Realisation is dawning globally that extermination of our World, as we know it, and extinction of humankind is a real possibility. Scarcities of the three basic requisites of life – air, water and space are beginning to pinch. It is not only a quantitative diminution, but also a qualitative decline that threatens. Unbridled increase in population and the simultaneous rise of ambitions and expectations, characterized by unchecked demands for finite resources, and reckless pollution of what remains, loom menacingly. A redefinition of progress, presently measured by consumption, seems necessary. Global discourse on development often includes words like “limits”, “sustainability”, “equity,” and “millennium goals”. What would have been condemned as irrational, doomsday fears, and alarmism yesterday, looks like reality today. Even a decade or so ago, who would have imagined that the Coronavirus or similar widespread viral pandemics could ever occur and spread so rapidly? Can it show up again in an even more virulent form?
It seems quite plausible that Nature is fighting back. Its benevolence and bounty have lulled us into (ungrateful) complacency. All comfort and sensual satisfaction too, are fleeting and impermanent. We have been warned. The occurrence of disturbances such as earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones, hurricanes, tsunamis and forest fires have now become more frequent and severe. And then comes Covid-19. Perhaps Spanish Flu, EBOLA, SARS and MERS were pre-warnings, which we loftily ignored. After all, are not humans we thought, the ultimate in Evolution and Viruses the most rudimentary? David has emphatically subdued Goliath. Worse, any triumph may last only until more and more violent forces are unleashed.
Global Warming, melting of Arctic Glaciers, Sea Level Rise are there for all (except Trump), to see. There seems little that the World could do in response to the pitiful and desperate calls from the Maldives and other inhabited Low Elevation Islands. How much longer before we and many others too are flooded out?
Only about 3% of the water on Planet Earth is potable, the balance 97% is locked up in the Oceans. Of the 3% too, the bulk is in groundwater, much of it inaccessible. It has been remarked that World War III will be for water – not for oil. Solar might be the sole option for Energy. Coal and oil are projected to also be exhausted. Disasters like Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima accidents, show that the costs and duration of recovery times that can be decades or even centuries, illustrate the ever present perils of nuclear power.
Solar Power as presently conceived, is a virtually inexhaustible source. Photovoltaic cells which are presently based on highly purified silicon – the second most abundant element on earth. Batteries of such PV cells, suitably connected, make up the familiar solar assemblies (panels). Theoretically, the energy locked into the sun’s rays received on a single sunny day, if captured, amounts to several thousand times the annual requirements of our earth. Hence, this seems a virtually inexhaustible resource. The major problem is to develop appropriate methods for the storage of energy harnessed during sunlight hours, for use during the night. This is achieved by using appropriate storage batteries or by arranging to feed into the national grid.
The natural mechanism for entrapping (a small part) of incoming Solar Energy, is plant life. The steps are most elegant. The molecule of chlorophyll in green leaves, has as its nucleus, the element Magnesium. Its Atomic structure is such that an electron in an outer orbit is displaced to an even more outer orbit. At the first available opportunity, it leaps back to join its former partners. In this process, the energy entrapped in its displacement is released, in a form (chemically entrapped) usable for the process of building its body mass. This in essence is similar to the functioning of hemoglobin in blood – (only here the function of Magnesium in chlorophyll is performed by Iron in blood). As we know, green chlorophyll in leaves absorbs Carbon dioxide and releases oxygen, while hemoglobin absorbs oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. Destroy plants and you destroy Man by asphyxiation. It is often not appreciated that a very large part of photosynthesis is in the Oceans, trapped by the millions of microscopic organisms and by Green Seaweeds. Thus, preventing Ocean Pollution is no less important than controlling deforestation.
