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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



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UNFORGIVING CONSEQUENCES OF DEFORESTATION

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

A forest is much more than a group of trees. Clearing of forests for agriculture has been an age-old practice. We accepted chena cultivation as a traditional livelihood of the rural poor. Secondly, we had ample forestlands throughout the country. Another cause of deforestation is development activities, besides logging and gem mining in some cases. Because of these acts, either legal or illegal, our forest cover has fast dwindled posing many serious environmental issues.

According to the World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2015, the estimated forest area in the world equaled 31 per cent of the earth’s surface area, most of which was located in tropical areas such as Africa, South America, and Indonesia. Today, according to experts, we have only 17 per cent of the forest cover left in this country.

People are the ultimate managers of forests and the higher their level of knowledge and awareness, the better their ability to conserve forests. It is unfortunate that recent incidents prove that people are not serious about the environment.

We are living in an era where climate change has become a major challenge. Ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, mainly by the burning of fossil fuels has caused global warming, which renders myriads of bitter consequences. In the meantime, deforestation has been identified as the second major driver of climate change. It is forests which can help us reduce the excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere playing a leading role in the fight against global warming. Forests act as a carbon sink and probably the only entity that is capable of carbon regulation. On average, the amount of oxygen produced annually by an acre of trees is about 2,500 kg while the annual oxygen consumption of a person is 750 kg.

Trees relieve people from stress and make them more comfortable while enhancing their well-being. Without trees, the world would not be beautiful and appealing. The earth has millions of different varieties of trees. Many trees do not remain the same throughout the year. When we plant a tree, we are emotionally attached to it and keen to observe its growth day by day. Sometimes we plant a tree to mark a special event and it may be our birthday, the day of marriage, or the demise of a close relative. Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which is used to measure happiness and well-being of its people. One of the four pillars of GNH is environmental conservation.

Even our tourism industry, which is one of the main sectors that bring us foreign exchange, vastly depends on the natural beauty of this country. If we fail to maintain its unique natural beauty, the country will cease to be a tourist attraction, jeopardising the industry.

The contribution of trees to the ecosystem is massive. Trees improve air quality by trapping solid particles, retard rainfall-runoff and thereby mitigate floods, increase groundwater recharge, and preserve soil by preventing erosion. The sustenance of our river system largely depends on the central forest area being the source of water. Not only forests but even green areas such as shrubs and turfs inside forests also contribute to the ecosystem immensely. Although they receive less attention, they can filter air by removing dust and absorb many pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Forests are home to wildlife. The same is true of humans and the survival of humans is also dependent on forest conservation.

 

The way forward

If the concept of vertical development is followed, not only in major cities but also in other areas, the acquisition of forest areas for human settlements can be significantly minimised as high rise buildings will obviate the need for many acres of land. Modern technology has to be used in agriculture together with methods that could contribute to high water use efficiencies to increase productivity rather than expanding agricultural land areas. Human settlements in less developed rural areas should be discouraged. There are large amounts of barren lands, including abandoned paddy lands, that could be used for afforestation if a proper mechanism is put in place to compensate landowners. These are several effective strategies which should be implemented sooner than later as policy interventions on all fronts are required to protect our existing forests. If the country’s forest cover shrinks further, we will all have to face bitter consequences sooner than expected.

 

(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake is a Chartered Engineer specialising in water resources engineering with over 20 years of experience)

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HYPOCRICY OF OUR COLONIAL MASTER!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Irrespective of what happens at the UNHRC, there is one thing we should never forget; the arrogance and hypocrisy of our colonial master! The behaviour of the British Government is despicable. The UK has taken from the ‘nouveau-evil empire’––the US––the task of pressuring member nations of the UNHRC to vote against Sri Lanka! All this for the crime of defeating terrorism! Is this what is expected of the so-called leader of the Commonwealth?

It is a shame that the British representatives have not read Mathias Keittle’s excellent, well-reasoned piece “A German Analyst’s View on the Eelam War in Sri Lanka” which appeared in The Island on 28 February.

