By Uditha Devapriya –
At the heart of the public outcry against the deforestation taking place in the country right now – the razing of forests, the fragmentation of land, and the enactment of certain questionable circulars – is a shared sense of pain and betrayal. Pain, because who can wait as the greenery that makes up much of the country turns to dirt, and betrayal, because what is an administration which promised to raise the country’s forest cover doing while forest land is shrinking at unprecedented levels?
And what unprecedented levels they are. Between 2017 and 2019, a period of two years, the forest cover reduced from 29.7% to 16.5%. It was the yahapalana government, remnants of which while in the Opposition today are tweeting against the current administration’s environmental record, that held the reins of power then. Yet the regime before it was no different: in 2012, for instance, around 1,585 hectares of primary forest land were lost, the single biggest annual loss in over a decade. The numbers for 2020 and 2021 have not been released yet, but I’m sure they are as big as, if not bigger than, these figures; according to the Rain Forest Protectors of Sri Lanka, the country’s forest cover stands at 17%, above what it was in 2019, but well below the 30% promised by the president.
Different people have different perspectives about what’s going on, who’s to blame, and what should be done. All of them point their fingers at the present government, but while some are of the opinion that it’s more lethargic than complicit, for a great many it’s the other way around. To be fair by them, the way things are unfolding, it’s difficult to say who’s to blame and for what: deforestation certainly did not begin with the present administration, but the way it has got a spotlight, mostly on that hive of rumour and disinformation, social media, it’s delivered a bad press for that administration.
For its part, the government has been slow to act. It has been far, far less receptive to the demands of environmentalists and activists than was the previous government, specifically the previous president. Maithripala Sirisena may not, I suppose, be remembered for much, but of what little he did he will be remembered for taking the initiative to protect forest cover; he acted quickly when environmentalists demanded that he extend Wilpattu to forest areas adjacent to the area, at a time when civil society was more divided than now over the question of human encroachment on forest land.
But I digress. The point I am trying to make is that narratives about deforestation and encroachment are coloured by our biases for, and against, those political interests engaged or complicit in them. It is futile to draw a line from the act in question to the powers that be – and to be fair, no one involved in efforts to stop the rape of our forests has drawn such a line – but that is what we do. We did not do it then, we are doing it now. Thus the current spate of deforestation, against which the government has done pitiably little to absolutely nothing, has provided the ideal spotlight for those who want to grind this regime for its excesses, some real, some imagined. My argument here is that laudable though such dissent may be, it has inadvertently shored up other problems, other issues.
What are these issues? They came to me the other day in a random conversation with a young person who was, from the way he talked, genuinely worried about the razing of forests in the country. This young man is modestly educated. He sees the deforestation for what it is: an act the regime appears to be complicit in, or lethargic against. While stopping short of accusing the regime of chopping down trees and clearing land for large-scale development, he nevertheless believes it’s turning a blind eye to what’s happening. Like most of those from his generation, he is disenchanted.
However, still waters run deep. No supporter of the government – and least, no more – this young man also believes the deforestation issue is not being highlighted enough, whether by the media, the Opposition, even civil society. This is of course not true, strictly speaking. But limited as it is to social media and a few outbursts by the Opposition, the debate over the recent upsurge in deforestation has not garnered, much less mobilised, even less unified, civil society outside the political establishment. For that reason he believes that, inasmuch as politicians are to blame, the fact that such a problem has not brought together those generally opposed to politicians – civil society mainly, but also the media and even the international community – is an indication of their selectivity and bias. In the eyes of the young man and those of his generation, put simply, deforestation has become a national issue, indeed a nationalist one. And like all “nationalist” concerns, not many seem to be bothered by it.
Here I must point out that my friend is Sinhala and Buddhist, with a middle-class rural plus suburban upbringing. If that doesn’t quite explain his views on the environment, it does make clear why he and his peers think other issues have gained undue prominence over it. For instance, and he’s frank about this, he believes the burial debate was resolved in favour of the Muslim perspective because Muslims, unlike the rest of the country – by whom he presumably means “Sinhala Buddhists” – wield influence over politicians, civil society, and the international community.
When it was pointed out that the burial issue came to be resolved many months after it first cropped up, he shrugged noncommittally: for him, the delay didn’t as much indicate the regime’s commitment to its rigid one country one law policy as it did that regime’s expedient flexibility regarding it. Note how he, and many others of his generation, frame the debate over the environment in terms of what is patently a nationalist concern over allowing Muslims to “get away with it” (i.e. burial, not cremation) here: the government chooses to ignore the first issue (for him, a national issue) because it lacks an interest group similar to that which pressured the government to conform to a particular viewpoint in the second (for him, an ethnic issue). In other words, “they” can get the rest of us to do their bidding, because the world is behind “them” in a way it is not behind “us.”
It hardly need be added that a great many from the milieu my friend hails from – Sinhala, Buddhist, rural/suburban, and middle-class – tend to view the ongoing spate of deforestation in ethno-nationalist terms, though not exclusively so. This is not a phenomenon unique to Sri Lanka, for that matter South Asia: even in Europe, environmental issues have become mired in rightwing ethno-nationalist politics, though to a greater extent than they seem to be in Sri Lanka. (It must of course not be forgotten that the most lucid articulators of Sinhala nationalism – formerly in the Jathika Hela Urumaya, now in the 43 Senankaya – evolved from an eco-nationalist background as well.)
The relationship between environmental issues and nationalist ideology is by no means new: to cite an extreme example, the Christchurch mosque shooter, Brenton Tarrant, described himself as an “eco-fascist”, and to cite another, Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber”, rationalised his terror campaign as a battle against “modern industrial society.” What distinguishes the right from the left when it comes to environmental matters therefore is the frame through which each views them: for the right, the aim is to protect a pristine “local” way of life through conservation: a defensive, parochial posture.
I am not suggesting that this is what we’re seeing in Sri Lanka. Rather, I am suggesting that the link between the environment – which, in the romantic nationalist discourse, is synonymous with “who we are”– and the concept of nationalism defined in ethnic terms has cropped up, owing to the flexibility with which the regime is perceived to have handled the burial issue and the inflexibility with which it is handling the deforestation issue. The former is deemed by sections of the Sinhala youth as specific to a community, rather than the country. In their view of things, the regime has hence violated its one country one law policy twice over: over the burials, and over the environment.
Having defined itself in opposition to the government, this youth now vents out its frustration at that government’s apathetic handling of environmental concerns by resorting to a division – a dangerous one – between the Muslims, whom it views as co-opting the government, civil society, the media, and the international community, and the majority – Sinhala Buddhists – whom it views as being left out of those groups. If not problematic, it’s disturbing; it can only be tackled by resolving the forest land imbroglio, and by launching a cohesive campaign to heal such divisions. Yet neither Government nor Opposition seems to be aware of the need for such strategies. That is to be regretted.