By Anura Gunasekera
Globally, there is a direct link between poverty and environmental degradation. Amongst the more prominent examples are the sub-Saharan countries, such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Somalia, and Namibia, to name just a few, although the actual list from Africa is much longer. In a kind of circular equation, environmental degradation and poverty are direct associations, one leading to the other, especially in rural farming communities. This is a global commonality, and not just confined to Africa.
Other prominent features of such societies are the scarcity of essentials, low industrialisation and high unemployment, weak law enforcement, corrupt regimes, a diminished level of societal self-regulation and civic consciousness, and economic and political instability, all of which are clearly mirrored in the Sri Lankan national polity of today. The difference between Sri Lanka and the above countries is that, in the latter, the collapse has been a gradual, decades-long process. In Sri Lanka, lulled into complacency by years of self-deceit – both public and private – the decline has reached critical mass unnoticed and imploded in a matter of months.
In the countries identified above and the many other countries not in this list, environmental degradation is the result of a combination of factors; deforestation, overgrazing by cattle, slash-and-burn cultivation, uncontrolled hunting of forest animal species for “bushmeat”, altered monsoon and drought patterns caused by climate change, drying up of natural water sources, the lowering of accessible ground water tables, and the replacement of traditional grains such as millet and sorghum – which are both disease- and drought-resistant – with maize and other fast-growing, but more resource-hungry varieties.
This combination of largely man-made factors has aggravated the impact of periodic adverse changes in weather and climate patterns, leading to irreversible desertification. The inability of the countries so affected to implement sustainable corrective strategies is largely due to a low level of awareness, institutionalised poverty, dire economic conditions, and general political instability. All the factors mentioned above are interconnected, interdependent, and feed off each other.
Deforestation, one of the primary reasons for environmental degradation, is fuelled by multiple factors; generally, it is linked to illegal felling for hardwoods and firewood, expansion of commercial cultivation on forest boundaries, slash-and-burn agriculture, and the deliberate burning of scrubland to facilitate hunting. The consequences are the rapid drying up of catchment areas, decline in water retention capacity of soil, land erosion, drying up of water sources, reduction in habitats for animal species, the extermination of fauna and flora species, and the overall diminution of biodiversity.
The Sri Lankan experience
In 1830, at the infancy of the plantation economy in the country, Sri Lanka’s closed canopy forest cover was estimated at 80% of the total land extent. In 2020 it was less than 20%. Much of that loss, initially, is attributable to clearing of natural forest for the cultivation of coffee, tea, and rubber. Loss of forest to plantation crops continues, especially in the low-country where the smallholder is dominant, and is of special significance along the borders of the Sinharaja forest.
In this country, despite a wide-ranging body of laws to protect the environment, damage to ecosystems continues, much of it driven by rich businessmen with political patronage and, in some recorded instances, with the protection of and assistance from law enforcement. Unrestricted sand-mining, encroachment of forest reserves and wetlands, entrapment of threatened species, and felling of jungle timber are some of the issues that our conservationists are fighting to arrest. However, given the current socioeconomic conditions in Sri Lanka, arising from the recently generated economic and political instability, the environment is faced with a much greater threat than that posed by unscrupulous businessmen trying to fatten incomes through illegal means. And that threat is presented by millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens, overnight deprived of the essentials of life and driven below the poverty line.
The scarcity of cooking gas and kerosene, and the astronomical price increases of both, will compel marginal income-earners to look for cheaper substitutes. The obvious answer is firewood and that is certainly a viable option for those living in rural areas or farming communities, for whom the closest jungle will be the logical source of fuel. However, foraging for firewood is not an option for the two million urban poor of this country. For inhabitants of congested apartment blocks and crowded tenements in the suburbs of Colombo and other large towns, the firewood alternative has to be met by illicitly procured supplies from outstation areas. This need is certain to drive forest encroachment to new levels, in a natural adjustment of the supply-demand dynamic.
Apart from the diminution of forest land, the other consequence of the uncontrolled growth of firewood use will be increased indoor air pollution, especially in closed living spaces. Emission controls which conservationists are fighting so hard for will be secondary considerations, along with environmentally acceptable disposal of waste. Benefits of both are long term, more qualitative than quantitative, and will cost money, which could otherwise be spent to provide more visible short-term gains elsewhere. When economic conditions become dire, reducing the carbon footprint will not be considered a priority.
