Connect with us

Features

An insightful collection

Published

on

‘Politics of a Rainforest: Battles to Save Sinharaja’

By Kshama Ranawana

Given the controversies surrounding Sri Lanka’s World Heritage Site, the Sinharaja Forest, the timing of Dr. PrasannaCooray’s book, ‘Politics of a Rainforest: Battles to Save Sinharaja’ could not be better.

Scheduled to be launched on March 27, the book presents a collection of Dr. Cooray’s investigative reports, as well as some articles included as annexures authored by others on the decades long struggles to protect Sri Lanka’s natural resources and of the key players involved.

For the uninitiated, ‘Politics of a Rainforest: Battle to Save Sinharaja’ offers a good mix of information; the legal status of the forest, its history and bio-diversity, the many threats it faces both past and current and the efforts by environmentalists and other enthusiasts to protect this national heritage. Indeed, the information contained in the book will be useful to all those interested and even those actively involved in nature conservation.

How many, for instance are aware of the origins of ‘Ruk Rakaganno’ and its efforts to protect the pristineness of Sinharaja. Formed by actress Irangani Serasinghe, her sister Kamini Vitharana, the former director of the Wildlife Department and the Dehiwela Zoo, Lyn de Alwis, well known photographer Nihal Fernando and Vere de Mel, Ruk Rakaganno had played an important role in opposing Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s ‘Wagasangramaya’ programme, where large swathes of forests had been cut down to grow food crops as substitutes for imported varieties. We see something similar taking place even today.

Ruk Rakaganno

was instrumental in persuading Bandaranaike’s successor, Prime Minister J R Jayewardene to halt the cutting down of trees in the Sinharaja for the manufacture of plywood, a project that was in place between 1971 and 1977.

Dr. Cooray’s book also gives a chronological list of events that occurred between November 2019 and 2020, beginning with former President Maithripala Sirisena’s signing off on a gazette notification amalgamating nine peripheral forest reserves with the Sinharaja, thus expanding its land area, and the actual publication of the gazette by the Forest Department in November 2020. It was during this period that current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa commissioned the construction of the controversial Lankagama-Neluwa road. While construction of the road was halted temporarily in the face of protests, the President ordered that work recommence after the Parliamentary elections held in August last year. What’s missing in the narrative though is whether or not reports that appeared months after the road work was completed, showing parts of it washed away, were factual.

Given that the book is a compilation of previously published reports some of the information is repeated, nevertheless, it provides valuable input on the need to preserve the indigenous knowledge about the forest, that is now limited to just a handful of people, and the possibility of creating a ‘Lankagama Land Trust’ where the land could be purchased by the public and ownership transferred to the Forest Department to act as its custodian. Also included is a list compiled by Kusal Kavinda Amarasinghe of ‘Patents obtained from biological constituents of endemic animal and plant species in Sri Lanka and Indian sub-continent.’

The author is a medical doctor by profession, who as a committed environmentalist, has taken to journalism to impart his knowledge on the subject, and expose ecocidal activities. His efforts have won him two awards; Best Investigative Journalist in 2008 and Best Environmental Journalist (English) in 2017. He is also a member of the Earth Journalism Network.



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

Hoffmann gets involved in the over 100-year old Wild Life and Nature Protection Society

Published

on

RL Spittel with Veddah people

Excerpted from the authorized biography of Thilo Hoffmann by Douglas. B. Ranasinghe

One year in the early 1950s the Wildlife Protection Society of Ceylon held its Annual General Meeting at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. ‘Thilo went as a visitor, and watched the proceedings. He met the President of the Society, C. E. Norris, and intimated to him that he wished to join the society.

Norris promised to send an enrollment form, but it never came. The Society had no office in Colombo, and without an address it was almost impossible to contact it. Both President and Secretary were up-country planters who ran its affairs from their estate offices.

After years of trying Thilo eventually managed to become a member. He was soon asked to join the General Committee, which at the time included several prominent personalities such as Dr R. L. Spittel, Sam Elapata Sr., E. B. Wikramanayake QC, R. L. Poulier and D. B. Ellepola.

Thilo Hoffmann became the Treasurer of the Society in 1961, then was its Honorary Secretary for seven years from 1962, and finally its President for a record continuous period of eleven years from 1968 to 1979.

Some of the last Britishers in the Society did not like him. It seemed that they resented his ascendancy. They referred to him as ‘the little Swiss’, where the adjective did not apply to his build, which was about the same as most of them. One was the editor of the Society’s magazine, Loris. When Thilo Hoffmann was given the Conservation Award for the year 1965 – presented by the Soil Conservation Society and sponsored by Selwyn Samaraweera – this man wrote a critical editorial titled ‘Medals for the Meritorious’. That upset Dr Spittel, who put him in his place and obtained his resignation.

