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Pope Francis pitches for renewed hope in a wounded world

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by Rajan Philips

On Saturday, October 3, Pope Francis issued the second encyclical letter of his papacy, in Assisi, Italy. Entitled “Fratelli Tutti”, or Fraternity and Social Friendship in its English translation, the encyclical is a call for renewed hope in a world beset by pathogens and prejudices, through sisterhood, brotherhood, and social friendship. The Pope travelled from Rome to Assisi to sign the encyclical at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, after whom the Pope took his papal name and from whom he draws spiritual and temporal inspiration to fight the dominant prejudice of our time targeting Muslims.

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of the most venerated medieval Christian saints. Born to an Italian silk merchant father and a French mother, he converted himself from a wealthy and worldly young man to a spiritual poverello (little poor man), and at the age of 24 met with and managed to persuade the then Pope (Innocent III) to support a reform movement within the Church led by the so called mendicant orders. They were founded on poverty, humility, simplicity, and peripatetic preaching, and they helped rehabilitate a growingly decadent Church by re-identifying it with the life and sufferings of Christ. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscan Order of Brothers and the St. Clare Order of Sisters.

The special relevance of Saint Francis, to the Church today and to Pope Francis, is in the inter-faith linkages that Saint Francis strove to create with his Muslim brethren during Crusades (1096-1271), the religious wars of the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, Francis travelled to Egypt, crossing battle lines, to meet with the Sultan of Egypt, who graciously gave him permission to visit Christian sacred places in the Holy Land and to establish the presence of Franciscan monks in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Franciscan Order has been a continuous and constant presence in the Holy Land ever since.

It is to this inter-faith legacy of St. Francis of Assisi that Pope Francis constantly turns for inspiration and encouragement. It is not the only legacy of Saint Francis. There are other legacies – elevating tolerance over condemnation, inclusion over exclusion, fraternity over alienation, friendship over enmity, and nature conservation over destruction. Pope Francis draws from all of them in his leadership of the Church and in his messages to the world. Even the encyclical title “Fratelli Tutti” is a phrase that the Saint used to address the brothers and sisters of the Franciscan and Saint Clare Orders. And the encyclical recounts the meeting between St. Francis and the Egyptian Sultan, and the Saint’s instruction to his Brothers during the Crusades, that in dealing with Muslims (Saracens) and other non-Christians, they (the Brothers) were not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature, for God’s sake.”

 

Urgency and futility

Pope Francis holds out as example the leadership Saint Francis showed 800 years ago in dealing with Muslims and other non-Christians, that Christians should eschew hostility and intolerance and embrace humility and brotherhood. What is wrong with this message in the current situation of – what the Pope calls – the “wounded world”? The encyclical is a spirited effort to provide a long and elaborate answer to that question. The Pope was already working on the text of the letter when the Covid-19 pandemic “unexpectedly erupted, exposing our false securities, and the inability of various countries to work together.” Without Covid-19, the encyclical would have been a lamentation and a call for action on poverty, racism, and violence, the chronic scourges of the early 21st century. It would have been a sequel to his 2015 Apostolic Exhortation, “Laudato Si” (Care for our Common Home), and his joint declaration with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb of “The Document on Human Fraternity,” in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019.

Alas, within two weeks of the release of the encyclical came the brutal beheading of Samuel Paty, a French school-teacher in Paris, by an 18-year old Chechen-born French Muslim, underscoring both the urgency and the futility of the Pope’s message. Sri Lanka experienced the same horror firsthand and on a mass scale in the 2019 Easter bombings. The reverberations are still continuing not only at the human level of those who were victimized, but also at the political level of others bandying ethnic misgivings and given to mischief making.

