By DNR Samaranayaka –
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the choice of the people to replace the Yahapalana government in 2019; it became a reality with 6.9 million voting for him and electing him as the president. He was very proudly saying that he was elected by 6.9 million people in the country, which is something that had not happened in the past; but he has not said this lately as he knows that this support does not exist anymore. His policy of “I will do what I want” has also backfired. People are beginning to criticize him about his policy decisions. He does not realize that he was elected with 6.9 million is to help the ailing economy and improve the living standards of the people. His focus has been so far is to help his relatives, friends and henchmen although he promised not to follow this path at the beginning. He does not open his mouth on that issue anymore. The large scale deforestation that can be observed currently is partly due to the President’s belief that agriculture is the path to bring the country towards prosperity. This policy is an encouragement to those already involved in illegal clearing of forests. Some are also using this opportunity to engage in large scale logging of valuable trees. He has already started his campaign for the next presidential election with his Gama Samanga Pilisandarak project by making promises that he cannot deliver. People are already calling him a looser due to his failure to deal with issues that matter to the people. The question is who will want him for another term?
1. Environment destruction under Gotabaya administration
Since the formation of the SLPP government at the end of 2019, there had been a visible destruction of native forests in the country. At the rate of the ongoing destruction of forests, it appears that deforestation is taking place unabated. It was reported in Ada daily paper, on 20 March 2021, that there had been 270 incidents of illegal forest clearings in the country from January 2020 to March 2021 involving 62, 000 acres. According to a recent news item in the Island, the government is planning to release 800,000 acres to corporations for the development of agriculture. Another 24 investors have also been allocated Rs. 24 billion worth of forest land. These are only a few destructions of forests in a large number of incidents reported since 2020. Large scale Logging for timber is also another source of destruction of forests; it has also been intensified under the current administration.
The destruction of forests had been going on under previous administrations as well, but the large scale destruction that is happening now is unprecedented. Articles highlighting this catastrophe have appeared in almost all daily papers recently such as Daily Mirror, Island, Daily News, Financial Times and Observer. These reports have brought this disaster into the public domain. Although the president is aware of the problem, he is behaving as if no such destruction is taking place in the country. He, however, admits that he has requested the authorities to release the lands that have been acquired by the government to legal owners. This policy has given those involved in forests destruction to freely engage in what they have been doing earlier. This is totally against what he preached earlier about his commitment to protect the environment. Since the beginning of 2021, there had been more than 50 incidents of forest clearances in the country. The government has failed to file even a single case against those involved in this disaster.
Forests are needed for our survival
Forests consist of various geographical features such as trees, plants, lakes, streams, villus, wet lands, hills, and rocks. It is the diversity of forests that attracts their presence. Forests are also the habitats of thousands of species of animals. Many animals, big and small, that we had in the past have now vanished due to the shrinking of forests and hunting them for their meat or body parts. Deforestation could also increase hunting due to the exposure of animal habitats.
The most important contribution of forests is its capacity to absorb CO₂, (carbon dioxide), commonly known as greenhouse gases. These gases are the result of emissions from burning of oil, coal, and natural gas. Burning of forests is also a source of emission of CO₂ to the environment. The absorbing capacity of CO₂ increases with the size of the forest cover. This is the reason that forests are important for the survival of humanity. Every human on earth breaths in oxygen and breaths out carbon dioxide. Oceans are the main provider of oxygen with about 50% to 80% of total oxygen on earth and forests account for 20% to 30% of oxygen on earth. Normally, the variation of oxygen supply is closely related to the changes in forest cover. When forest cover is reduced, by cutting it down, it is impact can be felt from adverse changes in the environment such as increasing temperature, continuous period of rain fall, frequent floods, droughts, storms and bush fires. It can cause respiratory diseases as well. These issues could have devastating effects on people, economies, and properties.
Causes of forest destruction
There is a direct correlation between the growth of population and the decline of forest cover. In 1871, Sri Lanka’s population was 2.4 million while the area under forests was around 80%, equivalent to 52,444 square kilometres of the total area covering 65,610 square kilometres. Between 1871 and 1971, the population increased by 10.3 million to a total of 12.7 million. During the same period, the forest cover had declined to about 56% or by 24% of the area under forests in 1871. It was equivalent to 36,741 square kilometres. This reduction was mainly due to the expansion of tea and rubber under the British administration. Sri Lanka’s population in 2020, according to the Census and statistics department, was around 22 million. The estimate of the area under forest cover is currently around 19% of the total land area, which is equivalent to about 12,462 square kilometres. This is the area that is left now under forests. During the last 49 years since 1971, the country has lost 24,273 square kilometres, equal to 37% of the area of the country. As noted by Mr Kamal Gunaratne, the secretary to the defence ministry, the most of the people who are clearing dense forests have the permits to do so. These permits are often obtained with the support of politicians. Since obtaining a permit is not too difficult, the large scale destruction of forest cover cannot be easily controlled.