Later, things changed, as Thilo Hoffmann progressed with his ‘bridging’ function. On the occasion of a District Meeting in Kandy, Dr Nihal Karunaratne humorously referred to the time he joined the Society when he was often “the only black bugger there”. Thilo responded, to everyone’s amusement, “And now I am the only white bugger here!”

Developing and leading

When Thilo accepted the honorary job of Secretary, the office of the Society, and its single employee, Sam Rajendran, had to move to Colombo. A tiny cubicle was rented at the Friend-in-Need Society at No. 171 General Lake’s Road. Here, a small desk, a chair, some files and less than Rs 500 in cash – the total assets of the Society – were installed, with Rajendran as clerk-in- charge.

Two years later, with the Society growing, more space was needed for’ its office. A shop in Bogala Building at Upper Chatham Street close to Baurs building was taken on rent. This was used for a short period. In 1964 the office was moved to Chaitya Road, opposite the new lighthouse. This was done on Thilo’s initiative. The premises were secured for the Society by him.

The small, unoccupied structure there had been used during the last World War by an Army dhoby and belonged to the Army. The only other building along the newly constructed road, then named Marine Drive, was the Ceylon Light Infantry Headquarters, which is now part of the Navy Headquarters.

The structure was improved and enlarged from time to time, and a wall built around the premises. An article by Sam Elapata Jr. in Loris, reproduced as Appendix III, describes Thilo’s involvement in this.

For the first time, the Society had a regular place to work in, and to hold the monthly committee meetings, even the general meetings, and to house its library – started by Thilo – and files, thus serving as a central rallying point for all members. It remained the headquarters of the Society for 34 years. Recalling his early days Thilo says:

“I was young, inexperienced in public speaking and shy. I attended my first half-yearly meeting (at Kurunegala, I think) as Hony. Secretary in the role as I saw it: organizer and recorder but not active participant. The President, ‘Ted’ Norris was discussing a possibly controversial subject (I cannot remember what). When he had finished there was silence, and so he just ordered me to speak. I was, of course, not prepared, and it was the first time I spoke before a public audience, not in my mother tongue, and with a strong Swiss accent. But it did not go too badly and that gave me confidence.”

He continues: “In the course of time I learnt to speak freely in public, and occasionally I even enjoyed it. But generally I had to give myself a push. This was also the case when I had to meet powerful VIPs, such as Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents. My basic shyness never left me, although most people have perceived me quite differently.

“Of political and other VIPs I got to know very many in the course of my work for conservation, and a few became friends, such as Ministers Edwin Hurulle and Nissanka Wijeyeratne, Lalith Athulathmudali and also D. B. Wijetunge, who became President of Sri Lanka.”

Gradually, through purposeful and relentless work, Thilo Hoffmann built up and furthered the Society, as no one before or after him. Similarly he served its cause. Knowledge, understanding, enthusiasm and self-discipline are some of the characteristics which have made him a successful conservationist. But mainly it was his perseverance, his tenacity, which brought results. As long as there was a glimmer of hope, he would put forward again and again his ideas and proposals, never letting up, with memos, reminders and personal meetings with anyone from the Prime Minister or President downward, who would be in a position to bring a project to a successful end.

His style of work was entirely based on his own involvement. He would himself do all the hard work, investigations and field work, write reports and memos, push and cajole. Any memo from the Society submitted to any authority during the period he was Secretary or President was written by him. The fact that he knew what he was speaking and writing about, based on his intimate and detailed knowledge of the country, was a prerequisite to his success.

The Society and its General Committee would provide the necessary backing and background. He found that there were few others who could be relied upon to perform major tasks with the personal involvement, discipline and perseverance required. Hoffmann never took up extreme positions, always keeping a balanced mind and advocating reasonable and realistic solutions. He could readily see and understand contrary viewpoints as well as external constraints, e.g. political though not personal. In this he is notably different from present day `super-activists’ and ‘greens’, who in his opinion “polarize to extreme positions and exaggeration, often based on ignorance, even ill-will and mischief”.

Day-to-day problems were dealt with by correspondence or direct intervention. Thilo’s application and promptness in such matters are described in the last Chapter. There were many cases of poaching, not only by villagers but by well-to-do hunters. There was illegal timber felling, and clearing.

Complaints and reports from members had to be looked into. This often led to unpleasantness and frustration, such as in cases of drunken engine drivers ploughing their trains into elephant herds crossing the railway line at night in the Polonnaruwa area.

