Politicians Mainly Responsible For Destroying Natural Resources
by Ifham Nizam - The Sunday Leader
Today is World Environment Day
Crimes relating to wildlife all over the world have reached a tipping point threatening the existence of many wildlife species including two iconic species, elephant and rhinoceros.
Each year the celebration of World Environment Day (WED) is based on a particular theme decided by the United Nations to make the celebration more effective by encouraging masses worldwide to take part in addressing environmental issues on a global scale. The theme this year is ‘Join the race to make the world a better place.’
Sri Lankan context
Moving on to the Sri Lankan situation, environmentalists have begun to ask questions about one famous pledge in the Yahapalana government’s 100 day programme. On the eve of the presidential election, President Sirisena and Jathika Hela Urumaya Parliamentary Leader Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero agreed with the conservation community that there was a need to produce a national policy on the environment.
Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Executive Director Hemantha Withanage says that though the government has looked into many issues, especially corruption and bribery, this was not the case with issues related to the environment. Hambantota harbour, Mattala airport, Uma Oya, Yan Oya, Port City and many other projects were being done in violation of environmental norms, he noted.
However, the conservation community was able to highlight the environmental and social problems relating to the Port City and forest destruction adjoining Wilpattu, with the support of the media. Uma Oya issues were once again highlighted due to the unfortunate situation which arose from the sinking villages.
Withanage said that suddenly the Uma Oya story has lost the attention of the media and the Port City issue is also ‘dead’ after the Chinese contractors were able to handle the media opposing the project. Withanage believes the Wilpattu issue too would suffer the same fate. “But President Sirisena cannot ignore the struggle between development and environment which has been ongoing in the last three to four decades in Sri Lanka,” he added.
Politicians are responsible for the destruction of natural resources such as sand, soil, granite, trees and rivers. Permitting illegal mining, logging etc is the way to finance election campaigns, he said.
Withanage says money flows to the top social level through the political system in the country. Unless by controlling this unaffordable political hierarchical system there is no other way to control the depletion of natural resources, he says.
Sri Lanka’s foremost authority on bio-diversity, Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda says the main problem he sees in biodiversity conservation is that although we have a good idea of which species are threatened and also what the threats are, we do not do anything about it and there is no recovery plan for the hundreds of threatened species.
“Our goal should be, for every threatened species to have a plan that mandates certain actions that will ensure that the population of the species recovers to a level at which it is no longer threatened. But not even for the elephant do we have such a plan. So the focus of the government should be on planning and implementing management interventions that assure the recovery of threatened species.”
“Sri Lanka has made some progress with protecting species and their habitats, but not enough. Even strict natural reserves are being steadily encroached and elephants are starving to death because electric fences put up in the name of ‘conservation’ result in them not getting access to food and water.
But there is almost no science in Sri Lanka’s conservation strategising, which is a pity because large amounts of scientific data exist that could help inform the conservation planning process. But there is a deep divide between conservation scientists on the one side, and the government conservation agencies on the other. As a result, national conservation strategies tend to be largely unscientific and hence unproductive.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne who has been responsible for publicising Sri Lanka and the leopards, the gathering of elephants and blue whales and has researched and developed almost every significant wildlife tourist product, says that a lot of international media now know that Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world, is the best for the blue whale and sperm whale super-pods and has Elephant Gathering. These generate a great deal of international television coverage and generate employment and revenue for the country.
Wijeyeratne believes that the government should also look to devolve the visitor management of national parks and reserves to the private sector. It has worked in other countries. In fact in countries such as the UK, the largest proportion of wildlife tourism is to reserves that are owned and managed by NGOs such as the RSPB. From grassroot level up to the minster, personnel should be made aware of the importance of flora, fauna and the natural environment and its value. There are many lessons of this ‘living with nature’ idea we could get from ‘traditional wisdom’.
Sri Lanka’s leading herpetologist Dr. Anslem de Silva who is a member of several specialist groups of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) and chairs a few of them in the region as well as in Sri Lanka says that the implementing government servants should be dedicated personnel.
In terms of species, genes and ecosystems, Sri Lanka has a very high biodiversity and is one of the 18 hot spots in the world. The wet zone rainforests have nearly all of the country’s woody endemic plants and about 75 per cent of the endemic animals. Sri Lanka derives nearly 20 per cent of its gross domestic product from agriculture and fisheries.
Since over 75 per cent of the population is rural and agrarian, biodiversity assumes significant economic and consumptive importance in Sri Lanka.
