By Rajasinghe Bandara –
With ‘Conversation with the Village’ (Gama samaga Pilisandara), President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has given a ‘Green light’ to the villagers for chena type cultivation (Hain Govithan) which could lead to destroy a massive area of Island’s green space including the forests grown freely during the 30 year long civil war because the villagers claim they had been living and farming there for a long time and fled to other arears during the war. In fact, those who genuinely lived there, for a long time, returned to their traditional villagers soon after the war, about 10 years ago. For example, Sinhalese villagers in Vavuniya, Padaviya, Horowupothana.
Do villagers tell the truth to the president? if they do, there must be evidence like permanent houses, grown coconut trees etc. In most cases those people had previously encroached (occupied or cultivated without permits) lands even in the catchment areas of the reservoirs and lakes such as Kala Veva or even in the protected forests or forest reserves. Some of those lands were parts of historical sites. There are thousands of examples to prove this. On one occasion they were requesting from Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa to construct a road which may well cross the elephant corridor in Thimbiliyakada.
On the Independence Day celebration, 04th February, I watched on a news channel, people in the tourism industry, in the South, holding a news conference to protect Dahaiyagala elephant corridor. They claim some people have already started encroaching and destroying the reserve. Which is the only safe passage for the elephants to move between several national parks in the area. Wildlife and forest conservation officers have a duty to protect them because they are sensitive to protect remaining forest cover, endangered wildlife, to minimise human-elephant conflict, and as well as to maintain a sustainability of the economy.
When president instruct the officers to take immediate actions or take no action to prosecute the villagers, they become helpless because they need to have meticulous planning to address those issues. At Haldomulla in Haputhale district, when officer asked ‘Sir, we need circulars to implement it’, Mr Rajapaksa said, ‘Take my words as circulars, I’m the executive president’ No doubt he has enormous powers with the 20th amendment. In fact, the president’s duty should be leading the officers to set up protocols to make fair judgments while minimising damage to the environment.
Sri Lanka recorded highest number of elephants’ deaths in the world, 407, in 2020, due to human elephant conflict, just a year after Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as the president. In the same year 122 people were killed in the conflict. This figure is alarming because previous annual average was 272 elephants’ deaths and 85 human victims. According to Times of India, Sri Lanka also ranked number two globally after India where highest number of human deaths reported due to human-elephant conflict.
In 2019, our country recorded highest number of elephant deaths, 361, since independence in 1948. This shows, year after year the figure is rising despite the public outcry over the human-elephant conflict and the deforestation.
As an endangered species, leopards have been listed in the Red Data Book since 2008, means now they are on the brink of extinction. Despite the wake-up calls to the government with the death of extremely rare Black Panther, last May, in 2020, 13 leopards were reported killed. Most of them died after being trapped in the snares including the beautiful, young black panther. The leopard population in Sri Lanka is around 900. How long they are going to survive? Leopards are roaming in Sri Lanka because their habitats have been destroyed and they enter villages in search of foods and kill domestic dogs, even cats. It is another sad conflict between villagers and the wild animals. As far as the tourism industry is concerned, elephants and leopards are treasures of Sri Lanka.
Despite numerous media revelations and the constants reminders on the television channels, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been keeping his blind eye on the tragedy of the wildlife. Therefore, I published a detailed article, covering all aspects of the wildlife, on Sri Lanka Guardian, on 17 July 2020, with the title,
‘Forgotten Black Panther and President Gotabaya’s blind eye on the tragedy of the wildlife’
As an educator, with my local and international experience, I suggested effective solutions to the president to address the human-elephant conflict. I quote them bellow:
‘’It is evident all efforts of the current and previous governments failed to bring effective solutions to human-elephant conflict because they did not try to treat the root cause. The root cause is the shrinking wildlife habitats with human activities including government development projects and settlement schemes such as ‘Gam Udava’. There are straight forward solutions:
* President Gotabaya should set up a taskforce and consult experts in the field, representatives of the villagers and the interested parties who have passion and vision about the solutions.
* With immediate effect, the president should ban any form of further destruction of jungles and forests.
* Jungles grown freely during the 30-year long civil war must be protected from the villagers and the farmers.
