Saviour of Sinharaja

It was a time when tropical rainforests, mostly in developing countries, were being raped to
promote wood-based industries. But William Ryan Herbert Perera stood firm as a sturdy tree to protect a forest that went on to enter the World Heritage List. Now in the twilight of his years,
he tells Kumudini Hettiarachchi of his single-handed battle.

It is a sparkling jewel in Sri Lanka's crown. Described as "the best kept secret in Asia", mysterious and pristine Sinharaja is a World Heritage Site. As this "least disturbed and biologically unique lowland rainforest" rules among the bio hotspots, the man who more or less single-handedly fought the forces of mechanized evil that would have seen the rape of this virgin, spends his time engrossed in his world of books in the twilight of his life surrounded by photographs that he has taken as a forester.

What he did, not so long ago, in fact in the late 1960s, seems to have been buried along with the mosses and the lichen underneath the deep and layered canopy of Sinharaja. If not for William Ryan Herbert Perera, now 88, living down Cotta Road, Borella, Sinharaja would have been stripped and plundered of its timber and abandoned as a wasteland.

W.R.H. Perera: Recalling his feat in the tranquil environment of his garden. Pic by Mangala Weerasekera

Feeble in body, as Mr. Perera readily concedes, but with a mind that is crystal clear, he easily recalls the time when Sri Lanka was on the brink of short- term gain and long-term disaster with regard to Sinharaja.

It was the time wood-based industries rode high, with international organizations such as the World Bank hell-bent on promoting them at whatever cost. The targeted victims for over-exploitation were the tropical rainforests mostly located in developing countries.

The Amazon Valley and Asia's rainforests including Sinharaja and forests of the Sinharaja Adaviya such as Kanneliya, Dediyagala and Nakiyadeniya were the focus, says Mr. Perera who has not only held the onerous post of Conservator of Forests but also that of Chairman of the State Timber Corporation. It was 1966-67 and the Conservator of Forests of the time had been interdicted with Mr. Perera being told to assume duties as Acting Conservator with immediate effect. The United National Party was in power, with Dudley Senanayake at the helm as Prime Minister.

The Plywood Corporation was under Industries Minister Philip Gunewardene, whose top priority was setting up what was dubbed at the time as the "Pride of Asia", a giant woodworking complex at Kosgama, explains Mr. Perera. "To feed the voracious appetite for timber by this giant, proposals and demands were made to hand over the Sinharaja Adaviya to the Plywood Corporation for mechanized logging."

Not just felling of trees but mechanized logging! Global warming and climate change were no buzz words then and according to Mr. Perera "those of us who spoke of environmental shaping, global warming and other consequences were considered conservative and trouble-makers".

Mr. Perera seemed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time or was it the right place at the right time when considering what might have been disastrous repercussions for Sri Lanka. His unenviable task was to prepare a well-reasoned memorandum for "his Minister" C.P. de Silva under whom came Land and Forests on the "catastrophic environmental consequences" of the 'Pride of Asia' proposals and pinpoint that it was a white elephant.

The memo was presented by Minister de Silva to a Cabinet sub-committee meeting chaired by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, says Mr. Perera. Then State Minister J.R. Jayewardene appeared to agree with it. However, within moments fire-brand Philip Gunewardene had risen to his feet in anger, opposing the memo, with the PM in apparent acquiescence.

Finally, a "horse-deal" was struck between CP and Philip, says this Forester of yore sadly. Philip would get the Kanneliya-Dediyagala-Nakiyadeniya complex of the Adaviya and CP Sinharaja. All for mechanized logging.

Walking out of the room, it was C.P. de Silva's turn to explode -- pointing his finger at Mr. Perera he had ordered, "Sri (Sri Kantha was then Permanent Secretary of the ministry) sack this Conservator and appoint a Civil Servant". Unable to keep mum, this forthright Forester had retorted, "Sir, if it is bluff you want I also can give you bluff. But you know I do not bluff!"

Giving the environment in which they worked, Mr. Perera goes back in time when a Forest Officer was considered "efficient" only if he produced a cascade of logs from a forest, irrespective of environmental catastrophes.

Now the "horse-deal" had to be translated into action. The responsibility of supervising the mechanized logging of Sinharaja by a firm of Canadian loggers fell to the newly-formed State Timber Corporation under the Chairmanship of P.H. Wickremasingha. Kanneliya-Dediyagala-Nakiyadeniya would undergo mechanized logging by a Rumanian team contracted by the Plywood Corporation.