Poverty and environment
Another factor that enters the poverty-environment relationship is the time spent on looking for alternatives to cooking gas and kerosene. Quite often, the foraging in rural areas is carried out by women and children. In the case of the former, they would be otherwise engaged in more productive occupations, like paid employment or self-employment projects, whilst in the case of the latter it could be simpler, but equally crucial activities, like studies and play.
In fact, it is a grim reality in this country now that much of the productive time of men and women, and to a lesser extent of children, is spent languishing in queues, waiting for fuel which does not arrive. That loss of productive time directly contributes to impoverishment, through loss of earnings and diminution of production. The latter also has a direct adverse impact on the national gross domestic product (GDP).
The price of chicken, an easily available protein source across the country, has almost doubled. Marine fish has become both scarce and costly, as the lack of fuel has compelled fishermen to limit sea-going. Flesh protein substitutes may be derived from overexploitation of inland fisheries and illegally poached jungle meat. The latter is anyway attractive to those with a taste for exotic foods. This desire, and the decline in animal protein availability, is certain to raise poaching to new levels.
State bodies, such as the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Forest Department, responsible for the patrolling of wildlife parks and the protection of forests, reportedly have had to scale back prevention and protection measures, due to the unavailability of fuel for patrol vehicles. Quite apart from the low fuel availability, income at national parks has declined drastically as a result of the sharp drop in patronage, both from local and foreign tourists. For a department which depends heavily on such income for the sustainability of its operations, that revenue loss is a crippling body-blow.
Recently, Minister for Agriculture Mahinda Amaraweera made a statement that in view of the expected food shortage, all available, uncultivated land should be cultivated for food crops. Paddy lands belonging to the Forest Conservation Department in the North and the East are set to be released to farmers for cultivation.
Personally, I cannot conceive of anything more irresponsible than that. If farmers are furnished with fertiliser, fuel, and seed material, and empowered to cultivate the lands which they have been traditionally tending – now abandoned due to the unavailability of the essential ingredients – that land area will be quite sufficient to feed the population of this country. The proposal for increasing the land area under cultivation is moronic, when the means are not available for farmers to cultivate the existing agricultural lands. The call for cultivation of additional land will provide both immediate stimulus and State patronage for unscrupulous agents to encroach into protected areas.
When countries grapple with economic implosions, such as the situation Sri Lanka is faced with today, the provision of essentials is naturally given primacy whilst focus on issues such as environmental protection is diminished or completely lost. However, in the long term, economic stability and environmental health are part of the same equation.
Whilst some of the countries mentioned earlier are extreme examples of endemic national poverty and environmental degradation, Sri Lankans must understand that, as a country, we too are confronted, today, by a similar set of adverse circumstances, which decades ago tipped the scales in those countries.
Ecosystems are naturally fragile and delicately poised even under the most favourable conditions, and it is human intervention, or interference, which disrupts the balance. The environment is directly connected to the economic opportunity of low-income groups, especially in rural areas. It is a complex relationship governed by both macro and micro factors, and over-exploitation in times of adverse socio-economic conditions will dislocate the delicate equilibrium which sustains it.
The harmony that enables the environment to provide fuel, building material, and protein in the form of bushmeat, or from inland fishing, without depleting the resources unduly whilst providing the space for natural regeneration, can easily be destabilised by the overutilisation or heavy commercialisation of the product.
It is said that man is an economic animal driven by desires and reason, implying that man is motivated largely by self-interest. This is a concept I do not wish to debate in this article, but it is logical to assume that in the current Sri Lankan socio-economic context, we are most likely to place individual needs above civic responsibilities. A man with a family to feed will not be interested in environmental protection. The argument that the degradation of the environment will further impoverish him and his immediate society is not something that he will entertain.
Finally, the Government is faced with a very simple equation and a clear set of choices. Arrest and reverse the tide of poverty which has already engulfed many strata of our society, or face the inevitable consequences; the real possibility of famine, the breakdown of law and order, the erosion of civic consciousness which, more than the law, sustains the societal fabric, and the environmental degradation in both rural and urban habitats, as well as in our much diminished forest land. Rehabilitation, when it is too late, will come at a cost that we will not be able to support.
(The writer is a retired plantation industry specialist, an amateur herpetologist, a keen birdwatcher, and a passionate conservationist)
The history of wildlife protection in Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with that of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka. At 128 years old, the WNPS is the third oldest non-governmental organisation of its kind in the world and was responsible for the setting up of the Wilpattu and Yala National Parks in Sri Lanka, and of the formation of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).