USAID pulls out of electric fence project

The human-elephant conflict

Concern that protecting Morawewa would endanger Gomarankadawala

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

With slogan-shouting, placard-carrying villagers of Namalwatte, Morawewa, taking to the streets demanding that urgent action be taken to erect the “promised” electric fence to mitigate the human-elephant conflict (HEC), many were pointing fingers at USAID for allegedly “selling the villagers down the river”.

The situation was further aggravated after a woman of Morawewa was killed by an elephant on October 16, with many officials and conservationists asking why an ambitious plan to erect a 60-km electric fence which would have prevented such occurrences, was arbitrarily cancelled by USAID. (See box for USAID response)

The fence was to be erected around the Morawewa irrigation development and settlement area, to mitigate the HEC, the Sunday Times understands

Discussions and meetings on this crucial issue had gone on for more than a year among the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), the Forest Department, the Morawewa villagers and farmer societies and USAID-CORE, coordinated by the Morawewa Divisional Secretary K.P. Premadasa. Surveying and mapping had also been completed, it is learnt, when USAID decided to pull out leaving the villagers high and dry.

The electric fence was the only hope to mitigate the escalating HEC and provide safety not only to farmers and their crops but also to the elephants, a source said.

Two weeks ago, we got a letter from USAID that it will not be implementing the project as planned, Mr. Premadasa said, when contacted by the Sunday Times. The reason given was that during preliminary surveying and mapping the officials of neighbouring Gomarankadawala had raised concerns that an electric fence around Morawewa would lead to an increase in the HEC in their area.

Explaining that villagers were seeking answers as to what has happened to the electric fence project, he said they handed over petitions to be passed on to the DWC, the Trincomalee District Secretary under whom these areas come and the Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife.

The Sunday Times learns that on hearing the “concerns’ of the Gomarankadawala officials, the Trincomalee District Secretary, Major-General Ranjith de Silva, had at a meeting as far back as May 24, where all relevant organizations and officials participated, requested a study of elephants and the HEC over a wider area to determine the feasibility of the Morawewa fence. Consequently two studies had been conducted, one by the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) headed by elephant expert Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando and the other by the DWC.

The Sunday Times is in possession of the CCR report titled, ‘Study of elephants and HEC in the Trincomalee area and implications for the Morawewa electric fence’.

The report states in no uncertain terms that the Morawewa electric fence project is an excellent model for mitigating HEC in the Trincomalee district. The Morawewa scheme consists of people from all three communities – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. It is also a complex long fence covering tracts of paddy under six farmer organizations. “Therefore, its successful implementation would be an example of good HEC management to the entire country. It would have far reaching policy implications, representing an important step towards the paradigm change that is needed if HEC is to be successfully managed,” states the study.

Categorically stating that the Morawewa electric fence as designed will only prevent the entry of elephants into the Morawewa settlement and cultivation area, the report emphasizes that it will not increase raiding by elephants in Gomarankadawala or any other adjacent area.

“The Morawewa fence will be of major benefit to Morawewa farmers but will not have any positive or negative effect on HEC in the adjacent areas. To address HEC in the adjacent areas, additional electric fences need to be put up at their boundaries,” it adds.

The Sunday Times understands that the DWC study also concluded that the Morawewa fence would not increase the HEC in Gomarankadawala or adjoining areas.

Echoing fears about the terrible consequences of HEC in Morawewa, Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Ran Banda said people would abandon home, hearth and cultivations in the area due to elephants and all the money spent by the government on resettlement would be in vain.

DWC’s Elephant Conservation Deputy Director W.S.K. Pathiratne, when contacted by the Sunday Times said that as there was an understanding that funding would come for the Morawewa electric fence project from USAID, the DWC had not allocated any funds from its budget for next year for this purpose.
Morawewa which was the scene of bloody massacres in the not too distant past during the war, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam descended stealthily at night to attack the hapless villagers, may see a different phase of a different war, a source pointed out.

Unless effective HEC mitigation is integrated in the on-going resettlement effort, HEC will reach a flashpoint in this beleaguered area and the rest of the Trincomalee district and it will go the same way as the north-western crisis, with both human and elephant becoming the victims, explained the source.
The humble men, women and children of Morawewa are extremely disappointed. The promise and then the cancellation of the electric fence project are bad precedents, said a villager, adding, broken promises and the wrath of the elephants are their lot.

What USAID said

When the Sunday Times queried from USAID about the issue, this is what they said:

Did USAID agree in principle with the DWC to fund the electric fence at Morawewa to prevent the HEC?

USAID/CORE agreed to conduct the mapping of the area under consideration for an electric fence and related fencing factors.

What was the project cost?

Based on the outcome of the mapping the estimated cost was LKR 16-17M should the project proceed.

Was an agreement signed?

No, an agreement was not signed with regard to putting up the electric fence.

Has USAID cancelled the project? If so why?

USAID/CORE did not sign an agreement prior to this decision to not pursue the activity. USAID/CORE and the DWC worked extensively to explore this option. However, based on USAID guidance, it was determined to not proceed with the electric fencing and relvant agreements because it was not guaranteed that there was absolutely no potential risk for the surrounding area.

If USAID cancelled the project due to concerns expressed by other villages, did it not take into account a study that the electric fence would not escalate the human-elephant conflict in those villages?

Yes, the decision took into account the study which stated that the electric fence’s impact on adjacent areas was neither positive nor negative and that to address the human elephant conflict in the adjacent areas, additional electric fences need to be put up at their boundaries.

What comments on allegations of broken promises by USAID?

The activity was discussed with the relevant stakeholder at various stages to ensure that it would be understood that the electric fence was not guaranteed until all aspects were considered. The study was one of the various tools used in making the determination. Above and foremost is that all activities implemented must guarantee to not cause physical harm to another person. This activity was unable to guarantee this.

What are USAID/CORE projects?

USAID/CORE implements activities to promote economic growth in the Eastern, North-Central and Uva Provinces. These initiatives develop livelihoods, strengthen value chains, improve value chain services, develop the workforce, and promote an environment conducive for business/livelihoods. A value chain describes how businesses receive raw materials as input, add value to the raw materials through various processes, and sell the finished products to customers.

However, when the Sunday Times checked with many officials and conservationists, they questioned the USAID justification for withdrawal, as not constructing the fence guarantees economic losses, and physical harm and death to both people and elephants.

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