Environment and conflict of interest

US President Barack Obama, under fire for dragging his feet on the continuing Gulf of Mexico oil spill which is destroying the environment and threatening the life and wellbeing of the people in those coastal states was forced to meet the media, and through them address the people of America.

This proved two things; that arguably the most powerful man on earth was still sensitive to media criticism, and that he came forward to address the people himself.

He took questions from the independent media and made his pitch to convince the people of his country that his administration was doing its very best to contain the crisis. That apart, President Obama vented his anger on the corruption that was inherent in the US oil business. He repeatedly expressed his frustration that the oil regulators had a very "cosy" relationship with the oil drillers.

The previous Bush administration was well-known for its hunky-dory ties with the oil industry and there is some element of truth in the claim that America's invasion of Iraq had more to do with oil than any weapons of mass destruction.

The US Congress summoned the oil regulators to Capitol Hill to face some hard questions as to the laxity in regulating British Petroleum, the company that had caused a leak in an oil vein under the sea while exploring, only to see the chairperson throw in the towel and resign 24 hours before she had to face the music.

Such 'cosy' relations in the US between regulators and the industry they are supposed to monitor are nothing new. Just the other month they found during an investigation into the Japanese car manufacturer, Toyota, that some US regulators were, in fact, employed at Toyota.

In many of these instances, it is only after a disaster has struck that the murky details emerge, especially of how those who are supposed to be the watchdogs of a particular subject are corrupt to the hilt, and breaking the very laws they are expected to implement often for a 'mess of pottage'. Just a week back, details poured out of the corruption at Sri Lanka's Urban Development Authority, the statutory boards, provincial councils and the local councils that are tasked to keep a tab on unauthorized structures, filling of lands, felling of forests, sand-mining and the like that were at the root of this month's flash floods that caused misery to thousands of families around the country.

That is why the nagging question 'Quis custodiet custodias?' or 'Who will guard the guards' has to be asked. Where does the buck stop, so to say? Is its with the political leadership of the country? That is why President Obama must take the rap for the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico. That is why President Obama has to drag himself out of the Oval Office and go before the media and explain what he has been doing about the issue to an increasingly annoyed nation. The environment, unlike other areas, is not to be trifled with, as we have seen with chilling effect these past few years. There is today, quite justifiably, greater concern about the environment and this oil spill is just an aspect of it.

It has been reported for many years now, that super tankers have dumped their waste products in the high seas off the coast of Sri Lanka. Blackish tar-like sand on our beaches, often rubbing off on bathers has been attributed to this 'dumping'. Unfortunately small countries like Sri Lanka just don't have the wherewithal and the clout to take these issues to international fora. Yet it would have been timely for Sri Lanka's External Affairs Minister now in the US to have raised this issue without merely defending the Government's human rights record.

If the recent floods gave us a glimpse of the impact corruption has had on disasters (ex; the cosy relationship between the UDA and property developers), there is a need to study the long-term effects of such relationships for the future. Not long ago, despite much agitation by environment groups, the Chinese financed Norochcholai coal-project and the Japanese financed hydro-electricity project at Talawakelle were steamrolled through. There were economic compulsions, but there were environmental concerns too.

Surely, at some point there must be a decision and delays could be great obstacles to Governments that must show progress; but that decision must not be based on extraneous factors omitting the long-term environmental repercussions at the expense of immediate benefits.

In a small country, these conflicts will be even greater, and greater should then be the care for these concerns. There are several current issues such as the road that goes through Wilpattu National Park; a seemingly harebrained idea to convert a lung of Colombo city -- the Galle Face Green into a mega-city; plans to develop tourist villas in and around Kalpitiya, that need to be carefully examined. The fact that the Wild Life Conservation Department now comes under the Ministry of Economic Development (under whom comes the Tourist Authority as well) is another case in point.

One might argue that this is probably the best situation because the one Minister can balance the competing demands. The problem, however, is that, like in the case of the US oil spill, there are hordes of people who will come up with project proposals to invest in tourism projects to make some dollars, but very few to invest in the long-term environment of the country.

That is why the Government must assume that responsibility and clearly work out the cost-benefit factor. That is the final reckoning; and here the cost is not merely the economic cost, but the cost to future generations. The leaders all know that they are merely trustees of this country.

In this week of Vesak it might do well to remind these leaders of nations of the timeless wisdom of Gautama the Buddha - "As a bee without harming the flower, its colour or scent, flies away collecting only the honey, even so, should the wise man wander the village" (Dhammapada) -- i.e. to take away the minimum necessary for our requirements without harming or spoiling the environment.

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