Protecting what's ours
Point of view

Are we to tell our children tales of what it all used to be like once upon a time and not let them see for themselves the wonder of our unique wildlife and nature, asks Rohan Wijesinha

The Asian Development Bank, in their questionable project for wildlife, has sought an assurance from the Government of Sri Lanka to the effect that its National Policy on Wildlife (2000) be implemented without delay. Read the policy. It does not take one long to work out why this is so important to them. For surely, never before in the history of this, or perhaps any other nation, has a National Policy, a document that portends to have the best interests of the country's natural heritage at heart, been formulated to cater solely to a six year, experimental, foreign donor-driven project of uncertain content - and intent!

Who says so?
From the very first (Objective 1.1), the formulators of this policy introduce the concepts of sustainable use and benefit sharing as being of prime importance in conserving wildlife resources. The assumption being made here is that Sri Lanka has unlimited natural resources on tap for exploitation. In fact, Sri Lanka's wildlife and wild places are under threat and diminishing in number and extent. The press gives almost daily report of the losses, to man and beast, of the human/elephant conflict. Not one of the National Parks enjoys immunity from the ravages of poaching. The reality is that they are both on the increase. How does one "use" and "share" something that is fast disappearing?

Compare this with the prime stated objectives of India's National Wildlife Action Plan 2002 - 2016 which is that "...the national development agenda must recognise the imperative of identifying and protecting natural ecosystems from over-exploitation, contamination and degradation. Short term economic gains must not be permitted to undermine ecological security..."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, has gone a step further. If he has his way, developing nations will create an OPEC-like cartel to protect plants and animals from exploitation by the industrialized world. By joining forces, he hopes that these countries will be able to set both standard practices and higher prices for pharmaceutical companies and other industries hoping to exploit their biodiversity. India, aware of the dangers, has joined this group. In this atmosphere, one wonders whose definitions have been used to formulate Sri Lanka's effort!

A clue to this might be had from the Objective 1.3 which states "To manage all components of genetic diversity... to develop... new products and processes through bioprospecting."! One can't get any bolder than this. (The attached 'explanation of technical terms' explains 'bioprospecting' as 'The search for commercial products and processes using biodiversity as a source...').

A country's National Wildlife Policy is, or should be, about ensuring the survival and wellbeing of its people and future generations by protecting and conserving existing natural habitats, fauna and flora and fragile ecosystems; not about resource-use and the search for commercial products and processes, which is in the realm of industrialisation. So with this Policy in place, all genetic material from plants and animals in our Protected Areas will go under foreign microscopes to determine their potential for use as a 'resource'.

What is left unsaid is that if found to be a 'resource', the research findings will be patented as a prelude to imminent commercial exploitation by, and ruthless competition among, the many multinational cartels. A further assurance obtained by the ADB is that 51% of their loan is to be used to pay foreign consultants to work within the Protected Areas now under their control. They have already chosen these consultants in Manila without any technical analysis from Sri Lanka!

One of these consultants is to conduct a "Biodiversity Inventory"! This all fits in very nicely with the ADB's project for wildlife that states, "...The ongoing Conservation and Sustainable Use of Medicinal Plants Project financed by GEF and implemented by the World Bank is another important undertaking in the sector, as close coordination of activities is envisaged at Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve, which has been included as a pilot PA under the proposed Project..." (Report and Recommendation, Sept. 2000, Page 8 - the final agreement between the Government of Sri Lanka and the ADB).

In the May 2000 Memorandum of Understanding which preceded the above report, the ADB, in place of Ritigala, referred broadly to the "...pharmaceutical potential of the protected areas..."!

Locally, vested interests, in their greed, have been quick off the mark, attempting to exploit this clause. Lobbyists have already persuaded the Department of Trade to request a lifting of a ban on nine species of endangered water plants and according to press reports, have even been successful in smuggling such plants out of the country with political patronage. Their cargo is so precious that the Customs Officers who intercepted this haul have been subject to threats and intimidation! Bioprospecting is a lucrative business - and perhaps reptiles, amphibians, insects and freshwater fish will be next on the list, if not already on it!

