Sri Lanka is one of the most biodiversity-rich countries in the world. That biodiversity includes ecosystem diversity, species diversity, and genetic diversity. The location of our country on Earth, the interior topography of the country, and the inanimate natural resources have contributed to that biodiversity. But we have so far failed to steer the country towards sustainable development by utilising all those riches in a sustainable manner. In short, we have failed to balance development and conservation. As a result, we as a country are moving, not in the direction of development, but in the direction of decline.
Brunch spoke to conservationist and freelance journalist in Sri Lanka Supun Lahiru Prakash on some of the environmental challenges we’ll be facing in the coming years.
Every living thing on Earth has more or less the same climate challenge. It has no geographical or sociological dimension. But it is sad to say that ever-developing countries like ours, which have reached the brink of poverty, will be hit hardest by the ill effects of climate change. “The world has not yet made satisfactory progress on greenhouse gas emissions control. It simply means that climate change will have far more serious consequences,” Prakash told us, adding that we have to adapt to those adverse effects, but we do not have enough economic strength for that. As climate change intensifies, so does the economic power needed to adapt. He stated that people need to adapt to the effects of climate change to at least create the environment they need to live in to meet their basic needs.
Prakash questionioned: “Can we assume that failed states like ours, where the country’s farming community is struggling on the streets demanding inputs for their cultivation, are thinking of adapting local agriculture to the effects of climate change? Can we imagine the failure of countries like ours to risk their lives to fish, even as the country’s fishing community warns of hurricanes that could not keep their children and families from starving, and mimic the local fishing industry to the effects of climate change? Can we imagine failing states like ours, whose rulers have been handcuffed to protect their lives from landslides and floods exacerbated by extreme weather disasters, think of the growing number of climate orphans in the face of the effects of climate change?” The answers to all of these depend on how we proceed from here on, and Prakash cautioned us to tread carefully, keeping the environment in mind.
According to Prakash, the Fauna and Flora Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act have provided strong legal provisions to protect the forests and wildlife of Sri Lanka. The protection of other natural resources was more or less protected through various laws and regulations, but due to some arbitrary, unjust, and foolish decisions taken by the present Government when it came to power, that legal protection and the relevant institutional administrative structure have been turned upside down.
He described: “Cancellation of Circulars – the issuance of new circulars, issuance of gazette notifications, and withdrawal of such gazette notifications have created such uncertainty.”
Environmentalists emphasise that its hidden purpose may be to create the conditions for the political henchmen of our country to destroy their forests and wildlife resources for their own narrow ends. This predicament that is possible today is a fulfilment of their predictions.
It goes without saying that the impact on the country’s forests and natural resources will intensify in the future as an extension of the economic crisis the country is currently facing. “It happens naturally. Is it strange to say that farmers who are not able to meet the agricultural inputs required for their crops are not able to get the expected harvest? They are pushing their economic pressure towards forests, wildlife, and natural resources,” said Prakash, adding that the economic vulnerability of the fishing community is directed towards illegal fishing activities.
He explained that if the Government wants to control the country’s economic downturn to some extent, it will have to resort to economic strategies to break the shackles, but according to him, this will not lessen the pressure on natural resources in the coming year.
Increasing environmental pollution in the country is inevitable due to the cuts in government allocations to control pollution as well as the opening of the country to polluting industries. Pollution of air, water, soil, and other constituents increases the pressure on marginalised people. For example, Prakash stated that the world’s most corrupt industries are coming to our country as a solution to the economic crisis. “As the state machinery to regulate them becomes dormant, there is more and more release into the miserable environment. It pollutes the water sources of marginalised people. The air they breathe is polluted. The soil is destroyed. What happens is that such marginalised communities are thrown into the frying pan.”
Among the wildlife-human conflicts, the elephant-human conflict in Sri Lanka has made our country a world-famous – or rather infamous – country. The reason for this is that Sri Lanka is the country with the highest number of elephant deaths in the world due to this constant struggle.
In terms of human deaths, we are second only to neighbouring India. Prakash told us that every day, an elephant dies prematurely somewhere on this little island. The country also loses more than two human lives every week due to human-elephant conflict. “Although this wildlife-human conflict has become a major environmental, socio-political, and political crisis in Sri Lanka, the authorities have so far failed to take any positive steps to mitigate it,” he stated, adding that instead, billions of public money are being poured into the dragon’s mouth for outdated, failed elephant-human conflict management methods. Wild elephants and helpless rural people are paying with their lives.
Instead of finding a lasting solution to the conflict, the Sri Lankan authorities have taken the initiative to turn it into a “sustainable settlement”. Prakash stated that the latest prototype they are currently using is trenching. “Attempts to find a solution to the human-elephant conflict by constructing trenches in Sri Lanka on a number of previous occasions have not been successful. Instead, the authorities have come up with a three-pronged, pragmatic, realistic, and co-ordinated programme to reduce the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka, which was ordered by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.”
The National Action Plan for Reducing Elephant-Human Conflict in Sri Lanka, prepared by a Presidential Committee appointed on 22 July 2020, was handed over to the Presidential Secretariat on 17 December 2020. It has been approved by the Committees on Public Accounts (COPA), but now more than a year has passed and the plan is hidden in Pandora’s box.
“It is disgusting that the relevant authorities are still working on some soil in the national parks, losing so many lives and property to the country every day that a hidden plan is being hatched to minimise the human-elephant conflict,” he commented.
The ignorance of the rulers
It goes without saying that the root cause of the current uncertainty and crisis in the country is the ignorance of the rulers. The authorities of the country can also get advice and guidance from the right people and organisations, but it seems that what they do instead is seek advice from deceivers who pretend to be intelligent. For example, Prakash shared that the current Government’s complex and scientific scope of elephant-human conflict management includes the State Ministry of Wildlife Conservation, protection measures including construction of elephant fences and ditches, and afforestation and forest resource development.
The situation in Sri Lanka’s other environmental and natural resource decision-making bodies is more or less the same. According to Prakash, the most unfortunate thing is that they do not admit their ignorance; instead, acting arbitrarily with hatred towards those who point out their shortcomings. It is a dilemma as to where that dictatorship will stop the journey of our country.