We are in Sri Lanka, very much in default in managing our Forests and Mangroves. We also display a callous disregard towards the perils of ocean pollution. The persecution and harassment (reported), of the commendable schoolgirl who courageously exposed the criminal devastation of part of Singharaja, as seen from her home, is deplorable. The young Pakistani girl Yousafzai Malala, was the recipient of The Nobel Peace Award (2014) – the youngest ever recipient – for her role in pressing for educational opportunities for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Taliban shot her in the head and nearly killed her for her brashness! The young Scandinavian girl, Greta Thunberg, drew World-wide acclaim for her efforts in highlighting environmental issues.
In sharp contrast, our young nineteen-year old Bhagya Abeyratna, is being subjected to menacing visitations by those officers whose neglect, (or worse), has led to the present catastrophe! This is an utter disgrace. To cap it all, a Senior Minister who should know better, discloses that two reservoirs are being built within Singharaja to provide water to Hambantota! My gosh, what a toxic brew when political opportunism amalgamates with environmental unconcern!
Armageddon in Greek mythology is a mountain range where in the final battle, the forces of God engaged the demonic forces of evil. An apocalypse (also a biblical term), is a catastrophic disaster heralding the end of the World.
As I witness the heroic and laudable efforts of tree planting, Mangrove rejuvenation and cleansing beaches, (and growing damaged coral reefs), a thought crosses my mind. Years ago, Mr Sam Popham, a retired tea planter, bought some 18 acres of degraded Dry Zone land (not far from Kandalama) and conducted a novel experiment in restoring the land to natural forest, from the unsightly coarse shrub land that he had acquired. He worked on the simple proposition that “Nature knows how best to grow forest if allowed to, than Government Agencies could”. First, he identified four hazards. These were fire, choking weeds, grazing cattle and humans. He strategically located fire-gaps, used labour only to regularly uproot invading and choking weeds, fencing to exclude cattle and minimizing the entry of humans. There was no irrigation of seedlings and importantly, not a single tree was “imported” or planted. The results (although seemingly slow) were spectacular. Dried up riverbeds began to flow, fish, birds and small animals returned, the water level in his well rose and an altogether cool ambience, akin to a Temperate meadow developed. (Interestingly, the local monk was initially unfriendly towards this “White Imposter”, but when he saw the results, enmity disappeared to such an extent, that he even set aside a plot within the temple premises for a grave, if Popham were to die in Sri Lanka!). Popham made a precise record of his observations and wrote a most readable book titled “Dambulla – a Sanctuary of Tropical Trees” (He held an MA, (Cambridge) degree) and retired to the UK some years ago. The “Popham Principle” that he bequeathed to his Foster Home is a classic tribute to simplicity and perseverance.
Soil Conservation Acts specify that lands above an elevation of 4,000 (?) feet should not be cultivated. Tea was the major offender, going up to over 6,000 ft ! In this instance, the Law has to be respected and the tea left unplucked, and allowed to grow to its normal height of 6-10 metres. The natural forest will re-establish and Wildlife will return. In fact, Rohan Pethiyagoda showed this in practice, on a tea land at Agrapatana, for which he won the prestigious “Rolex Award”.
The past century has been one of unbelievable advancement. We can launch spacecraft on interplanetary journeys spanning years, sending back to land thousands of pictures of remarkable clarity. Digital Technology has wiped out traditional photography (where now are Kodak or Agfa?). Hand-held Smart phones or wrist-watches can perform the tasks of bulky Computers. Telecommunications permit us to speak to one another across the globe with an intimacy as if they are just across the table – with cameras which also give the visual content. Driverless cars, Auto-pilots on Aircraft and robots doing household chores and many other developments would tend to make us humans ‘redundant.’ Short of answering questions such as “When did time begin? Where does space end? “Man has to be pardoned for knowing it all. As usual for know-alls, we may have painted ourselves into a corner from which there is no escape. Mankind may have out-smarted itself.
A hopeful feature of current environmental concerns, is that the youth generation is increasingly involved.
As one worthy is reported to have remarked “You cannot eat oxygen”. He was dead right, but we need to breathe it! Asphyxiation would act faster than hunger could!
