By Mohamed Harees –
Australia, known for its natural environment, is under the international spotlight as bush fires are spreading across vast tracts of the country, widely seen as unprecedented for their intensity, scale and timing. Shocking images of this devastation are reverberating around the world, which has already killed at least 18 people, destroyed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homes in regional areas of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and burnt more than 5 million hectares. Another distressing news, was that scientists believe almost half a billion mammals, birds and reptiles have also been killed during the last four months across Australia. In New South Wales a third of the state’s koala colony – around 8,000 bears – are thought to have been wiped out by the fires. Many Australians dropped their ordinary lives to battle the nation’s raging fire crisis, as part of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS).
Anger over the government’s handling of the crisis has grown since the outbreak. The Australian PM Scott Morrison, was reportedly heckled out of a fire-ravaged town in New South Wales, with the locals later saying that he received the welcome he probably deserved, as a mass evacuation of the region got under way ahead of worsening conditions. Experts widely agree that a changing climate is increasing the likelihood of bush fires and that more extreme fires are likely to become more common as temperatures continue to rise in the future. There is increasing evidence that climate change is driving more drought conditions, particularly in the mid-latitudes where Australia sits. There is extremely strong evidence that temperature increases are being driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases.
Climate change is defined as the change in global or regional climate patterns. Factors such as biotic processes, variations in solar radiation received by Earth, and certain human activities have been identified as primary causes of ongoing climate change, often referred to as global warming. Scientists and environmentalists actively work to understand past and future climate by using observations and theoretical models.
While acknowledging a link between reducing emissions and the risk of bush fires, Aussie PM however has dismissed calls to take stronger action to combat climate change, insisting that current policy takes a balanced approach. Critics accuse the government of using accounting tricks to avoid making reductions in emissions that are large enough to stave off the worst effects of climate change. According to analysts, the politics of denial relating to climate change could hardly be more different in Australia than they appear to be elsewhere. They say, Australia has been unable to reach an enduring consensus about even the core elements of a policy response to an issue that scientists agree will present enormous challenges to this vulnerable continent. And, on the rare occasions a consensus has appeared to be forming, it has been struck down by a combination of industry, media and political opposition. All this typical political bungling while the people increasingly see the environmental crisis as a national priority! Another Trump down-under, refusing to see the grim reality of the climate change! Teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg said recently that talking to Trump at a UN summit on global warming would have been a waste of time since he would not have paid any attention. She said that Trump’s climate change denial is “so extreme” it is in fact helping to galvanise the environmental movement.
To Sri Lanka too, the gravity of this climate change problem of gigantic proportions is yet to sound alarm bells to those at the highest echelons of power. Climate change is a threat to the island’s hyper-diversity, including its marine ecosystem and coastal coral reef environments. Climate variability and sea-level rise has the potential to affect the overall abundance of endemic species. Sri Lanka has topped the ranking of climate change vulnerable countries. Sri Lanka has ranked second because of the series of extreme weather events – like the powerful storms that caused heavy rainfall especially in the Southwest, that resulted in floods and landslides; and on the other hand, the continued drought in the Northern and North central part of the country which occurred throughout four consecutive years.
Dr. Eric Wickramanayake, Chairperson and Director of the Environment Foundation Ltd, opined that many practices in Sri Lanka contribute towards climate change, and the State blithely allows for them to take place. Citing a few examples, he referred to the deforestation in mountain watersheds, converting mangroves to prawn farms, removal and flattening of sand dunes by hotels to enjoy unobstructed views of the ocean, dynamiting coral reefs as unsustainable coral reefs done for short-term profits for the benefit of a few people, but having a huge societal cost. According to him, the current third Climate Adaptation Plan 2016-2025 prepared by the Climate Change Secretariat of the of the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, recognizes the importance of biodiversity and ecosystems and their roles in climate adaptation; however, like all plans with good intentions, this plan also seems to have been shelved. He reminded the obligations made by the Government to the Conference of Parties at the UN Climate Change Conference held in Paris 2015 to increase forest cover to 30% and also the obligation to restore 200,000 hectares of forests as forested landscape towards the Bonn Challenge.
Thus, in terms of the climate, we are on a dangerous trend line, where the overall temperature can increase throughout the island. Political expediencies tend to ignore the realities of this grim climate changes which are adversely affecting our lifestyles. Sri Lanka needs to be ready as a resilient nation, by improving its resilience through targeted programs, identifying future challenges such as agriculture, heat stress, indirect health impacts, and biodiversity loss. Will Australian Bushfires be an eye opener to Sri Lanka as well, as studies highlight its’ increased risk to changing weather patterns that are driving extensive changes in both living standards and livelihoods?
Parable of the Fire-hawks!