Once, two student members, a local and a German, verbally reported a serious case of misbehaviour and shooting by an Air Force training group in the Lahugala Sanctuary. Thilo wrote a letter. An ‘inquiry’ was held by a senior officer. The incident was denied, and Thilo was asked to apologize. When he requested the two members to confirm their report in writing both refused! The foreigner is today a professor, and organizes seminars and writes papers about Sri Lanka – like so many others, says Thilo, who use the island for easy pickings.

The institution of District Representative (“DR”) had been created in 1962, when Thilo was Secretary. The DR had to have at least two meetings per year in his District. There were DRs in many areas, including Jaffna, Ampara, Ratnapura, Kandy, Kurunegala, Puttalam, and Udawalawe. They were sent the minutes of the monthly committee meetings. Thus the members in the Districts were informed of the activities of the Society. At Udawalawe the DR was Gamini Punchihewa, and at Ratnapura it was Bennie Abeyratne, a close friend of the Hoffmanns.

Talks, film shows and discussions were regularly organized. Members and friends got together in this manner, which was a great help to Thilo in the promotion of the objects and ideas of the Society, the enrolment of new members, and to obtain support for Society activities. Thilo attended most of these meetings, which were often held in planters’ clubs, and were followed by social gatherings of members, office-bearers and guests. Mae Hoffmann’s 16 mm wildlife movie was a big attraction. A gift to the Society’s membership drive, it was shown in public over and over again, even in distant places such as Embilipitiya (Udawalawe), Passara and Inginiyagala (Gal Oya).

Jungle bungalows owned and run by the Society for members, an old proposal, were promoted. As a matter of principle, these had to be outside National Parks. Dr Uragoda in his book (see Chapter III, above) says: “In the mid 1950s the first attempts to obtain leases of crown land for building bungalows were made. After much difficulty and plenty of spade work especially by the Honorary Secretary, Mr. T. W. Hoffmann, the Society managed to obtain leases of crown land near Wilpattu and Yala.”

Thilo and the Assistant Secretary, Lalith Senanayake chose the two locations after several visits to the areas. Money was collected for putting up the buildings. The Volkart Foundation of Switzerland, no doubt on Thilo’s persuasion, made a handsome contribution of Rs 5,000 to the fund. The Wilpattu bungalow was opened to members on December 1, 1967 and the Yala bungalow on December 31, 1969. Much later, a Society bungalow was built by the boundary of the Udawalawe National Park.

At Lahugala the unused Irrigation Department circuit bungalow was managed for some time by the Society for the benefit of visiting members and guests. It was situated on the bund of the large, picturesque tank, where visitors are sure to see elephants at almost any time of the year. The area, formerly a Sanctuary, is now a National Park.

When Hoffmann took over as Secretary the number of members was less than 500, and the Society’s total assets, as mentioned, amounted to a few hundred rupees. There was no library and no proper office. Most of the members were planters, with a few of the urban elite thrown in. The Society was just ticking over, although it had in the course of time had some remarkable individuals as members and office-bearers: see the paper by Thilo in Loris titled ‘The WNPS of Ceylon: Some Historical Reflections on the Occasion of its 75th Anniversary.”

.At the end of his time as President the Society had over 5,000 members, assets worth many lakhs, and had become a force to be reckoned with.

Continue Reading

Features

An autobigraphy of a remarkable self-made billionaire

Published

on

Merill J. Fernando with his two sons and grandchildren.

The story of Ceylon Teamaker: MERRIL. J. FERNANDO

by Manik de Silva

Merril J. Fernando’s recently published autobiography would be considered by many to be best story of its kind coming out in recent times, if not all time, of the life and times of a business leader in Sri Lanka. Similar volumes published in recent years that come readily to mind are the life and career stories of C.P. (Chari) de Silva of Aitken Spence, Ken Balendra of John Keells, Hemaka Amarasuriya of Singer and Rienzie Weeraratne of Unilever.

Undoubtedly many more resources have been poured into this production than to its predecessors. The result is spectacular both in appearance and substance. Over 200 interesting photographs scattered throughout the well-designed volume, makes reading its 400+ pages easy. The reader cannot but be impressed about MJF’s meticulous record keeping that is a feature of the book; also the author’s deliberate decision not to pull back his punches aimed at some prominent figures in the country, many of them now dead.