Incidentally, Timber Corporation Chairman Wickremasingha was not only a friend but also a former Civil Servant colleague of Minister de Silva. Worldwide, by this time in 1969-70, things were happening on the environmental scene, with UNESCO launching the Man and Biosphere Programme.

Having been appointed the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Sectional Committee for the Conservation and Protection of Terrestrial Communities, Mr. Perera quietly took it upon himself to demarcate blocks of Sinharaja as Man and Biosphere Reserves. His troubles with the authorities, however, were not over yet, even though there had been a change of government in 1970.

Howls of protest were the order of the day from the newly-appointed STC Chairman Ivor Palipana with claims that the Man and Biosphere Reserve demarcations at Sinharaja were "an obstruction by me of the logging", smiles Mr. Perera.

Things, however, changed quickly in early 1971 when a Board Meeting of the STC nearly ended in fisticuffs between the Chairman and the Directors who were all political appointees. The news that hit the headlines in the next day's newspapers came as a shock to all - the then Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Hector Kobbekaduwa had sacked them all.

The fallout was a ministerial letter on the table of the Conservator of Forests that he had been entrusted with the STC. Mr. Perera had one condition before accepting the Chairmanship -- no politicians should be appointed to the Board, to which Minister Hector Kobbekaduwa gladly agreed. "I worked only with technical officers," explains Mr. Perera who held the job for seven long years.

"Although the STC Chairman was paid paid a salary, no remuneration was accepted by me as Chairman," he hastens to add. By this time public opinion against mechanized logging at Sinharaja was being mobilized by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, Ruk Rekaganno, Soil Conservation Society, Man and Biosphere Programme Committee and others. Those spearheading the agitation included Theo Hoffman, Iranganie Serasinghe, Dereck Samarasingha, Nihal Fernando, Nimal and Savithri Gunatilake, Vere De Mel and Sumith Abeywickrema, according to Mr. Perera.

In the face of these challenges Minister Kobbekaduwa had appointed a committee headed by Minister George Rajapaksha, comprising then President of the Forest Research Institute of India, R.C. Ghosh, retired Treasury Secretary R. Rajendra, Prof. B.A. Abeywickrema and Neville Karunatilleke of the Central Bank to make recommendations on the Sinharaja mechanized logging project. A report on the technical aspects had to be submitted by a team spearheaded by Mr. Perera.

The ministerial team came up with the same views that this Forester had been crying out from the rooftops -- the intensity of logging proposed, would devastate Sinharaja! Their main recommendations were to find another block of forests to feed the giant wood-working complex and restrict the felling intensity to 3,000cu.ft. of timber per acre.

Mr. Perera, who had launched a massive reforestation programme across the country and knew the value of forest cover, was still not satisfied. Knowing that even with a reduction in logging intensity the devastation would be high, he took it into his own hands to do the needful.

Having gone through the papers with regard to the logging with a fine-tooth comb, he armed himself with the detail in there that "logging will be done on a sustained yield basis".

To the uninitiated likes of me, Mr. Perera explains that it meant the removal of a few trees in an area, coming back 10-20 years later for more removal of trees. Instead what was happening was that they were denuding Sinharaja.

Wielding power as both Conservator of Forests and Chairman, Timber Corporation, he then took the decision to drastically reduce logging intensity to 400cu.ft. per acre, while prohibiting logging in vulnerable blocks and sites with very high bio-diversity.

The summons came soon after -- Minister Kobbekaduwa wanted him to accompany him to Temple Trees, for there were vociferous cries for his head - they wanted him out from both jobs as Conservator and Chairman

The knot of top politicians headed by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike comprised Finance Minister Dr. N.M. Perera, Plantation Industries Minister Dr. Colvin R. de Silva and two others. A lengthy discussion ensued on all aspects of forestry and environment.

"My actions were fully endorsed unanimously. The environment flag flew high," says Mr. Perera, savouring that moment even now. The icing came in 1978, with President J.R. Jayewardene, as Head of State, saying a strong "No" to an extension of the contract. That stopped the whine of the bulldozers at Sinharaja forthwith.

Under the initiative of Mr. Perera, Sinharaja was declared an International Man and Biosphere Reserve, for which long after his retirement, 17 years to be exact, he was felicitated by UNESCO in 1996, for making large areas of natural forests as such reserves.

The Pride of Asia died a natural death, while Sinharaja lives on in splendor and the rest is history.

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