The increase in population reduces the availability of land per person. This can be seen from the tenfold increase in population density from 37 per square kilometre in 1871 to 370 per square kilometre in 2020. As population grows, the density of population also increases since the land is a fixed resource. This increase will in turn impact on forests due to increasing demand for various human needs, such as food and housing, the two basic needs of a growing population. There are also various other reasons that influence the increase in the demand for land. Replanting programs have been going on in the country as a solution to deforestation, but they have not produced anticipated results to compensate the illegal felling of trees. Although replanting helps environment, it cannot replace the ecosystem or the bio diversity. Even if replanting can help the recovery of natural forests, it could take at least 20 to 25 years to grow a tree to maturity. Most replanting programs are not very successful and are rarely continued to the completion.
The Presidents’ response to deforestation
The president does not believe the claims of a large scale forest destruction in the county. His focus is mainly on rural farmers using their traditional lands for agriculture. He has instructed the officials to release those lands that farmers were cultivating earlier and later taken over by the government and classified them as forest lands. This is the key issue in his mind that is referred to as deforestation. Any idiot would understand this is not about one or two acres of forest land cleared by farmers. It is about the continuation of thousands of acres bulldozed by president’s henchmen. Even if thousand farmers encroach 2 acres of land each per year, the total clearance would be only 2,000 acres. The forest destruction is about the clearance of thousands of acres at a time by organized groups with the support of the leadership. The president has so far not said anything about the large scale destructions of forests by his henchmen; He behaves as if nothing is happening, but the entire country knows that it is a huge environmental disaster.
Methods used to clear forests destroy the entire echo system and the animal habitats. The elephants are the worst affected by continuing deforestation. The daily Mirror on 05.02. 2021 published an article under the heading “When poor elephants can’t fathom political thinking”; it highlighted the ongoing destruction of forests in the country. Perhaps the most disturbing item of this article was about the Dahaiyagala forest cover in Bogahapattiya and Udawalawe wild life corridor, which had been declared as a sanctuary in 2002; this declaration was due to its link between Udawalawe and Lunugamwehera National parks, which are frequented by elephants. During a recent visit to this region, under ‘Gama samanga Pilisandarak’ program, the President had discussed this matter with some officials of the Department of Wild Life. Despite being this corridor a sanctuary, the president, after the discussion, decided to release the lands of the people who have deeds.
Human elephant conflict
In countries like Sri Lanka where there is a sizable elephant population, the human animal conflict is a continuing problem. The grievances of the people living in elephant corridors are mounting, but nothing is heard from the elephants so far. It is not because they have no grievances, but they do not have the political support unlike the humans. Those supporting the existence of animals are from the Department of Wildlife Conservation; but they are frequently under pressure from those engaged in illegal clearing and also from politicians, who are also engaged in illegal clearing of forests. This problem does not have an easy solution. The President is taking the side of the people because of his policy of promoting agriculture. We cannot, however, ignore the importance of wild life; they have been living here even before the human settlements. They also bring scarce foreign exchange to the county from tourism. At the rate of elephant’s deaths at present, it might not be too long for the country to be without elephants even for the Kandy Perahara. When this happens, the elephant human conflict will be settled in favour of the people. As reported in Ceylon Today on 12 march, 2021, by Sawani Seshadi, the number of deaths of elephants had been 1,578 since 2016 to the end of 2020. During the first 61 days of 2021, another 61 had died. The only option is to protect their habitats and return their habitats lost to encroachment by farmers and others and create other opportunities for those people affected by this policy.
2. President’s Gama Samanga Pilisandarak progam
A few months ago, President Rajapaksa commenced his highly publicised program known as the Gama Samanga Pilisandarak, a program that helps to understand the village life. Up to now, it has completed about 15 visits by the president and his entourage since its inception on September 25, 2020 in Badulla district. This program has been subject to criticism by some and the president has replied to those criticisms claiming that it is how he runs the country as the president; he would like to meet with people in the villages and provide solutions to the problems that they face. It is, however, not a program that covers the entire country, but limited to a few selected villages. The manner in which the villages have been selected remains unclear. The objective of this program appears to be not what the president says. It is very clear that the program is intended to make him popular among the rural population. The president is also getting some good reviews about what he does in the villages. Some such reviews have come from people normally criticise him about his administration. Of course, there are also critics; they call it a bluff.