* The farmers and the villagers, by the habitats of wild animals including elephants, should be resettled where they are safe and able to make living.
* From now on solutions to homelessness or housing for the ever-increasing population should be building Chinese and European style apartment buildings even at village level to save the lands and forests for future generations. Any project like ‘Gam Udawa’ must not be the solution.
* Any people who have had encroached the catchment areas of the lakes and reservoirs such as Kala Veva should be removed and resettled for the benefit of the agriculture, wildlife and the future generations.
* Tougher laws should be introduced to punish those who destroy nature and wildlife.’’
After the publication, in his throne speech at the opening of the parliament last year he (Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa) pledged to bring a solution to the conflict and at two consecutive meetings he instructed to the relevant ministers and the secretaries to find a solution within two years. But, since then the problem has become worse as you can see from the figures, I mentioned at the beginning. Instead of finding solutions, the government has come forward to help big companies including multi- national companies and tycoons by removing three circulars that protected more than 700,000 hectares (1,730,000 acres).
The forest (700,000 hectares) labelled as ‘Other State Forests’ (OSFs), which are not classified as protected areas but account for five percent of the island nation’s remaining forest cover which is less than 16 percent.
Sri Lanka’s OSFs are areas managed by the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) but are not a part of areas such as National Parks, Wildlife Reserves or Elephant Sanctuaries. It has been estimated more than 70% of the wild elephants live outside of the protected forests,
With the removal of three circulars, particularly 05/2001, control over OSFs has been handed back to Sri Lanka’s local authorities: District and Divisional Secretariats. This was reported in Daily News on 17 December 2020.
Although there are island wide protests, demanding a sustainable solution to the human-elephant conflict and the deforestation, the government is reluctant to listen. People from Valsapugala have been on a Satyagraha nearly a month demanding to protect the Elephant sanctuary. Today, indigenous community (Vaddha Community) leader Uruvarige Vannila Attho filed a petition, through his lawyers, at Colombo high court to prevent the government giving their traditional lands, 7500 acres, to big companies to grow maize. Those jungles are integral parts of their livelihood.
I doubt whether the government and its advisors including ‘Viyathmaga’ (‘Professionals for a Better Future’) understand the balance between development and the nature/environment. With the removal of government circulars to support big companies how long our forests and the wildlife going to last. Recently president appointed Dr Anil Jasinghe as the secretary of the ministry of environment. He became popular among the citizens with his efficient handling of Covid-19, during the first wave of the pandemic, as the director general of health services. He worked extremely hard even without proper sleep, appearing on television and advising people etc. But he has no clue about addressing environmental issues, which I noticed during a recent television interview, called Mawatha, His role is now not more than ‘dead man walking’ as various pressure groups expecting solutions from him for the burning issues.
Here is an amazingly simple example from London to save green space for future generations. When I moved to London, I was surprised when I saw the huge parks, heaths (undeveloped lands, almost like jungles) and the green spaces, all over. It is known as a green city with over 8 million trees, the world’s largest urban forest. Many parks are bigger than 500 acres and some are bigger than thousand acres. For example, extent of Richmond Park is 2,360 acres, Bushy Park 1099 acres, Hampstead Heath is around 800 acres. Richmond Park, originally a deer-hunting park, still has 300 Red Deer and 350 fallow deer. The deer in the park are wild animals. These are the breathing spaces for people to relax and enjoy. They consist of lakes with waterbirds like swans, flower gardens, manmade water falls etc. In addition to the locals millions of tourists come to enjoy these parks and heaths.
London is a densely populated area with 9,304,000 residents in 2020, and there is a massive demand for houses or living spaces, yet no British government allows the people to compromise the green space (which is 47% in total) to meet the demand for housing. Lands do not grow! To meet the need for housing for the ever-increasing population, London as well as other countries in Europe build more and more apartment buildings, skyscrapers and tower buildings even at village levels to save the lands for future generation. To prevent overcrowding some other big cities have been built in remote areas as an alternative to living in London like Milton Keynes. Why Sri Lankan government cannot learn from those experience to protect the catchment area of the lakes and save the remaining green spaces for our future generations and the wild animals.