A questionable Convention
The preamble to the new Wildlife Policy refers to the Convention on Biological Diversity which Sri Lanka ratified in 1994. The authors state that the Convention is important as it emphasises a new theme for managing wildlife resources - "...conservation, sustainable development and benefit sharing".

It has now been recognised, and confirmed by the recent Earth Summit, that the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity, designed and orchestrated by "Developed Nations", have dubious relevance to small, developing nations such as Sri Lanka, who already have a successful programme of conservation in place.

Its fundamental flaws are that it assumes developing nations do not have the intellectual abilities or skills to successfully determine their own course of conservation development. Thus the principles of the Convention are based on prescriptive models, using the large conservation areas of Africa and the Americas as example. This has little relevance for small nations with fragile eco-systems. Ideas of sustainable development, benefit sharing and eco-tourism expansion could cause serious damage to eco-systems finely balanced in hitherto strictly protected areas of conservation.

This patriarchal, patronising attitude is further extended in the Convention's encouragement of the transfer of genetic resources for "safekeeping" to agents outside of the parent country - thus legitimising bio-piracy.

With the West putting the accent on "globalisation", the major focus of its Convention on Biological Diversity is to ensure that the West's multinational drug cartels get their hands on every available genetic resource in the Third World. It is imperative that Sri Lanka ensures that its precious biodiversity is used, first and foremost, in the best interests of the people of Sri Lanka, and does not permit the drug cartels to amass fortunes while our people continue to live below the poverty line.

Shifting from "Conservation" to "Sustainable Development"

The drafters of the National Wildlife Policy summarise by urging the Government " implement this policy as soon as possible... supported by such legislative measures as may be necessary to achieve ...success among all those who seek to promote conservation and sustainable development in Sri Lanka".

It is clear that there is to be a shift away from 'conservation' to 'sustainable development' and the use of protected areas for commercial use. The one stumbling block to this is the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) which the Policy now canvasses should be changed and replaced with altogether NEW legislation in Year 5 of the Project. The FFPO is much-maligned by the ADB in their documentation.

They claim that it is archaic, having been initially drawn up in 1937. What they conveniently ignore is that this Ordinance was revised and strengthened by the then Government in 1993.

The problem for the ADB and its supporters is that it categorically prohibits any form of private sector participation in its sphere of command and control, which was, as its title made amply and unambiguously clear, the protection of the country's fauna and flora.

In keeping perhaps with a topsy-turvy world, Sri Lanka's new National Wildlife Policy 2000 does a wild somersault, for it now unashamedly sets out "To encourage the private sector and communities...", once more with added emphasis for effect, " join as full partners in all aspects of the wildlife-conservation process".

The inclusion of 'communities' was, to be sure, an afterthought. After all, the ADB has a less than admirable record of working with communities in Sri Lanka. At Lunugamvehera, for instance, their Project involved the "...obliteration of 32 small 'tanks' - artificial lakes, many constructed over a thousand years ago - in the construction of the Lunugamvehera dam..." Tanks that were always full after the rains! (Oxfam Report - The High Cost of Learning from Past Mistakes).

The people of Lunugamvehera, as readers are aware, have year after year suffered hardship as a direct consequence of this disastrous ADB Project.

In this instance the selected communities are strategically placed in the buffer zones, and will be required to "harvest" genetic resources for the real profiteers from this venture. Who will tell from which side of the fence - the buffer zone or the protected area - the resource was taken?

The motivating force behind the private sector cannot be anything other than profit. The importance of this can be seen in that the very first assurance sought by the ADB in its agreement with the Government is that "...the FFPO be amended and then superceded". (RRP, September 2000, Pg. 31, Specific Assurance 1)

The Protected Areas of Sri Lanka are the property of present and future generations of the people of this nation. This is enshrined in the Constitution, in legislation and in the creation of the DWLC and Department of Forestry, the agents of Government in its duty of guardianship. To encourage the private sector and local communities to act as "full partners" in this not only erodes the rights of the people, but introduces the concept of commercial expediency directing the process of conservation. The asset stripping of a non-renewable resource gives immediate profit to an opportunist few. However, in the long-term, it spells economic, and in this case, cultural and environmental, disaster to the owner of the resource - the Government, and the present and future generations of Sri Lanka.

