By Federation of Environmental Organisations
It was encouraging to read the election manifesto of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in which he stated the intent to increase the country’s forest cover by 30% by 2030. Fundamental to this would be the protection of the existing wilderness areas of the country, already reduced to critical capacity. Not to be forgotten are the marine sanctuaries of this island, also filled with an incredible array of biodiversity and, as with the forests, under threat from unplanned development and wanton destruction.
All of these areas come under the governance of the statutory bodies defined by Sri Lankan law to look after the welfare of these precious places - the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Forest Department (FD), Coast Conservation Department (CCD), Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA). We, the Federation of Environmental Organizations (FEO), call on the President to consider the points below to help in achieving not only his vision in increasing the forest cover of this country, but also of protecting the astonishing variety of biodiversity, for posterity, for the world and the future to marvel at. Biodiversity is also the backbone of ecosystem service provision—services people obtain from ecosystems for development. Therefore, biodiversity conservation should be a priority to ensure sustainable development in Sri Lanka.
A.Protection of natural resources and biodiversity
1.Place all Government agencies with a mandate for conservation and environmental regulation, i.e. the DWC, FD, CCD, CEA, and the MEPA, under a ministry with a mandate only for conservation.
2.Immediately halt all environmentally detrimental development activities at national parks and protected areas. Clearing of FD forests and other forest lands owned by the State should also be stopped. Halt the ad hoc resettlement of people in forested lands, elephant corridors and other habitats of endangered fauna and flora.
3.Declare all wetlands protected areas and prevent the filling in of any wetlands for development.
4.Protected areas under the FD and DWC are declared due to their ecological sensitivity and the need for protection from environmental degradation. Therefore, the use of any land declared under the FD and DWC for disposal of municipal or industrial waste should be prohibited with immediate effect. Municipal and industrial wastes are generated in urbanised areas and thus should be managed in the areas that waste is being generated and not in protected areas.
5.Immediately gazette protected areas such as Kala Wewa and other areas of wildlife importance such as national parks, with the boundaries demarcated as per the habitat and not administration.
6.Appoint an independent committee comprising members of selected Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations and environmental or wildlife experts to oversee the operations of the DWC and FD.
7.Carry out a study of behaviour or routes of whales on our coastal areas, regularise whale watching and if necessary, extend shipping lanes further from our coasts. An extensive study on this has already been carried out by Dr. Asha De Vos.
8.In addition to the President’s very welcome proposal for the introduction of an insurance scheme to compensate victims of human-wildlife conflict (Chapter 7 of his manifesto), local populations that border protected areas must receive some direct financial gain from having wildlife as their neighbours. Currently, income from the gates at national parks goes to the Wildlife Preservation Fund and the Ministry of Finance. The former ends up being nothing more than a book entry with the actual monies going to the Treasury, whereas the latter is used for multiple purposes within the Ministry of Finance. If a percentage of this income was utilised to directly benefit these communities, responding to the needs of these communities, they would begin to look upon the protected areas as a source of value rather than an inconvenience and threat, and aid in their protection.
B.Mitigation of human-elephant conflict
1.We congratulate the President on devoting a whole chapter of his election manifesto (Chapter 8) to the above, for acknowledging that the human-elephant conflict is a man-made disaster (Chapter 7), and in a previous media release identifying, “…that natural elephant corridors should be protected while permanent solutions based on scientific evidence and expert opinion are to be put in place to solve the issue.” (Sunday Observer, 3 November 2019). This is of vital importance in alleviating the death and damage caused by this conflict, to both humans and elephants, as previous decisions have been made ad hoc, with politically motivated intent.
1.Develop a clear policy for conducting Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for infrastructure and other large-scale development projects. At present, EIAs are paid for by the project proponents who select the consultants to conduct it themselves. This should be an independent process (CEA), albeit paid for by the project proponent or relevant funding agency. In addition, any strategies necessary for mitigating against any harm to the wildlife which may already be inhabiting these areas of proposed development should be written into the project proposals themselves, thereby holding both the project proponent and funding agency responsible for funding their implementation.
2.Regularise sand mining operations and quarries (as per the manifesto).
1.Immediately halt all ‘land-grabbing’ of State land for commercial as well as ‘slash and burn’ agriculture, especially in areas where there is a human-elephant conflict.
2.Agricultural processes should be made more efficient to increase productivity per unit area instead of embarking on large-scale irrigation schemes to increase the land under agriculture.
3.Remove subsidies on artificial chemicals and implement laws for the proper use of agro-chemicals.
4.Provide incentives for organic agriculture.
If the target of 2030 is to be achieved, then the above proposals need serious consideration and implementation. This is something that the President cannot achieve alone but is the responsibility of all Sri Lankans. For our very future, and that of our children, lies in the success of preserving our environment and biodiversity.
(The Federation of Environmental Organisations [www.feosrilanka.org] is a non‐political, non-partisan organisation which provides a platform for connecting interest groups with a patriotic interest in safeguarding Sri Lanka’s natural heritage through conservation and advocacy.)