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A WAR ON NATURE: What were we promised?

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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

Features

Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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