The entire program is pre planned and the officials who accompany the president appear to have visited the region earlier. These officials, representing various departments, are well versed with the issues that villages want to bring to the notice of the president. (It may have been possible that the people would have been told what to ask.) The moment that a problem is asked by someone in the ordnance, a member of his entourage comes to the front and inform the President that everything is already done to solve the problem. If it is a problem of pipe bone water, then a person from the Water Board takes over the problem and says it is almost done or that they are already working on it. Another common issue is the need of a building for a school and again someone appears representing the Education Department and says that they have already drawn plans for it. If the problem is a playground (which is the most common issue) the President hands it over to the Army. The officials accompanying the president have the answers to all the problems, and everything goes very smoothly. Villagers are happy for the opportunity to meet the president and they go home with hopes of getting their problems solved. However, the villagers will soon realize that the promises made by the president are unlikely to become realities. Consider the following list of promises made by president at the 8th program at Aluthwewa village, 100 kilometers from Moneragala town. The village has 790 families with a population of 2794.
(1) Playground for Kotalawehera Manakada Maha Vidyalaya. (President also promised an Auditorium) (2) Sevanagala Okkampitiya and Kotawehera Mankada Schools to the Status of National Schools, (3) Education centre with adequate facilities for disabled students in Aluthwewa and surrounding villages (4) Play grounds in in all school in the district, (5) New roads up to Aluthwewa, kilimbunna, kalutota, Kotawehera, Makanda and By-roads and Agricultural Land Roads and Bridges in the area (6) the Ministry of Water Supply and Drainage to Kumbukkan Oya Project (a project that planned in 1952 but still not commenced) (7) Restoration of 10 tanks including KuKulktuwa tank, (8) Auditorium to Kukulkatuwa school (9) Drinking water to villages in Aluthwewa (1s0) Psychiatrist clinic covering Thanamalwila and Moneragala area (11) Renovation of elephant fences in the district. The President also instructed the authorities to fill the vacancies of teaching staff in schools and medical staff in hospitals. In addition, the President instructed the authorities to take immediate steps to address the shortage of teachers in the district and to develop playgrounds and other infrastructure facilities. The President stressed the urgent need to identify natural water sources in the area and to use them in order to meet the drinking water needs of the people and in schools.
On the face of it, it is a good project as it addresses the need of the people. If the project becomes a reality, it will certainly boost the image of the president, which is what he wants the most. The most crucial problems are the absence of a plan and a budget. Without a plan, neither the project nor the detail plans can be prepared. In the absence of a budget, there is no allocation of funds to commence the projects. As noted above, the president has made a number of promises such as school buildings, roads, stadiums, auditoriums etc., but he was not aware of the total costs of all these projects or how these projects are going to be financed. The president had made verbal promises and the people were very happy about the outcome of the discussion with the president. The only project that is possible is the playground, which he hands over to the Army. If the land is available, the Army will take over the responsibility of building a playground. It will take a few months for the villagers to realize that the promises that the president had made are not going to be a reality. In the case of the projects listed above, the final cost to complete all the projects could be close to Rs. 3 billion. This is only for one village. Just imagine the cost if more villages are added. The government does not even have the money to spend on the projects that were included in the 2021 budget. All these projects are now forgotten and the hurry to complete these projects at the time of the election no longer exists.
The president appears to have no knowledge of the number of villages in the country. According to Wikipedia, Sri Lanka has about 10,000 villages. Even if the village is taken as a DS division, the number of such divisions is about 375 in the country. The president has so far completed visits to 15 villages. The last discussion with the villages was in Walapane DS division on March 20. It has taken more than 6 months to visit 15 villages since the beginning in September 2020. Assuming he can visit 25 villages per year, he may be able to complete about 100 villages during the next four years. If each program attracts about 25% of the people in the village, which is about 700 people with an average population of about 2,800 people per village, the president will have the opportunity to meet about 70,000 villagers over the next four years. This is very insignificant number compared to a population of 22 million in the country. The villages that he is not likely to visit during the next four years outnumber the villages he is likely to visit. These villages will not even have a playground.
The President has said that his decision to contest the presidency in 2024 depends on the support of the people. This statement gives the impression that this program of visiting villages is a prelude to his aspiration to be the president again. With the Gama Samanga Pilisandara program, he has already started building his support base.
*The writer is an economist.