Merril Fernando, undoubtedly, is the best known face in Sri Lanka’s tea industry. He’s not the biggest producer or exporter of tea in the country. But his Dilmah brand, coined from the names of his two sons, Dilhan and Malik, is also the best known Sri Lankan-owned brand worldwide. Few would know until they read the book that the original brand name was Dilma, The ‘h’ was added later to give it added punch as recommended by advertising professionals in Australia; nor would many know that Fernando served four years as a seminarian at St. Aloysius Seminary in Borella (“I was very unhappy and frequently reduced to tears”). Training a youth who had his sights on the legal profession to be a catholic priest was forced on him by his parents to whom he couldn’t say “No” at that point of time in his life and the prevailing culture.

Also that very early in his working life when he was training as a tea taster at Heath and Co., a hard to get opportunity then when that work was largely a preserve on the British, that he broke away to take up a job offer in the U.S. multinational, Mobil Oil. Fernando says the terms offered were “quite attractive,” and the offer too good to turn down at age 22-years with about Rs. 1,500 monthly on the table. He admits a “distressing lack of responsibility in suddenly abandoning my trainee tea taster programme.” Although he enjoyed the work the work at Mobil and was good at it, he says “the business was open to and driven by bribery” and he returned to tea at AF Jones, a small firm run by a British father and his two sons.

A condition of that employment was that he had to train in London at his own expense. In arranging his training slot, the head of a British firm here wrote to a friend in London recommending MJF (letter reproduced in the book) raising an interesting points about Merril (1) ” His general appearance and ways of doing business have always struck me as displaying a certain amount of integrity, which is more than I can say for most of his brethren” The second was “I have made it perfectly plain to him that in the UK there are no bottle washers or Tea Boys to wait on learners and practically all the messy work has to be done by the learners themselves.”

Fernando started at AF Jones, a company he was to later acquire, as an Assistant Tea Taster at Rs. 750 a month in May 1955. His UK experiences makes good reading including the story that he brought back pounds 325 when he returned to Ceylon at the end of five months. His landlady in London, Mrs. Butler, had tried to persuade him to buy her terraced house for pounds 750 and offered to arrange a mortgage. “I didn’t even consider it,” says Fernando. “That apartment was worth four million pounds in 2019.”

What comes out strongest in the book is Merril Fernando’s passion for “pure Ceylon tea” and his determination that this product be offered globally to discerning consumers worldwide. When strong lobbies were hard at work saying that Sri Lanka should be made an International Tea Hub like Dubai and Rotterdam by permitting the import of cheaper teas for blending, packaging and exporting, he battled unrelentingly against a move he considered would be disastrous making many enemies in the process.

Equally strong is the projection of Dilmah as a family business with his two sons figuring in both text and pictures. Merril promoted his tea using his own photo widely and with homely messages to consumers of a product coming from “us to you.” His own avuncular appearance and the excellence of the photography, perhaps an offshoot of Dilhan’s passion for the camera, played a major role in promoting Dilmah, evident in many of the photographs included in the book. Fernando’s faith in God and belief in divine intervention is a continuing thread through the publication.

There is no doubt that Merril Fernando has made a major contribution towards preserving the authenticity of Ceylon tea which had over the long period when it succeeded coffee in this country had built the reputation for unique flavour and quality that made tea drinkers worldwide recognize the product as the best available. His early training exposed him to the harsh realities of international tea export trade and he says he learned many important lessons he would never forget. These helped him to chart his business course over the next few decades. This experience and the absence of severe work pressure gave him time as a trainee in London for reflection, absorbing new impressions, acquiring new tastes and inculcate in him a lifelong passion for travel and new cultural experiences.

Attacks directed at him over the years included accusations that he was getting favours from his former father-in-law, Major Motague Jayawickreme, onetime Minister of Plantation Industries, although his marriage to Devika Jayawickreme had long ended by then. The fact that President J.R. Jayewardene made Jayawickreme dispose a small shareholding in MJF’s listed Ceylon Tea Services Ltd. (the predecessor to Dilmah Ceylon Tea Compny PLC) on a conflict of interest argument is duly recorded in the book. But Fernando makes the telling point that Jayawickreme bought the shares three years before he became minister. He also says he once refused to speak to Jayawickreme for three months when the latter called for a vote on an appointment to the new Tea Centre in New York with Fernando’s the only dissenting vote against the proposal.

The reader must not be misled by what’s written above to think that Merril Fernando has made his autobiography a platform to merely hit out at those who opposed him. On the contrary, he has been lavish in his praise of many including senior bureaucrats and political authorities that include one time Plantation Industries Minister, Dr. Colvin. R. de Silva and his former teacher and later Trade Minister Hugh Fernando. But there is another side to that coin when he discusses estrangements with business partners at AF Jones and later in his own companies.

