By Emil van der Poorten –
As one who believes that climate change driven by man’s insistence on refusing to accept that his behaviour is responsible for global warming, I have little doubt that the catastrophic weather we have experienced and are continuing to experience as I write this could have been avoided, to a significant extent, if we lived up to our boast that we Sri Lankans are more intelligent than the ”lesser” mammals!
That said, let’s look at what factors other than willy nilly industrialization, with the attendant indiscriminate use of non-renewable fossil fuels, have contributed to what has been happening in Sri Lanka in the past couple of weeks.
Many in our neck of the woods who are in no danger of being engulfed by floodwaters are living in fear of boulders above their very modest habitations coming loose and burying them in the houses that they occupy. Interestingly, in an area that is extremely rocky, this was never a concern in the past. Why? Because there was vegetation that would have stopped any errant boulder before it could do any damage. Not only are those “guard trees” gone but the steep hillsides have suffered very serious erosion since the clearing of this land. You might well ask, “How did this come about?”
Well, in the “bad old days of Empire” and for several years after Sri Lanka became independent, the hilltops were “Crown reserves,” if I remember the terminology right. It was an offence to, in any way whatsoever, try to change the vegetation there. Similarly, the road (now Highway A10 connecting Kandy & Kurunegala) , had a “Crown road/river reservation” between it and the Dik-Oya, one of the two source streams of the Deduru Oya. This used to be leased to an adjacent land-holder who could only “enjoy” whatever the leased land produced. On no account was the existing vegetation to be changed and that included an absolute prohibition on any type of construction. This prohibition has, seemingly, disappeared because there is a string of habitations and an even more substantial number of eating houses (“hotels”), inclusive of one locally- famous establishment which straddles the Oya concerned! Now isn’t that a “first:” being able to sit down to a meal with a river running under one?!
You would be hard put to find even one of these establishments that has waste disposal of any description. Why should they bother because guess where garbage goes? As for toilets and human-wastes ………..
A little vignette might be appropriate at this point.
When the A10 was being carpeted around what is now the 17th Km marker, one enterprising local took advantage of what was intended to be the temporary removal of a large cement direction sign, by the Road Development Authority (RDA). On completion of carpeting of that particular section of the highway, when they sought to place the sign where it used to be, they found the space occupied by a Petti Kadey, a small kiosk. When they and those concerned about the sign being removed sought to put it back where it was, the owner of the Petti Kadey established “title” to it by the simple expedient of having the local Pradeshiya Sabha issue a receipt (back-dated) for “payment of acreage tax” or something to that effect. Do I need to add to that narrative the fact that the most powerful politician in the area was a member of the Cabinet at the time and is still a member of that august body despite an alleged change of government and governing philosophy?
Back to where this piece began: guess what happened to the hilltop forest reserves? Particularly, since Land Reform and Mr. Kobbekaduwa’s “emancipation of the Kandyan peasantry?” They became a happy hunting ground for those seeking any wood that could be sold. Making that situation worse was the fact that, increasingly, because lower and lower grade timber was found acceptable for one use or another, trees that might have escaped the woodsman’s axe were cut down and sawn notwithstanding the fact that those doing so had no legal claim whatsoever to them.
This “hilltop invasion” didn’t appear in isolation but was part of a larger devastation of the tree cover of the plantation land below. First the Jak (Artocarpus integrifolia) and other hard woods, Sapu (Champaca indica) and Lunumidella (Melia dubia) went, followed by the rubber trees which were felled for lumber (the bottom part of the trunk) and firewood (the rest of the tree). Then came the cocoa trees which also went to someone’s open-hearth fireplace! In a short time one of Sri Lanka’s largest cocoa estates (originally about 1500 acres) didn’t produce so much as one bean, leave alone thousands of pods of this now-very valuable crop!
What took its place? To the greatest extent, an invasive grass – “Guinea A” – originally introduced for dairy cattle which even then didn’t exist in a number that could make a dent in the Guinea A production! Now however, with the tree cover removed this grass proceeded to grow to giant proportions, sometimes 2 and 3 metres high!
Guinea A, as any one encountering it will vouch, does condition the soil because its roots loosen the top soil enabling the rain water to penetrate deeper than it otherwise would. The bad news is that if this grass is killed by burning, the now-soft top soil can be easily eroded and in the absence of stone terraces, contour drains and silt-pits which used to be the order of the day in the matter of soil conservation in plantations of this kind, the damage can well be imagined. Remember also that dry “mana,” the local name for this high grass, burns very brightly and even if an arsonist is not born every day in our neck of the woods, there are enough of them to put a match to the grass every dry season. Another little result of this burning is the fact that the smoke kills off the wild bees in the vicinity. And guess what killing bees that are, by far, the most important pollinating agents on earth, does?
Bad enough? Well, right within sight of our home, one of our neighbours is in the process of cutting down and selling for firewood acres of rubber trees, not replacing them with any other vegetation. How do I know the history of these trees? Because I was responsible for having the damned things planted about half a century ago! When I remarked on this fact to the local Grama Niladhari who is only too ready to invoke the law in other circumstances, she wanted me to make a “report” (to the Department of the Environment?) I didn’t want to upset her by suggesting that since she was aware of the devastation and had seen it, firsthand, action to stop this devastation could be initiated by simply contacting one of her fellow bureaucrats!
Yes, we can’t, in little un-industrialised Sri Lanka, make a dent in global warming or climate change. We can, however, turn back the clock on the wanton destruction of our environment and the dire results of what has already been done by the simple expedient of applying time-tested, practical methods. The problem is that all of that is dependent on one simple reality: a return to the rule of law and the application of that law without fear or favour. Given what prevails there lies the “crunch.”