By Emil van der Poorten –
I sit at my computer keyboard on a Friday afternoon to the accompaniment of the mini explosions of burning dry Guinea grass and the sight of huge lighted torches of burning trees. Fortunately for me and those living on and earning a living from the land that I still own, the beginnings of a breeze from the North East place us out of harm’s way insofar as this angry brush fire is concerned.
Even though the boreal forest fires of Northern Canada that I’ve known make this conflagration pale into insignificance, it is still pretty frightening given the fact that there are several families living on the adjacent plantation in the direct line of this fire.
One might conveniently label this as a local problem and one that is, essentially, an act of God, given the unbelievable drought which the people of this part of the Central Province are trying to survive. Not so!
While the dry weather is something that human beings – except for those responsible for the atmospheric pollution that has resulted in climate change – have little control over, the fire itself and the fact that there is vegetation of a kind that makes it the danger it constitutes, are problems of local creation, no less.
Nothing to do with the “good old days,” but the land through which the fire is racing used to be productive plantation, with nary a blade of Guinea grass or grass of any kind. In fact until the dense shade of inter-planted rubber and cocoa made it virtually impossible for anything to grow on the ground, it was carpeted with Pueraria phaseoloides, a leguminous ground-cover that was considered absolutely essential under these crops by those who planted them. These were the original rubber cum cocoa plantations of the district which, thanks to the “land reform” of Hector Kobbekaduwa, who probably hadn’t grown so much as a bean seed since his time in Trinity College’s Kindergarten nature study class, had their agricultural potential devastated, being turned into agricultural waste lands, even more so than the thousands of acres that the British Raj appropriated for its coffee and, subsequently, tea plantations.
Now the land is covered with some rubber trees, dating back to pre-Land Reform days, a few cocoa trees from the same period from which the monkeys prevent any pods being harvested and lots of brush and Guinea grass, both of which lend themselves admirably to easy ignition.
As might be evident, this is not particularly agriculturally productive land. However, there are a few impoverished resident workers and some from the adjacent villagers who keep body and soul together tapping the rubber trees and clearing paths through the brush to those trees. Some of them also live in some of the most pathetic accommodation imaginable, several of them directly in the path of the fire that I have just described.
You might well ask, “But isn’t arson punishable under the provisions of criminal law?” I’d be forced to answer in the affirmative. However, when murderers and rapists walk away from their crimes, unpunished, it is most unlikely that an arsonist, even if his handiwork results in loss of property and, possibly, life, is going to be apprehended and prosecuted, leave alone punished. The “locals” have accepted this reality and adopt a pretty stoic attitude in respect of man-made calamities of this kind. In fact, I phoned the owner of the land as I watched it burn and who lives away from it and his was a basically philosophical “What to do?” response which, as defeatist as it might seem, was certainly realistic in the circumstances.
This is but one of the results of abuse of the land, encouraged by legislation driven by malice – land reform – and a complete breakdown of law and order which makes the term “impunity” the watchword in our neck of the woods.
We ourselves were a bit more fortunate in stopping “water thieves” who not only disconnected our gravity-fed supply from a little spring entirely within our boundaries, but, in an act of absolute vandalism, let it stay disconnected so that, throughout the night, the water soaked into the parched hillside, not being of any use to man or beast! Because of the unique location of the spring, we were able to identify the culprits and the local constabulary hauled them into the Police Station and succeeded in dissuading them from repeating the offence with threats of all kinds of dire consequences. I should say, as I have in the past, that we are fortunate to have an intelligent Officer-in-Charge of the local police unit who, given the overall culture of lawlessness in which he and his men are compelled to operate, does a remarkably competent job. He could, in fact, be one of the exceptions to the rule that career officers only should receive diplomatic postings overseas because he wouldn’t bring shame on Sri Lanka in a Geneva or New York! He seems like a “natural” to deal with tricky situations though that is not saying much in a context where we are promised Malaka Silva as a future Minister of Education!
The unbelievable drought has also resulted in one of the two source streams of one of Sri Lanka’s major rivers, the Deduru Oya, going bone dry for the first time in living memory. This was a veritable last resort for water for those living alongside it.
That said, the water in that stream – the Dik-Oya – was terribly polluted even before the drought. This was primarily because on what used to be a buffer reserve of land between the river and the main highway that runs alongside it for several kilometers, no construction, not so much as a “live fence” of Gliricidia, was allowed. Now it has, literally, dozens of boutiques, houses and storage sheds over its entire length. In one place, the boutique and “hotle” has grown to an extent that it straddles the little river! This source of water for a variety of needs had already become an open sewer whose contents are further “enhanced” by the pit toilets that are an adjunct of every dwelling and eating house on the road alongside it. Every one of these structures is illegal but has come into existence with the active encouragement of local politicians.
Now consider what happens when the water levels drop to unprecedented levels. Same level of pollution with less water in which to dilute itself! Then comes the real crunch when there is no water flowing in its bed and those now living on its banks begin to excavate the stream-bed and sink barrels in it in the hope of collecting some desperately-needed water for all the usual purposes. What results can well be imagined. The local health authorities have had to issue some kind of warning not to use the water even for washing purposes because those doing so have suffered ugly skin eruptions.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, right on our doorstep, so to speak is the now-notorious Tumpane Pradeshiya garbage dump where that local authority has, for ten years, COMPLETELY ILLEGALLY, been dumping all the garbage from within its jurisdiction, hospital wastes included, on top of a little hillock at the base of which are what used to be two drinking-water springs which drain into that very same Dik-Oya. The temporary good news is that the poisonous toxins from this man-made disaster, because it is so dry, have no water to carry them down into the little stream and onto the river. However, when the rains do come, those downstream from this toxic wasteland are going to get toxic pollution of bonus proportions! Of course, cajoling, threats, pleading and every possible approach to those responsible for this disgrace of monumental proportions, from the local politicians to Ministers of State, have been of absolutely no avail! While the matter of Chronic Kidney Disease in the areas served by the Accelerated Mahaveli Diversion, have hit the headlines over several decades past, it might be interesting to do a few tests on the thousands of poor people dependent on this toxic mess for their drinking and domestic water!
As I end this column, I can see the biggest fire I have ever experienced in Sri Lanka burning out of control right next door to me. The only reason we have been spared is that the wind is blowing from the right direction (for us). As in all matters Sri Lankan this probably is indicative of our “reality” – one in which it is only the natural elements that can intervene to give us any relief because, goodness knows, the elements of governance certainly won’t!