The genetic diversity of agricultural crops is quite remarkable, with 3,000 accessions of rice being recorded. The biodiversity of coastal and marine ecosystems provide over 65 per cent of the animal protein requirement of the country. Sri Lanka ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity in March 1994.
The vegetation of Sri Lanka supports over 3,350 species of flowering plants and 314 species of ferns and fern allies. There is also considerable invertebrate faunal diversity. The vertebrate fauna include 51 species of fishes, 39 species of amphibians, over 125 species of reptilia, over 390 species of birds, 96 species of mammals including 38 species of marine mammals. The provisional list of `threatened’ faunal species of Sri Lanka includes over 550 species, of which over 50 per cent are endemic. The crop genetic diversity in the country is also high, especially for oryza sativa. Many of the indigenous varieties of rice are tolerant to pests, adverse climate and soil conditions. In addition to the diversity seen in coarse grains, legumes, vegetables, roots and tubers and spice crops, there are over 170 species of ornamental plants.
Among domesticated animals of economic value are some indigenous species of buffalo, cattle, fowl and fish. The major threat to biodiversity in Sri Lanka is the ever-increasing demand for land for human habitation and related developmental activities. Poor land use planning, indiscriminate exploitation of biological resources, weak enforcement of legislation and the absence of an integrated conservation management approach are other threats to biodiversity.
Mangroves for the future
Mangroves for the Future (MFF) is a unique partner led regional initiative to promote investments in coastal ecosystem conservation for sustainable development. Co chaired by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), MFF provides a platform for collaboration among the many different agencies, sectors and countries that are addressing challenges to coastal ecosystem and livelihood issues. The goal is to promote an integrated ocean-wide approach to coastal management and to build the resilience of ecosystem-dependent coastal communities. Sri Lanka is strategically located in one of the busiest international shipping routes in the Indian Ocean and most of the container ships, particularly between Africa and the Gulf region, to the East Asian region, pass through the Colombo Port.
A growing illegal wildlife trade between Africa and the East Asian region takes place on this shipping lane. This is proven through detection and seizure in 2012 by the Sri Lanka Customs of a blood ivory container with 359 pieces on board weighing 1.5tonnes, en-route to Dubai from Kenya. Another seizing of a massive consignment of 28 container loads of Madagascar Dalbergia timber (Rose Wood) worth USD 7 million, which was being transported from Zanzibar to Hong Kong via Sri Lanka in 2014 has also been recorded.
In order to raise awareness on this increasing illegal wildlife trade, the Institute of Environmental Professionals of Sri Lanka (IEPSL), together with Biodiversity Sri Lanka (BSL) and the Base for Enthusiasts of Environmental Science and Zoology (BEEZ), a student body with a common interest in zoology and environmental sciences based at the University of Colombo, will conduct an expert session on the 2016 theme for World Environment Day ‘Illegal Trade in Wildlife’.
The event will be held at the Senate Hall, College House, University of Colombo, from 4 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. on Thursday, June 9. Sampath Bank will be the main sponsor of the event.
Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, Director General, Department of Wildlife Conservation will deliver the keynote address on this theme and its relevance to Sri Lanka. This will be followed by a panel discussion with eminent professionals Samantha Gunasekera, former Deputy Director of Customs, Biodiversity, Cultural and National Heritage Protection Division, Akram Cassim, CEO, Colombo Jewellery Stores, Vasantha Leelananda, Executive Vice President, John Keells Group, Prof Devaka Weerakoon, University of Colombo and IUCN and Jagath Gunawardena, Attorney at Law.
The commitment of the government of Sri Lanka to the conservation of biodiversity is demonstrated by a number of conservation-related activities undertaken including the imposition of a complete moratorium on timber felling in all wet zone forests, placing 13 forests in the wet zone under total protection and undertaking a national conservation review. Sri Lankan culture is ingrained with tradition on protection and conservation of animals and plants.
Earliest recorded sanctuary
The earliest recorded sanctuary in Sri Lanka was established around the 3rd century B.C. Protection of nature is enshrined in the Constitution of Sri Lanka and national policies have a clear focus on nature protection and sustainable use of natural resources.
World Environment Day (WED) which is commemorated on June 5 (today) each year, is the United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the environment. Over the years, it has grown to be a broad, global platform for public outreach that is widely celebrated by stakeholders in over 100 countries. It also serves as the ‘people’s day’ for doing something positive for the environment, galvanising individual actions into a collective power that generates an exponential positive impact on the planet.