 

Fratelli Tutti may not have much of an impact on the men of the cloth in Sri Lanka, but it shows up what the Pope commends as the Christian approach inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan – whose imitation the Pope calls for among fellow Christians everywhere “in order to rebuild (our) wounded world” of which they are very much a part. “The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside,” writes the Pope, “can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project.” The alternative is the path of political revenge and legal retaliation targeting whole communities and victimizing innocent individuals for the crimes of a few desperadoes.

Elsewhere, the violent ISIS movement may have become dormant, but there are flashpoints of conflict everywhere in the Middle East. In his own maddening ways Trump has redrawn the region’s frontiers of conflict disregarding international law, agreements, and conventions, and emboldening similar actions by other countries in their own backyards. The Netanyahu government in Israel has got whatever it wanted from Trump – relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, new settlements in contested sites including the Golan Heights, and new agreements between Israel and Arab States further isolating the Palestinians, and thinks it can do whatever it wants in the Middle East.

In India, the Modi government followed suit in Kashmir, China snuffed out protests in Hong Kong while continuing to be heavy handed in its treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, Lebanon is left abandoned in permanent chaos, Belarus in permanent protests, while Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are jostling for positions in proxy wars from Yemen and Libya, to Cyprus, and to the Caucasus states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of this in the midst of a global pandemic and its second wave.

The pandemic is nowhere as horrendous as in Trump’s America, where the people are also in the throes of a hugely consequential election. Arriving in the middle of a bitterly contested election campaign, Pope Francis’s encyclical has generated varying reactions among American Catholics. Liberal Catholics are reading the encyclical as a rebuke of Donald Trump, while conservative (Republican) Catholic commentators are calling it an overreaching “humanitarian manifesto” that is of little practical value even as it deviates from some of the traditional teachings of the Church. These criticisms are not inaccurate, but they are wrong.

 

Points of departure

For an encyclical, Fratelli Tutti is a long document, with eight chapters in 90 pages. A conservative American Catholic critic has commented on its “sheer length,” which at 43,000 words (in English including footnotes), is apparently “more than the Book of Genesis (32,046) and three times the size of the Gospel of John (15,635).” Much of it is also a recounting of the Pope’s statements and writings on human fraternity and social friendship during the seven years of his papacy. But the points of departure for this new compilation are in its timing, contextualization, and clear departures as well from some of the longstanding Catholic doctrinaire positions on private property, solidarity/subsidiarity, and justifying ‘just wars’. Like Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis is looking to embrace not the rich and the powerful, but the meek and the marginalized, the heretics and the outcasts.

Historically, as laid out in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, written as a direct response to the spectre of socialism in the late 19th century, property rights have been divine rights in the eyes of the modern Church. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis falls back on anterior Christian experiences to declare that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” In the same vein, the Church has privileged individual subsidiarity over the solidarity of the collective. Francis emphasizes the value of solidarity, and potentially as a basis for rethinking the foreign debt obligations of less developed countries. He decries the market being celebrated as the panacea to satisfy all the needs of society, and in the context of globalized inequalities, he calls for strong and efficient international institutions.

Although written from a “Christian perspective,” the encyclical is “an invitation to dialogue among all people.” Without “dialogue and friendship in society,” people will drift apart and grow insensitive and indifferent to the difficulties and problems of one another, leading to conflicts and violent eruptions. The Pope advocates “the culture of encounter,” and stresses “the need for peacemakers, men and women prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing and renewed encounter.” To be successful, “every peace process requires enduring commitment. It is a patient effort to seek truth and justice, to honour the memory of victims and to open the way, step by step, to a shared hope stronger than the desire for vengeance.”

While “forgetting is never the answer,” there can be no closure to any upheaval without “forgiveness and reconciliation.” Francis calls for the resolution of conflicts through negotiation and the United Nations Charter, and decries the rationalization of military aggression by “all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses.” Given the proliferation and the hugely destructive capacity of weapons, the Pope asserts that societies “can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’. “



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Sinharaja world heritage

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Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday

 

Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.

 

Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.

 

Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)

 

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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field

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As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

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The Soul

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The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

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