conflict (HEC) reached record figures in 2019, and with the ‘Other State Forests’ hosting approximately 70% of the ranges of wild elephants, this number will increase substantially in the future too. This will prove a huge blow to the future economy of this country as the President’s prescience was argued for in a recent economic analysis of the value of wild animals, in which it concluded that
“…the total revenue that a single elephant can generate is immense – $11mn over its lifetime to our hotels, resorts, airlines, travel companies, and – potentially – local economies.
Guardian of All
His Excellency the President promised great change and this inspired the people of this country to give him their fullest support to enable this to happen. It is fervently hoped that he has not lost that vision and at the end of his tenure of office leave a legacy for coming generations to venerate, especially a future in which they enjoy clean air to breathe, fresh water to drink, food from well-watered lands, and in accordance with the rich cultural traditions of this land, be seen as a leader who understood that “…the land belongs to the people and all other beings…” of which he was the Guardian.
“Human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos. But that means human action can solve it.”
Antonio Guterres, U.N. Secretary-General