Considering there are allegations that some friends of high-ranking politicians of the British government made a mint from Covid-19 epidemic, one begins to wonder whether the Tiger-rump has helped some of them line their pockets. After all, it cannot simply be for a few votes. It will be interesting to see if the British government can counter what Matias Keittle so emphatically stated:

“Sri Lanka eliminated a dreaded terrorist group, with intricate global links, but receives little credit for it. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka has succeeded in resettling 300,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). There are no starving children for the NGOs to feed but this gets ignored. Sri Lanka has avoided mass misery, epidemics and starvation but the West takes no notice of this. Sri Lanka has attained enviable socio-economic standards for a developing country while eliminating terrorism but gets no acknowledgement. The government of Sri Lanka and its President continue to enjoy unprecedented popular approval through democratic elections but this is dismissed. The economy is functional, but remains not encouraged by the West.”

My concerns perhaps are confirmed by what Lord Naseby, a government peer sitting in the British House of Lords, has stated. The following from the statement by Lord Naseby published in The Island of 5 March under the title, ‘Lord Naseby asks why Adele not prosecuted in the UK for child recruitment’, surely, is an indictment on the British government:

“I am astounded how the UK or any other Member of the Core Group can possibly welcome the High Commissioner’s so called ‘detailed and most comprehensive report on Sri Lanka’ when it is riddled with totally unsubstantiated allegations and statements completely ignoring the huge effort to restore infrastructure and rehouse displaced Tamils and Muslims, who lost their homes due to the Tamil Tigers.

“Furthermore, I question how the UK government knowingly and apparently consciously withheld vital evidence from the despatches of the UK military attaché Col. Gash. Evidence I obtained from a Freedom of Information request, resisted by the Foreign Office at every stage for over two years. These dispatches from an experienced and dedicated senior British officer in the field makes it clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces at every level acted and behaved appropriately, trying hard not to harm any Tamil civilians who were held by the Tamil Tigers as hostages in a human shield.

“This conscious decision totally undermines the UK‘s standing as an objective Leader of the Core Group; made even worse by the impunity for not prosecuting the LTTE leader living in the UK, largely responsible for recruiting, training and deploying over 5,000 Child Soldiers – a real War Crime. It is time that the UK Government acknowledges and respects the recommendations of the Paranagama Commission, which involved several international expert advisers, including from the UK – Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Rodney Dixon QC and Major General John Holmes.”

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, has strived so hard to strengthen the Commonwealth of Nations so that the UK could successfully transform itself from a colonial master to a friend of the past colonies but Her Majesty’s Government seems to be behaving in a manner to undermine Her efforts. Her Majesty’s vision of friendship and cooperation seems to be countered by the bully-boy tactics of politicians.

The excellent editorial “Should SL follow UK?” in The Island on 24 February concluded with the following:

“Anything Westminster goes here. It is the considered opinion of the defenders of democracy that Sri Lanka should emulate the UK in protecting human rights. What if Sri Lanka takes a leaf out of the UK’s book in handling alleged war crimes? In November 2020, the British Parliament passed a bill to prevent ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of military personnel and veterans over war crimes allegations. This law seeks to grant the British military personnel, who have committed war crimes, an amnesty to all intents and purposes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ascertained evidence of a pattern of war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers against Iraqi detainees, some of whom were even raped and beaten to death. Curiously, the ICC said in December 2020, it would not take action against the perpetrators! Too big to be caught?”

the UK may argue that it has to protect military personnel against vexatious prosecutions. If so, they should understand the position of Sri Lanka. We know that the US administrations, be it under Obama, Trump or Biden, run more on brawn than brain but we expect better from the UK. Why or why do they have to behave like a poodle of the US.

Is this not hypocrisy of the highest order? Shame on you, the British government!

 

 

 

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ASIAN DEMONSTRATORS AND THE AMERICAN DREAM

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The US was always a selective supporter of democracy, and now it is a diminished one. 

By Ian Buruma

One month ago, in Myanmar, protesters against the military coup gathered around the United States Embassy in Yangon. They called on President Joe Biden to make the generals go back to their barracks and free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a big victory in the 2020 general election, which is why the generals, afraid of losing their privileges, seized power.

