Unity in diversity

Rebuilding Sri Lanka: Learning vital lessons from ecosystems

‘Feathers, fur or fins,
Feathers, fur or fins,
If it walks on legs or flies on wings;
If it runs or crawls or slithers or swims;
It's got its place in the scheme of things;
Feathers, fur or fins.’

So sings Don Spencer from Australia, teaching children about the importance of ecosystems.
Ecosystems are groups of species that interact with each other and with the physical environment. Each ecosystem consists of a variety of different species – plants, animals and micro-organisms – interdependent on and interacting with each other in a specific habitat with a given set of physical variables to form a natural unit, with a web of interconnections among species.

Thus, each organism in the community has a function. All living organisms in an ecosystem are fitted to share their physical habitat and to the presence of each other in an elegant, complex, intertwined web of life.

Ecosystems usually consist of a great number of different species interacting in complex ways, so that a tight web of connections is formed. The greater the number of species, the more interactions there are and the more complex the ecosystem.

Although it is the diversity of species and the diversity of interactions that make for well-functioning ecosystems, each ecosystem functions as a unit. This is the beauty of an ecosystem: many parts function together to provide a whole. Each species works like cogs in a wheel and together, the ecosystems work like perfectly oiled, efficient, complex machines. Through this smooth functioning, ecosystems churn out food and fuel for us, protect us from the floods and famines, purify our waters and detoxify our soils, sustaining our lives.

Damaging even a part of this unit disrupts the whole. This means that decreasing the number of species through introductions or extinctions (both of which may have the same effect of decreasing diversity), breaking linkages that connect species or distorting the dynamics of an interconnection disturbs the balance of these smoothly functioning units. When ecosystems stop functioning smoothly, the goods and services that they provide decline in quality and quantity.

In some cases, when certain species connections are destroyed, the resulting imbalance can lead to a cascade of extinctions and the collapse of the ecosystem.

What is frightening about this is that a seemingly weak disruption can set off a domino effect that is felt only a posteriori, long after the functioning of the unit has been damaged beyond repair. When the unit does not function properly, there is a failure to deliver life-sustaining goods and services. Sri Lanka, currently at a historical crossroad, is just like an ecosystem.

We are all parts of a whole. It is a given that for the country to function well it must do so as one whole unit. But for it to function as a unit, each interrelationship and each community has to be acknowledged as being critical within this unit. Disrupting these linkages will result in unexpected twists in community consequences.

The history of our island has left us with a diverse people. Banished Indian princes, itinerant spice traders from the Arabian Peninsula and south Indian, Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisers have all left their marks on the gene pool of the human population in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans include Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malays and Burghers and mixtures of these. With this ethnic diversity, comes religious pluralism: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Baha’i are all religions practised in this country. Driven by this religious and ethnic pluralism, we Sri Lankans observe monthly Poya days and annual Vesak, Thai Pongal, Maha Sivarathri, Prophet Mohamed’s birthday, Eid ul-Fitr, Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. In fact, we probably have more public holidays in the month of April than most countries have in a year.

History has left us with a legacy of a multi-ethnic country. We could have been a people who rejoiced in this diversity. We could have been a people who are tolerant towards others’ beliefs and mores. Instead, the cold, hard, unpalatable reality is that we are a people divided deeply along communal lines and an island ravaged by the aftermath of a long and bloody war. Insensitivity to feelings of insecurity and deprivation has led to bitterness and hardening of attitudes. Our ethnic and religious tolerance lies in shards. Signs of growing fanaticism among some followers of different religions threaten the rebuilding of the just and tolerant society for which all of us yearn.

Rebuilding and reconciliation are the rhetoric of the day. These must be the reality too. At this juncture of Sri Lanka’s history, we need to ensure two things. Firstly, that this is translated into demonstrable action. Secondly, that we get the process of rebuilding right in order that the goal of rebuilding – a just and tolerant Sri Lanka – is guaranteed.

As an ecologist, my plea is that we look to nature for inspiration. The sum of an ecosystem’s parts makes it a well-functioning whole. Similarly, the sum of Sri Lanka’s parts can make the country whole and healthy. Each of us is a part of Sri Lanka. What each of us does – or does not do – affects what happens to all of Sri Lanka. Each of us needs to think of something small that we can personally do that celebrates actively our ethnic and cultural diversity; that demonstrates that we believe that all human beings have equal rights and equal opportunities. We need to translate that thought into action.

In ecosystems, nature has given us excellent examples of complex, dynamic communities interacting with each other to produce perfectly functioning units. We need to remember that like the species and species interactions in an ecosystem, our island needs all its communities, needs all the talents and abilities of its communities, needs the interactions among its communities to feed the smooth functioning of its entirety. No community should have an edge over another, nor should any one community be deprived of its dignity and rights, for that leads to imbalance in the functioning, which means inevitable damage of the whole.

Like the decrease in goods and services that result from damaging ecosystems, we, in Sri Lanka, are currently feeling the effects of a communally damaged and divided society: an economy that has been battered by the relentless costs of war; ever rampant corruption; families - all across the country - ravaged by death and devastation and communities suspicious of other communities.

We have to rebuild right. We need to move from mere rhetoric of integration, to actions and activities that form a culture of harmonised diversity, remembering that diversity is essential and celebrating it in all its glory.

Dr. Sriyanie, Miththapala

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