Minister Gamini Lokuge’s damage to people’s health
Two consecutive editorials, published in The Island on the 7 and 8 May, lambasted the despicable intervention of the Minister of Transport, Gamini Lokuge, for being instrumental in lifting the lockdown, in Piliyandala, against the advice of the health authorities.
A team of health officials, led by the MOH Piliyandala, backed by PHIs, and the DGHS, based on the recommendations of his officers, decided to lock down the Piliyandala town, as it had taken a turn for the worse, due to the rapid spread of the epidemic.
Minister Lokuge is reported to have admitted, at an interview with Hiru News, that he influenced the lifting of the lockdown in Piliyandala, and The Island, of May 10, highlighted the circumstances that led him to influence the lifting of the lockdown. The Minister accepted that he influenced the lifting of the lockdown for the sake of the daily wage earners, a claim which has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Close on the heels of the Minister’s arrogant countermand, a cluster of 138 patients was detected from the Piliyandala market.
A vendor collapsed in the market itself and his post-mortem proved that he was afflicted with the coronavirus.
The female MOH, who deserves to be praised for the adroit manner in which she has been performing duties in Piliyandala, said over the television that the cluster could have been averted, if the lockdown had not been lifted.
Hence, the Minister’s overzealous attempt to look after the livelihood of the daily wage earner, is certainly humbug, which cannot be condoned under any circumstances.
Readers would remember that the High Courts of Madras and Calcutta lambasted the Election Commission of India for their failure to ensure the recommended protocol meant for Covid-19, and openly said the ECI should be put on murder charges.
Could we reasonably expect that the authorities institute murder charges against the Minister, in the resplendent island, so that legislators, with bloated egos, could be reined in this hour of calamity.
Undoubtedly, idiotic action on the part of the Minister has endangered the precious lives of the people living in the Piliyandala area.
The childish manner in which the Minister responded to the questions, as reported by The Island correspondent, raises a number of issues. The foremost issue is whether he, as a senior Minister of the government, is capable of running an important Ministry, as he has messed up a vital epidemic issue, involving his own constituents.
Secondly, he has caused much embarrassment to the Commander of the Army and Head of the Presidential Task Force who has undertaking an arduous operation.
His argument that if the lifting of the lockdown was wrong then it should have been imposed again, is ridiculous.
All in all, what I could say is that the Minister’s high-handed intervention has left a bad taste in many a mouth, and it has caused an irrparable damage to the government at a time when its popularity is plummeting at a rapid pace.
Non-science used as science
I have read with interest the article on “Science, Non-science and Nonsense” written by Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva in “The Island” of 11.3.2021. In this article “Dr. Sarath Gamini”, as he is popularly known in the medical circles, refers to me (without mentioning my name) and my research and a lecture given by me to the Sri Lanka Medical Association. This is my response to him, particularly, on the issue of glyphosate pesticide.
I take strong issue with Dr. Sarath Gamini’s erroneous characterisation of my research, related to glyphosates, and the categorization of the government decisions and policies related to the glyphosate pesticide. For clarity, let me reproduce the paragraph on glyphosate in toto from Dr. Sarath Gamini’s article, highlighting the area where he refers to me and my research:
“The campaign conducted blaming the weed killer glyphosate as a cause of the epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin in the farming areas, mainly in the North Central province, was one burning issue then. There was no scientific evidence to prove this, despite the efforts of some professors in the medical field to find some. However, the importation of the chemical was banned mostly due to political expediency. One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so. When a visiting Sri Lankan expatriate doctor claiming to be a researcher in the field was asked, he could name only a small country, still contemplating doing so. He was lost for words to answer probing questions on the matter. His research has since been discredited in the USA. How the ban adversely affected the productivity in the agricultural sector in Sri Lanka has never been assessed or discussed.”