I have known Merril Fernando for over 50 years and reported on his journey through the tea industry. One anecdote I will relate here is an occasion he took me to his home on Gower Street in Havelock Town for a string hopper dinner. That was the first time I had eaten a seer fish kiri hodda with pol sambol. I was so impressed about the meal that I mentioned it to his neighbour, my friend Mrs. Bertha Samarasinghe, the wife of the then Judge-Advocate of the Navy. A fine cook herself, Bertha responded: “Merril understands fish. I see him buying his fish from vendors at his gate.” This came to mind when I read a reference in the book to the “ever-faithful Alice, the best chef I have ever known apart from my mother.” She probably cooked the meal I enjoyed.

He could have found no better writer than Anura Gunasekera, a retired tea planter who worked for Dilmah for 10 years after he quit planting to collaborate in the writing which took all of three years to finish. With Merril Fernando completing his 92nd birthday days before the book was launched in May, there were constant challenges including covid, MJF’s hospitalization off and on during the writing and many more. But an excellent production of a compelling read has been the result.

The book is priced at Rs. 10,000 with all proceeds of sales going to MJF supported charities. But it looks as though it would have cost more to produce if all costs are factored. However that be, it’s a compelling read on the life of a remarkable man, a self-made billionaire who’s fond of saying that “business is a matter of public service” – his many charities testifying to this. It’s the history of a battle to preserve the integrity of Ceylon Tea which Merril Fernando says ought to be marketed like wine and champagne.

Continue Reading

Features

Today is the Birthday of the Catholic Church…!

Published

on

Every one of us has a birthday and so has the Catholic Church! The Birthday of the Holy Mother Church falls today with the Solemnity of the Pentecost.We Catholics believe in a ‘Trinitarian God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’. The Holy Spirit is understood as the Third Person of the Holy Trinity whose function is to renew and strengthen us in our Journey of Faith.

Pentecost, meaning 50th day in Greek, is celebrated by Christians 50 days after the celebration of Easter, and marks the day that the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles while they were cowering and hiding behind locked doors together with Mother Mary following Jesus’ Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection. After receiving the power and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles immediately went out and started preaching Jesus’ message to all and sundry – even to those who spoke other languages by making use of the precious gift of tongues!

Pentecost instituted the ‘Age of the Church’, during which Jesus Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates His work of Salvation through His Church, ‘until He Comes again in Glory’.

The Holy Spirit Renews the Church

All true and authentic renewal – renewal in Jesus Christ – is simply a demonstration of the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore as followers of Christ, we pray for the power of the Holy Spirit and discern the work of the Spirit. This is, always has been, and always will be, the only hope for the growth of the Church making the world a better place. The Church, rightly conceived, exists as a community of believers bound together in the power, presence, and promptings of the Holy Spirit Whose Gifts and Fruits are shared with all humanity.

The Holy Spirit Strengthens the Church

This strengthening of the Church by the Holy Spirit takes place in three basic ways.

First of all, the Holy Spirit strengthens us in our relationship to Jesus Christ.

We already know that the goal of the work of the Holy Spirit is to make us more like Jesus Christ. But how does He do this? It is through a process known as sanctification – making us worthy human beings.

Sanctification is the process of the Holy Spirit stripping away our sinful habits and bringing us into holiness.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit strengthens us in our capacity to defend our faith.

The Holy Spirit empowers Christians to be effective witnesses for Jesus Christ: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The power that the Holy Spirit gives us in this regard is something that reflects in the natural as well as in the supernatural realm. He gives us power, love and self-discipline to stand against all evil.

Thirdly, the strengthening is also in our capacity to spread our faith

. When the love and mercy of Jesus Christ is shared in word and deed throughout the world, it carries out God’s purpose and plan to redeem and restore this fallen and wounded world of ours!

A New Pentecost is What the World Needs Today!

In today’s context of the world, the desire to share the ‘Good News of Love’ should, more than ever before, have a special place in the hearts of all lovers of mankind. The concern to bring others to freedom and salvation should take hold of them and they should step out in bold humanitarian venturesinto this bruised and battered world of ours as messengers of peace. As a result of a revival and renewal, the time has come to boldly proclaim the ‘Message of Peace and Love’, and thereby heal the world with the experience of a ‘New Pentecost’.

We all must, irrespective of religion, take up this present challenge and move forward towards the future with goodwill, hope and perseverance against all the powers of evil and darkness that spread their tentacles all throughout the world in different forms!

Rev. Fr. (Dr.)Eymard Fernando
Catholic Bishop’s House,
Kurunegala.

Continue Reading

Trending