From among the ashes of this bushfire, arises another scare story, which throws apt lessons from nature to adjust our lifestyles. Birds and fire have long been linked in the Australian Aboriginal landscape. As it turns out, some Australian birds of prey actively spread bushfires to smoke out their victims and barbecue their food. Birds who arm themselves with fire. there are three “fire-foraging raptors” who demonstrate this diabolical arsonist behaviour, being the black kite, the whistling kite and the brown falcon- the “Firehawks”. Reports indicate this kind of thing has been going on in the NT, Queensland and WA for hundreds of years. Observers report both solo and cooperative attempts, often successful, to spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks. After successfully spreading the fire, the “firehawks” are able to pick out fleeing prey or mung on the charred remains of those critters who didn’t make it out in time. This become an acute problem for those who are trying to put out bush fires. Perhaps, there is a great deal for us all to learn from the odd behaviours of these Fire-hawks. – This is a Parable of the Fire hawks! spreading further misery when a miserable situation is already underway!
This parable of the Fire hawks can be aptly applied to Post- war Sri Lankan scenario too. There were those human hawks who carried hate and racism in their beaks and spread fire of divisions among people when such bush fires of bigotry have been then already wreaking havoc within our society. Birds are used as metaphors in literature. American writer and poet Maya Angelou chose the title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for her biography which explores subjects such as racism, characterizing a racist world divided between Black and white, male and female. She uses the metaphor of a bird struggling to escape its cage; with the caged bird representing Angelou’s confinement resulting from racism and oppression. Bigotry and racism therefore encages people affected and stifles them from being feeling equal partners in a society.
Likewise, racist fire-hawks also deeply damage the social fabric. In Post- War Sri Lanka, many racist fire-hawk groups thrived at a critical time in history when a well-orchestrated bushfires of anti- Muslim hate were consciously lit and spread with ‘higher’ approval, for political expediency. Just like the Australian birds undertook both solo and cooperative attempts, to successfully spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks! Scapegoating Muslims and attacking them by Buddhist extremists then become a new phenomenon and the frequency of this rose ever since the end of the war in 2009; polarizing and fragmenting the society to enable political powers to manipulate outcomes of elections on racial basis instead of pragmatic socio economic policies and programmes to rebuild the nation. This pernicious political culture consciously developed in the name of pseudo nationalism/patriotism has already made Sri Lanka a divisive nation, with the toxic majoritarian attitudes at the top levels making those numerically smaller communities to feel inferior and unequal citizens. The political fire-hawks have been insulting minorities by various epithets such as ‘ we can allow the birds to fly over our heads, but will not allow them to build nests on our heads’; minorities are parasites; they are subsidiary crops while we are the coconut estate’ etc etc.
In fact, Sri Lankan politics since Independence in 1948 had seen Sinhala Buddhist majority political parties inventing ‘new enemies’ from time to time as a strategy of creating fear psychosis amongst the Sinhalese voters as a ruse to make them to align with chauvinist politicians to propel to power. To cover up the inefficiencies of the political leadership, those who calls the shots from time to time manipulated one against the other in order to entrench their particular class in power whilst the average citizens’ life is rendered miserable. The innumerable damage these attitudes have done to Sri Lanka and its international image is really alarming. Today, with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa highlighting at every turn that he was elected through the votes of the majority community and using majoritarian and anti-Minority language to target the next parliamentary elections to secure a 2/3rd majority, there is every reason that tougher times are ahead for the minorities in Sri Lanka. What is more alarming is that the same hate groups which were the fire hawks in the Post war period, are once again raising their game to drive fear and insecurity into Muslim and Tamil psyche, in the guise of being partners to GR’s victory. The toxic words spoken by many well- known fire-hawkish hate monks and governing party politicians are dangerously inflammatory.
If GR says that he wish to give the most prominent place to Buddhism as per the constitution, it should not be the brand of Sinhala Buddhism- which Social Analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda and other Sinhalese authors have stated clearly in not conducive to build an inclusive Sri Lanka. It will only allow Buddhism to succumb to apartheid by becoming a strictly race based religion in Sri Lanka like Zionism, and the chauvinistic Sinhalese Buddhists will be solely responsible for eliminating all Buddhist virtues from this country, which the so-called Sinhala leaders are paying lip service too. It is sad that touching the susceptibilities and sensitivities of people to create religious disharmony and hype the racial and religious divide to cover under the carpet their political mismanagement, corruption, cronyism and broken promises, has become emperor’s clothes to an emotionally charged electorate blinded by a well-orchestrated campaign to promote a false sense of supremacy among them. Unless these fire hawks are duly identified and called out for what they are, Sri Lanka will just continue to slide along the path of no-return and will become another pariah state in the style of Modi’s India. The rise of many forms of extremism in the country- Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, have sadly led one to another and have moved the country towards violent extremism and appears to have escalated to terrorism. Recent example being the Easter Sunday attacks, which has led to a growing trend of Islamophobia.
Lessons from the Aussie bushfires should certainly wake us up from our slumber to act upon climate changes without putting this crucial issue in the back burner. Further, the parable of the fire-hawks which came out of that misery, should also make us look inwards too and encourage all of us irrespective of our nationalities, take an anti-racism and beat them decisively, as it is all about protecting future generations too. These hate Fire-hawks are a menace to the human kind and will only serve those political opportunists who will feed on human misery. The safety and security of the one community always lies in the safety and the security of the others mutually.