I am an American Board-Certified Occupational Medicine physician, and I have worked as a tenured full professor for over 34 years in the California State University, Long Beach, which is one of the largest and most respected university systems in the United States. Second, I have published more than a dozen peer reviewed scientific articles, and have given over 50 public lectures in relation to the toxic effects of glyphosate pesticide. Except for an unsigned petition sent by some disgruntled supporters of pesticides (the contents of which were found to be completely false) my research has never been discredited in the United States, or anywhere else. In fact, I won several awards for my research, including the Research Accomplishment of the Year award from my university, the prestigious “International Award” from the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association, and the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility (SFR) Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (an award that I shared with Prof. Channa Jayasumana). By the same token. As far as I know, Dr. Sarath Gamini does not have a single publication related to the toxicity of glyphosate pesticide. I raise this issue because one of the conditions that Dr. Sarath Gamini has stipulated, throughout his article, is that one has to be knowledgeable and competent in order to be able to make comments on any issue, within medicine or any other scientific field. Does that apply to Dr. Sarath Gamini, on the issue of Glyphosate as well?
Now, to get on to the content, throughout the paragraph on glyphosate, Dr. Sarath Gamini makes an assertion that the ban on glyphosate pesticide was made without any scientific evidence and “mostly due to political expediency” and he says, “One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so (the ban)”. These statements clearly demonstrate Dr. Sarath Gamin’s ignorance on the subject. Let me state the following facts for his knowledge, as well as that of the general public.
Hundreds of scientific research studies have linked glyphosate not only to Chronic Kidney Disease but also to many other health conditions, including autism, birth defects, inflammatory bowel syndrome and liver diseases. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed the scientific evidence in a 2015 report and classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate – brand name Roundup – is primarily associated with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL), a cancer in the immune system. Following this determination, in October 2015, the first Roundup (Glyphosate) product liability lawsuit was filed against Monsanto in San Francisco District courts. In August 2018, a jury awarded $289 million in damages to the plaintiff – Dewayne Johnson – who is a former school groundskeeper for a California county school system when he developed NHL after spraying glyphosate regularly for several years. This amount was later reduced, during the appeals process. During this trial, evidence released by lawyers for the plaintiff tells an alarming story of ghostwriting, scientific manipulation, collusion with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and previously undisclosed information about how the human body absorbs glyphosate. These documents provide a deeper understanding of the serious public health consequences of glyphosate, and the false advertising related to Monsanto’s conduct in marketing glyphosate.
In a second case, the jury awarded a staggering $2 billion in damages to a couple – Alva and Alberta Pilliod. In court proceedings, the Pilliods testified to using Roundup regularly, starting in 1982. The couple used the consumer version of the weedkiller, whose label lacked any warnings about covering skin or wearing protective masks. Following these successes in courts, more than 18000 cases have been filed by people who developed cancer after regularly spraying glyphosate. According to some legal reports, Bayer – the German company that bought Monsanto in 2016 – has formally submitted a $8 billion for a global settlement. In March 2020, Monsanto also agreed to pay $39.5 million as a settlement for falsely advertising Roundup is “safe” for people and pets. The settlement, which was filed in federal court in Kansas City, Missouri, resolves allegations brought by several plaintiffs who claimed Monsanto failed to warn consumers about the health risks of glyphosate.
Following the lawsuits and the expert epidemiological evidence that was presented in courts, more than 20 countries have now banned, or restricted, the use of glyphosate. Although Monsanto’s new owner, Bayer, is fighting hard to limit these restrictions, the list is growing day by day. Some of these countries include Belgium, Denmark, France, Thailand, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and Mexico. There are many cities and institutions in the U.S., including, New York, Key West, Los Angeles, the Universities of California and Miami who have now regulations to restrict the use of Glyphosate-based pesticides. (For a complete list of these restrictions please see Where is Glyphosate Banned? | Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman (baumhedlundlaw.com)
In his article, Dr. Sarath Gamini describes the revocation of the ban on glyphosate for the use in tea and coconut cultivation as a “fortunate” one. In my mind, this was one of the most “unfortunate” Cabinet decisions for several reasons: First, this policy decision was taken without much scientific advice. There was an Expert Committee that was appointed to provide advice on this matter. I was invited as an expert to testify. However, two weeks before the hearings were scheduled, the Cabinet paper was approved hastily. The main argument put forward was that there was not enough of a labour force for the removal of weeds, manually. However, many weeds have now developed resistance to glyphosate, so that one has to use manual labour to complete the process of weed removal. Second, there is no tracking and post-marketing monitoring process available in Sri Lanka to ensure that this toxic pesticide does not end up in the hands of fruit and vegetable growers and in our food. Third, the regulatory costs of protective equipment, biomonitoring and the certification of the tea and coconut products to ensure that their glyphosate levels are within acceptable limits is costly – a cost that outweighs the benefits. By now it should be clear to the reader that I have a completely opposing view on glyphosate to that of Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva.
