Giving a history of Lanka’s plight, Sunela Jayewardene compares the country’s environment today to a beleaguered animal, cowering in its final arena The island that rises out of the emerald seas, on the southern tip of India, is renowned for its outstanding bio-diversity. Disproportionate to her diminutive size is the rich range of species that [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

They’ll pave paradise and put up a parking lot!


Giving a history of Lanka’s plight, Sunela Jayewardene compares the country’s environment today to a beleaguered animal, cowering in its final arena

The island that rises out of the emerald seas, on the southern tip of India, is renowned for its outstanding bio-diversity. Disproportionate to her diminutive size is the rich range of species that cavort in the high canopies, wing through her valleys, skulk through the undergrowth of her varied terrain, inch up the infinite bark types or cling tenuously to her collection of mineral formations and dance in abundance in her myriad waters…. This living cloak of colours has long been synonymous with Sri Lanka, the ‘Resplendent Isle’.

An island that is disproportionate to its colossal ecological story! A story embellished through eons as a small land mass was dragged in the wake of the massive Indian subcontinent as it tore away from the ancient continent of Gondwanaland. Bobbing like a raft behind a massive cruiser, dragged along by a submerged land bridge, the land of Lanka arrived when India rammed the Asian landmass, thrusting the Himalayas heavenward. The life raft from the splintered Gondwanaland that remained isolated for the best part of its history, became Lanka; an island with vestigial forests of Gondwanaland where its fauna and flora evolved.

Historically, the almost paradisiacal island’s status has been repeatedly challenged to feed Man, the planet’s prime predator. Cultures of Man emerged, flourished and sometimes subsided on Lanka. Momentarily victorious tribes of men engineered and harvested the land; from icy spring waters that fed terraced contours to rivers that were stopped and redirected. Forests were inundated and marshland drained. New landscapes recoloured the map repeatedly as the land metamorphosed; abandoned farmland to scrub forest, neglected reservoirs to rich grassland, ruined cities crumbled and the roots of forest species spangled the evidence of lost tribes and their civilizations…. Yet, as the environment was harvested in proportion to Man’s need, and the island was buffered by substantial natural habitat, its fauna and flora had time and space to adapt and even flourish in these new landscapes.

The refashioned topography even became the preferred habitat of iconic species! The elephant herds grazed in the grasslands, leopard and bear prowled in the ruins, forest birds and butterflies mobbed scrublands and in the new reservoirs fish and water birds thrived. With the monsoons the excess waters of the reservoirs bled down through fertile deltas to the sea, carrying their payload of nutrients. The enriched seas then became a haven for marine life and even the great Whales graced the island’s horizon with leviathan plumes.
Then, western colonists introduced the ultimate excuse, ‘development’; the world’s best excuse to conduct environmentally unsustainable practices! Sustainability became irrelevant as ‘development’ was driven by greed-induced profit. In Sri Lanka’s recorded history, the most devastating blow to the environment must surely be the ‘development’ that deforested montane habitat for the mega-cultivation of coffee and then, tea. Commercialising an age-old crop, British colonists deforested vast tracts of forest for coffee at such speed that by the late 1800’s, elephant were driven out of their ancient, mountain habitat in mere decades. The coffee-rush failed in less than thirty years and the new crop, tea became the saviour of the Englishmen who had ‘sacrificed so much’ to build their fortunes at the cost of Sri Lanka’s environment.

A fresh onslaught of deforestation was launched for expanding the plantations. Elephant and all other undocumented species that lost ground to the highland plantations of the British were forced to learn survival in the plains or become extinct. In this ridiculously environmentally unsustainable development, the loss of the elephant is the most visible impact, but as it is an umbrella species, scores of other species would surely have been affected by this massive deforestation. As our Cloud Forests, river systems and Patna were decimated to build the British economy, a fair fraction of the bio-diversity must have been compromised and weather patterns altered, but the comprehensive impact of this monumental environmental destruction has never been computed and so, we will never know….
In the ensuing century, with a burgeoning population to cater to, the frequency of threats to the wilderness has accelerated. Conservationists first raised their voice in the 1970’s to avert the insane deforestation of primary rainforests for beggarly plywood factories and the harebrained idea of potato plantations in the climatically vital Horton Plains habitat! Confronted by previously unknown environmental activism, the government actually halted its plans midway! However, by the time the destruction was arrested, Kanneliya, the largest vestigial forest of Gondwanaland had been forfeited for plywood. The surviving Sinharaja, still bears the scars of the drag marks of forest giants that were felled before sanity prevailed. At Horton Plains, the squat Bolshevik architecture of Sri Lanka’s Socialist era stands in that cardinal habitat, testimony to the ridiculous potato proposal!

In the early 80’s, to provide hydroelectricity and feed a nation that had been brought to the brink of starvation by the previous Socialist regime, an ambitious plan was devised to irrigate massive land areas and simultaneously provide much needed gigawatts of power.Within a decade,under an accelerated programme, the main artery of the island, the mighty Mahaweli River and some of her tributaries were halted in their eroded tracks, by five mega-dams. Forests were inundated or distributed to the land hungry citizenry. Little opposition was raised to this colossal plan, perhaps due to ignorance of the environmental impact of large dams or perhaps inspired by the commendable, mitigation measures on paper!

