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21st June 1998

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Burning issues-4

Let's do it the Kandalama way

Kandalama is not merely a successful hotel story, it is a successful conservation story as well.

By Taya Diaz

The other day I heard someone say that Kandalama set a precedent that should never have been allowed on a catchment area of an irrigation tank. The Kandalama hotels, beautiful as they are, providing many benefits for the people of the area and the tourist industry, and enriching the degraded environment of the catchment with trees, yet should not have been allowed. The government should have managed it, was the argument.

Fine, but there's a snag. What is so mystical about the government, and only the government, managing our reserves? For 50 years they have run it with disastrous results. We can cry out for another hundred years and hopefully wait for fifty more for a change for the better, but we do not have that luxury. Prime forests along with their unique animal life are vanishing, never to come back and the time to do something is running out.

Jumbo midst the garbage: Whose baby?Taking care of reserves means money and management. The Department of Wild Life, shockingly, has neither. The staff drains their energies at hacking away with red tape, the head of the department gets blown off with every whiff of political change. Funds come in loads and with a bang, only to fade out in a burp (for some it is burps of satisfaction).

Take a look around the private sector. It is brimming with good management skills. There are companies with proven track records, far superior to that of the Department of Wild Life, who are eager to manage our reserves for eco-friendly returns. In a manner similar to Kandalama.

Today Kandalama is a success story. It did not just happen, though. There was mounting pressure on the project to go eco-friendly. And likewise they did it. Kandalama knows well the price they have to pay to be environment friendly. It is a price to be paid constantly. For that to happen, money should be generated, at a complementary rate. The hotel is the generator. The lives of people are so confined to the hulabaloo of cities that in ever-greater numbers the city folk seek a release ever so frequently into the quietness of nature. In this regard, our local market today is as lucrative as the foreign, and a prospect that gets brighter and bigger with time. So if hotels set aside a quantum of their earnings for the management of nature, it will be healthy symbiosis for the benefit of both. Kandalama, being wise to that fact, is doing just that by enriching the degraded catchment. In all this, Kandalama has not forgotten to integrate the community into the programme thereby making them also reap the fruits of success. Kandalama is not merely a successful hotel story, it is a successful conservation story as well.

Working on the Kandalama template, it is not too difficult to formulate a plan with our larger national parks in mind. Before some scatterbrain gets the wrong end of the argument, I must add, my point here is not for the proliferation of hotels in our national parks.

By all means, no, no. In order for the park to receive constant financing and a higher degree of management it can be linked with a hotel attractively placed and designed to lure in a large enough patronage for smooth running of the system. The fact to be emphasized is that the hotel and park acts in unison, one nourishing the other; not independent of the other as it is the common case now - that would be a rip-off. And the management of the whole be given to the people who know it best - the mega companies preferably the hoteliers, who have the discipline, skills and the finance to get it started; and more importantly, the ability to pay for expertise needed for the management of the park.

Therein lies, I believe, a solution to our ailing system of park management. From such a plan the government stands to gain on many counts. First the venture could be taxed to beef up government coffers. Second, the government saves by not having to plough money vainly into park management that is not giving the desired results. Third, not only the hoteliers but the community around as well will benefit from the venture. Fourth, the park is managed largely by the revenue generated by the hotel. The government of course has the whip hand by having the ownership of the land, setting a code of conduct for the hoteliers and, establishing parameters for the park management, inclusive of staffing for monitoring and policing. This is only the seed of the plan, but it contains the ingredients to grow into a benevolent tree, if planted.

Of the twelve national parks we have, at least one could be set off in this manner, on trial. I have a suggestion of a park right away: Wasgamuwa National Park. Just a hop away from Kandalama.

If Wasgamuwa is left as it is, before long there would be nothing much left of it. Already interested parties are vying for the land, for human settlement and paddy cultivation. I wonder whatever happened to all the "green" pledges made by "Mahaweli" when it was in sway? Then, Wasgamuwa was the park they created for the preservation of nature (in '84, Bio-diversity was not a term in vogue!).

When Wasgamuwa is taken away, for seemingly just causes, with utmost certainty, I can vouch that the Department of Wild Life will not lift as much as a finger to save it. I mean my words backed by observations.

Here is one. It happened on May 26, this year. The venue was Polonnaruwa Kachcheri; District Environmental Law Enforcement Committee meeting to be precise. A question was raised by the Chairman of the committee, the District Secretary: "What about that garbage issue in the Mahaweli Flood Plain National Park?".

A representative of the Assistant Director of Wild Life answered. "All plans are ready now to stop the dumping of garbage totally."

Finally the department mustered enough courage to put a stop to this blatant violation of the wild life ordinance. Besides, the garbage dump was an ecological disaster for the villu eco-system found in the flood plains. The chief culprits in this instance were the paddy millers and the Polonnaruwa Town Council.

It is stated in the Pradeshiya Sabha Act, local bodies should provide a suitable site for the dumping of garbage. Nowhere in the wild life ordinance does it state that part of a reserve be set aside for dumping of the garbage. That being the case, still the Flood Plain National Park was chosen as a dump yard. For 20 years the muck of the area was piled here and the wildlifers gave it a Nelsonian eye. And now if I am to go by the statement of the Wild Life Department representative at the DELEC meeting, the department is ready to put a stop to the dumping of garbage in the park.

But look where they are trying to dump it now! Polonnaruwa Archaeological Reserve and Nature sanctuary. Within a few hundred yards from the Thivanka Image House!

This alternative site was suggested in writing to the Pradeshiya Sabha, Polonnaruwa, by the Assistant Director of Wild Life.

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