Furthermore, in this article Dr. Sarath Gamini describes how, over the past few years, we have seen many untruths, hypocrisy and myths being propagated by professionals misleading the ignorant public and creating social unrest and even violence. As examples, the author describes, among others, several recent incidents, including the alleged sterilization of women without consent in Kurunegala, the propagation of a questionable local medicine that was touted as a cure for Covid-19, and the issue of compulsory cremation of deaths due to Covid. I will not comment on any of these issues for two reasons: First, I was not present in the country when most of these incidents took place; Second, I have not studied the social and political dynamics, surrounding these incidents, and the policies.
Therefore, in conclusion, I would like to say this to Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva: Now that you have talked about glyphosate, please “walk the walk” and demonstrate that you have the expertise on the subject and that you know what the “established knowledge” is. Dr. Sarath Gemini’s view of the established knowledge on glyphosate is completely antithetical to that of mine. Therefore, I would like to invite Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva to a public debate about the toxicity of glyphosate and the appropriateness of using the pesticide in Sri Lanka agriculture.
Dr. SARATH GUNATILAKE
Professor, California State University, Long Beach, California
Diplomate, American Board of Occupational Medicine
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org )
Mindset of Arts Graduates
Hasini Lecamwasam’s article Why are Arts Graduates Unemployable (The Island of 11 May) is an excellent analysis of the topic.
For decades, our universities have turned out Arts Graduates, very well knowing that with most of the basic subjects offered by them, they become unemployable; but what have the authorities done to rectify this waste of government funds which could have been diverted to other educational areas?
In one way, it boils down to falling values, the objective of just obtaining a degree and being a “Upadhi Dharee” being the main purpose. I have come across this myself and have hands on exposure to this.
About a decade ago, the then Government approached some of the large business organisations (Just before a general election) and made an appeal for them to employ at least two graduates, under a special scheme, at a salary of Rs 6,000/= per month. The company I work for, also agreed to consider this, and informed the Ministry concerned accordingly. The Ministry had short listed 12 graduates for us and they were called for interviews. The company wanted me to interview them to see whether we could select two.
All the applicants were Arts Graduates, and seven were over the age of 35 years. Although all our company work is done in English, I made it a point to interview them in Sinhala, just to make them comfortable. All 12 applicants had some avenue of income and some of them were married. There was one who was looking after their own paddy lands (Govithan), another looking after their plots of tea and rubber, selling green leaf and latex, there were two who ran their family grocery shops and businesses, and one other female who had started a small shop (Kade) initially selling eight loaves of bread a day along with other items, and soon ending up selling over 40 loaves of bread and turning the business into a village grocery shop. The others also were engaged in some vocation.
I had one common question for them, that is; why do they want to give up what they were doing at their villages without improving them, and to come to Colombo and get boarded and work for a salary of Rs 6,000.00 per month? You will be surprised that they all had one common answer, ie “Mama Upaadhi Dhaariyek Ne” (Cos I am a degree holder.) My attempt to tell them that the salary would hardly be sufficient to pay for their boarding and food, and that it would be very much more sensible for them to improve what they were already doing, was like pouring water on a duck’s back. This was their mindset.
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