Almost as equably as forests were inundated, catchments and extended land areas with a viable network of wildlife corridors were declared Protected Areas. But once again, the environment fell victim as corruption engulfed responsible Ministers! The fine plans were diluted as, forests were felled before declaring them Protected Areas and catchments and corridors were deforested and allocated to constituents. Deforestation of natural forests, prompted by the payoffs from Australian nurseries for every seedling of alien Pine and eucalyptus species which, soon blanketed fertile lands, tapped deep in to our groundwater table depleting it, was termed, ‘reforestation’! Thus was initiated, the familiar trend of politicians raping our natural resources for personal gain.
In subsequent years, a proposed oil refinery obstructing migratory flyways was arrested through lobbying and plans for strip mining of phosphate at Eppawala was averted by a hallmark judgment. The disruption of riverine ecosystems by the construction of the Upper Kotmale dam was opposed but the conservation lobby was dismissed.

Today, a mere four years after the end of the three-decade civil war, a juggernaut of unsustainable development has been unleashed. The hopes, the dreams of environmental conservationists lie in tatters. Their grandiose plans for eco-tourism and sustainable development in post-war Sri Lanka have been hijacked and redirected by well-connected profiteers and ignorant opportunists!
Now, the political art of raping the environment has been honed to a fine skill. The land we love is seen as the easiest money- spinner. Protected Areas, rich in resources to be converted to easy income, are the most attractive. The money is being raked in, as every nook and cranny of the island is harvested of all it’s enshrined for centuries.

Leading the pack of environmentally unsustainable practices, the sand mining industry gorges itself, completely unchecked as politicians from the vicinities of the rivers control it. This industry is responsible for massive riverine and coastal erosion and island-wide flooding and yet daily, thousands of monster trucks intimidate the roads as they empty our rivers of sand.

Road building erupts island wide, but amidst the celebrated vital roadways a programme of massive timber-felling and land grabs is evident as Protected Areas are dissected for throughways. Direct access for minute populations in the vicinity of these parks superseding the protection of national land reserves, is curious…. Land grabs in Protected Areas by sycophants and goons are terribly trendy too. Their raison d’etre presented for dubious approvals, are sadly comical! Companies owned by sycophants have initiated astonishing ‘green energy’ projects at Amaraweva that begin with felling prime habitat of endangered species. Another, bull-dozed intermediate forests and changed the course of a stream for a golf course, far removed from any affluent community and again destroyed precious mangroves to expand an empire built of salt! Within Somawathiya National Park, massive deforestation of prime riverine habitat revealed a strange coalition between the giant US fruit producer, Dole Inc., the Armed Forces and once-respected national cricketers, to grow banana. Appealing to the US Embassy, conservationists compelled Dole Inc. to withdraw, at least officially! However, it appears that this American company has little regard for Sri Lanka’s environment as once again they are accused of violations on the border of Lunugamvehera National Park. In smaller allotments, holiday homes and hotels for the powerful, blossom in Protected Areas as the toothless Department of Wildlife grins amiably.

In this age when the unsustainability of giant dams is common knowledge, a proposal long-abandoned for its potential environmental impact, the monstrous Moragahakandha reservoir, is sanctioned! Trailing litigants the project barrels ahead, indifferent to the huge threat it poses. The project’s broken promise, to establish elephant corridors to compensate for the complete destruction of the vital Elahera Elephant Corridor has already resulted in an increase in the Human- Elephant Conflict. But shockingly, this is the lesser evil as what looms greater is the danger of tampering with substrate as vulnerable as limestone. When the reservoir finally inundates thousands of hectares of limestone and the lime leaches in to the groundwater contaminating water bodies in the vicinity, the measure of its destructive potential will be realized and it will be too late!

A plan to construct a Coal Power plant at Sampur, Trincomalee was abandoned in the ‘80s, due to the threat it posed to the economically vital tea industry. Now this plan has been revived and if realized, the North-eastern Monsoon will carry the smoke from Sampur over the tea country and let it fall as acid rain. The high quality of our famous teas will soon be history, but where are the voices of dissent from tea industry that will be destroyed? Where are the proposals for sustainable energy production?

Across the island, conservationists are despairing, as weekly reports of environmental destruction have become the norm. As the country is held in a political death-grip, the political lingua franca comfortably employs, ‘sustainable development’, ‘eco-friendliness’, ‘eco-tourism’ and ‘environmental conservation’ to present their destruction to a gullible public. Bona fide sustainability with moderate projects that are tailored to the available resources, are absent. Despite state proclamations of traditional values, it is a devastating, obsolete western model that is being fostered. The ancient sustainable cascade systems of reservoirs and the land they nurtured stand like silent sentinels….
For Sri Lankans, it is so easy to be seduced by beautiful lies, but to ignore the glaring damage and be apathetic is a personal choice. Whilst indulging in fashionable Off-roading and wildlife photography in Protected Areas,it is so easy to forget that daily these pockets of paradise are being encroached on and being relieved of their fabulous value to this nation. Most will watch, silent as the wilderness of Lanka they know and have enjoyed is laid to waste….

Surely the famed resplendence of our island is dulling, as we become a rogue state of the green globe. Flouting international protocols we embarrassingly debate legalising Blood Ivory, we conduct our own parodies of Environmental Impact Assessments and we do not penalize environmental offenders even if they obliterate the country’s natural resources. Soon we will start tumbling off the tourist ratings that we soared to with the end of the war. The repercussions of this mass destruction will surely impact generations to come, but those who wrought this destruction believe that they will be above and beyond by then!
Today, Sri Lanka’s environment is a beleaguered animal, cowering in its final arena.

As a politically powered pack, snap greedily at this island’s soft parts, I watch helplessly knowing that soon a vital tendon will be severed and the land will crumple and pitch headlong….

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