It may be said that Sri Lanka recorded its first major success on the international stage last week, since the stonewalling at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in the immediate aftermath of the war victory over the LTTE a year ago.
On that occasion, the Non Aligned Movement, and India came together to block a Western putsch to have Sri Lanka condemned for alleged human rights violations in the last few weeks of the military offensive that eventually liquidated the LTTE war machinery.
This time, it was a more positive achievement; Sri Lanka succeeded in convincing the International Community (IC) of the merits of its longstanding proposal to have its Central Highlands -- the area comprising the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest -- declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From all accounts, Sri Lanka's proposal had been deferred since 2007, and a decision was to be pushed back to next year. The 21-member-nation World Heritage Committee wanted it kept in abeyance citing the lack of a comprehensive Management Plan from the applicant country. A small European country famous for its own picture-post card mountainous scenery was the chief proponent of this postponement.
The fact that the Sri Lankan delegation headed by Deputy Environment Minister Faiszer Musthapha was able to successfully lobby the World Heritage Committee (under the chairmanship of Brazil) that included otherwise hostile countries like France and turn things around was a classic example that there are ways and means of lobbying at international fora, and that the whole world is not necessarily against us. That the West is out to get us is just a phantom that has come to worry us needlessly.
There was no need for the 'megaphone diplomacy' that has put Sri Lanka in a right royal spot on the international stage. It was a case of arguing the country's brief, of convincing the converts and converting the unconvinced.
The UNESCO stamp of approval that was given, however, is not entirely what Sri Lanka wanted. Our wish had been to have the Peak Wilderness in the Central Highlands declared a cultural and national heritage site. UNESCO only agreed to the latter, and excluded Sri Pada (Adam's Peak) - the peak and the pathway due to the high density of tourists, both local and foreign who converge there, especially during the season.
The country's campaign for recognition was not without its opponents, especially the NGOs which complained that there were unauthorized constructions and gemming etc., in these areas. Those allegations are not unfounded, but whether such opposition was justified in the face of the country's efforts to try and conserve at least what is left of its natural heritage is the question. Sri Lanka will know that these UNESCO stamps can always be withdrawn as was nearly the case with the Galle Cricket Stadium and the Galle Fort.
One of the things that strike any visitor to this island by air is the greenery of the island. However, the fact is that Sri Lanka's forest cover has dropped by an alarming 50 percent (by half) in the past 50 years. In 1956, Sri Lanka had a dense forest cover of 44% (i.e. when viewed from the air, at least 75% of what you see should be forest cover) and a total cover (which includes the plantations and home gardens) of 52%. Basically, half the country.
In 1999, these figures had dropped to 23% and 30% respectively. One of the main factors for this sharp drop was the 45,000 hectares cleared for settlements under the Mahaveli development scheme.
Sri Lanka's population has grown rapidly. We stand at 20 million now, the same as Australia but with only a fraction of that country's land mass. The urgent need for the Government is for the reconstruction of the North and East -- for wider highways and rail tracks that would link the North and East with the rest of the country, and to provide employment and kick-start economic development in these areas.
There are plans to lease out for 30 years vast tracts of land in the North and East to the private sector for plantations.
The fact that Sri Lanka has to balance all these competing forces with a limited land area (25,332 square miles) and a growing population, results in a combination of competing forces. On the one hand is the need for more land for human habitation and economic development. Then, there is the human-animal conflict. Add to this illegal de-forestation done by unscrupulous persons in connivance with local politicians who want to make a fast buck, to hell with everything else.
The Forest Department is now compiling the latest statistics on the depleting forest cover in the country. Though the Department does not think that the 'war' in the North and East caused the destruction of too much forest cover, one has to only drive through these areas to see the tops of trees that have been sliced off due to the heavy shelling.
There were justifiable reasons as well to trim the trees along the main highways like the Habarana-Trincomalee road for example, due to the terrorists taking cover to ambush military convoys, but certain military officers were known to have taken advantage of the war situation not only to cut trees to build their own houses, but were in cahoots with professional timber merchants as well.
In recent years, the 'adventurous' Supreme Court ventured to net in many of these unscrupulous elements, especially those in the Provincial Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas for allegedly engaging in the rape of our natural resources through illegal logging, sand-mining and other activities.
Environmentalists and conservationists are up in arms that security considerations in the Wilpattu National Park, for instance, are making inroads into one of the country's oldest wildlife sanctuaries.
Unauthorized structures are sprouting in and around places of scenic beauty like on the Kandy road near the Kadugannawa rock-tunnel and now near St. Clair's waterfall at Talawakelle, all with the connivance of local politicians. These are part and parcel of the competing forces battling for this limited land extent of 25,332 square miles that we have for ourselves.
The victory in earning the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing for the Central Highlands should therefore be acclaimed for at least two reasons. One is that the Government has recognised the need to retain and preserve the nation's heritage for future generations. The second is that the bogey of the world being against us has been dispelled. The political mandarins of Sri Lanka's foreign policy must realize that a strategy of engagement, as was successfully accomplished in Brazil, is the best policy to adopt to win for the country what is best for its people.