But is the US Embassy the best place to protest? Can the US President do anything substantial apart from expressing disapproval of the coup? The protesters’ hope for a US intervention shows that America’s image as the champion of global freedom is not yet dead, even after four years of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ isolationism.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong last year, protesting against China’s harsh crackdown on the territory’s autonomy, even regarded Trump as an ally. He was erratically hostile to China, so the protesters waved the stars and stripes, hoping that America would help to keep them free from Chinese communist authoritarianism.

America’s self-appointed mission to spread freedom around the world has a long history. Many foolish wars were fought as a result. But US democratic idealism has been an inspiration to many as well. America long saw itself, in John F Kennedy’s words, as a country ‘engaged in a world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals that we share with all mankind.’

As Hungarians found out when they rose up against the Soviet Union in 1956, words often prove to be empty. The Hungarian Revolution, encouraged by the US, was crushed after 17 days; the US did nothing to help those it had egged on.

Sometimes, however, freedom has been gained with American help, and not just against Hitler’s tyranny in Western Europe. During the 1980s, people in the Philippines and South Korea rebelled against dictatorships in huge demonstrations, not unlike those in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar in the last two years. So, of course, did people in the People’s Republic of China, where a 10-meter tall ‘Goddess of Democracy,’ modelled on the Statue of Liberty, was erected on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Chinese demonstrations ended in a bloody disaster, but pro-democracy forces toppled Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines and South Korea’s military regime. Support from the US was an important factor. In Taiwan, too, authoritarianism was replaced by democracy, again with some US assistance.

But what worked in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan is unlikely to work in Thailand, Hong Kong, or Myanmar. The main reason is that the former three countries were what leftists called ‘client states’ during the Cold War. Their dictators were ‘our dictators,’ protected by the US as anti-communist allies.

Propped up by American money and military largesse, they could continue to oppress their people, so long as the US saw communism as a global threat. Once China opened for business and Soviet power waned, they suddenly became vulnerable. Marcos was pressed on American TV to promise to hold a free and fair election. When he tried to steal the result, a US senator told him to ‘cut and cut cleanly.’ Marcos duly ran for his helicopter and ended up in exile in Hawaii.

Similarly, when South Korean students, supported by much of the middle-class, poured into the streets, angry not only with their military government, but with its US backer, America finally came down on the side of democracy. Dependent on American military protection, the generals had to listen when the US urged them to step aside.

The generals in Thailand and Myanmar have no reason to do likewise. Biden can threaten sanctions and voice his outrage. But with China willing to step in as Myanmar’s patron, the junta has no reason to worry very much (though the military has been wary of China up to now).

Thailand’s rulers, too, benefit from Chinese influence, and the country has a long history of playing one great power against another. And because Hong Kong is officially part of China, there is little any outside power can do to protect its freedoms, no matter how many American flags people wave in the streets.

Dependence on the US in Europe and Asia, and the clout that Americans held as a result, was sustained by the Cold War. Now, a new cold war is looming, this time with China. But US power has been greatly diminished since its zenith in the 20th century. Trust in American democracy has been eroded by the election of an ignorant narcissist who bullied traditional allies, and China is a more formidable power than the Soviet Union ever was. It is also vastly richer.

Countries in East and Southeast Asia still need US support for their security. As long as Japan is hindered from playing a leading military role, because of a tainted past and a pacifist constitution, the US will continue to be the main counterweight to China’s increasing dominance. But as Thailand’s deft balancing of powers demonstrates, US allies are unlikely to become ‘client states’ in the way some were before. Even the South Koreans are careful not to upset their relations with China. The US is far; China is near.

This pattern is to be expected. US dominance can’t last forever, and Asian countries, as well as Europeans, should wean themselves from total dependence on a not-always-dependable power to protect them. Being a ‘client state’ can be humiliating. Yet, the day may come when some people, somewhere, might miss Pax Americana, when the US was powerful enough to push out the unwanted rascals.

 

(Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.)

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