The FFPO requires even more strengthening rather than destruction. After all, it has ensured the survival of almost 20% of the land mass of this country as protected areas, over 80% of which is under the management of the DWLC.

Should the Government of Sri Lanka be tempted to implement this policy recommendation, it would prove a usurpation of its role as guardian of the Protected Areas of this country.

Future generations will have nothing but contempt for a Government of Sri Lanka if all they are left to rely on are pictures and tales, and the memories of their fathers and forefathers, of what the jungles of Sri Lanka were once like. They will curse the policies, and the policy makers, should they be unable to enjoy the beauty and splendour that were a national treasure for millennia and then sold in less than a decade.

In the meantime, the project continues, and several of the supporters of the project, executives of NGOs, now hold prominent posts in conservation. Others, also executives of the same NGOs, who were in opposition, now hold prominent posts within the project.

Former employees of the Forest Department who faithfully pursued ADB Policy, including that of de-regulating one hundred and twenty (120) species of previously protected trees, on retirement, have been rewarded with positions on other ADB Projects.

The rewards for co-operation are already being offered to the present employees of the DWLC - trips to Manila and Nepal! All paid for from a loan that has to be re-paid by future generations... and at what cost!

The final rape
Rather than a National Wildlife Policy, this present effort has purely been drafted to enable the implementation of the ADB Project for Wildlife. Rather than being in the best interests of conservation, it seeks to weaken legislation, and open the protected areas to exploitation and destruction.

Anyone who has any interest or knowledge of wildlife in Sri Lanka knows that the protected areas are already under siege from poachers, timber-fellers and encroachers, and that what is needed is the strict implementation of the laws that have saved and protected so much of them for so long.

There is no mention of this in the policy, in fact its greatest omission, that proves its true purpose. There is no clause that encourages the prevention of the biodiversity of this country being illegally taken out! A flavour of things to come has been amply demonstrated by the recent, possible illegal export of endangered "kekatiya" - two tons of it! This matter is currently under judicial review.

This policy is clear proof that the previous Government was calculatedly misguided by "bioprospectors", "benefit sharers" and a few local NGOs who stand to make much profit from such policy. How else could its Cabinet have ratified such a document? These interested parties have even been able to deceive the true representatives of the people of Sri Lanka - the Members of Parliament! The previous Prime Minister was misled into presenting the wrong document, the MOU of May 2000 (rather than the RRP of September 2000), before Parliament as the final agreement on this Project in October 2001 (Hansard Vol. 138 No. 3, Wednesday, 10 October 2001, Pg. 391 - 2).

For in Sri Lanka we have a National Wildlife Policy that is over 2500 years old, a policy that enshrines the ultimate principles of conservation, and has determined a philosophy that has resulted in so much being conserved for so long. The Buddhist missionary Arahant Mahinda when he met King Devanampiya Tissa at Mihintale is believed to have told the king:

"Oh king, the land belongs not only to humans but also to animals and birds. You are only the custodian of the land.'

These principles were enshrined in Sections 28 and 28 [f] of the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka which states that "...the exercise of rights and freedoms is inseparable from the performance of duties and obligations and accordingly it is the duty of every person in Sri Lanka...[f] to protect Nature and conserve its riches".

It has to be left to history to record if the rulers of today will be acclaimed as the great protectors of the natural blessings bequeathed to this nation, as were our leaders of old. Or whether they are to be cursed as fools who sold the birthrights of generations yet unborn, and let this nation's natural treasures and wealth be ravaged for short-term gain by a few unscrupulous persons, all for a mess of pottage!

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.