The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna initiative to reduce the carbon footprint from its massive rallies during the Presidential Polls campaign in 2019 was one of the more laudable aspects of an otherwise deeply-polarising election season. Titled ‘Nidahase Husma’ or ‘Breath of Freedom,’ the initiative was accompanied by a glitzy marketing campaign. Each time a rally concluded, SLPP stalwarts would plant a grove of saplings nearby to minimise the impact of big public rallies and their carbon footprint.
Ten months later, the story has taken a different turn. The first order of business for the new Cabinet of Ministers on 4 December 2019 was to scrap licensing requirements for sand-mining and soil transportation to “help” the construction industry, following it up with a decision to amend the Mines and Minerals Act to “simplify” the issuing of licenses for sand-mining. Environmentalists challenged the Cabinet decisions, and mercifully the Court of Appeal ruled that the Cabinet could not by decision undo enacted laws.
In July 2020 the Cabinet announced another major environmental blow with its decision to transfer residual forest lands to Divisional Secretaries for ‘economic purposes’ including cultivation. From Anawilandawa to Hantane to Akkaraipattu, mangroves, forests and nature reserves are under a merciless assault. Everyday reports surface of hundreds of acres of forest land being cleared. In Sinharaja, the last remaining primordial rain forest in the west zone, an UNESCO declared ‘man and biosphere reserve,’ a World Heritage Site, the army is building a road to connect Lankagama, a tiny village inside the forest reserve to the large southern town of Deniyaya.
Environmental scientists are justifiably anguished by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to proceed with the road construction. While the construction will take place in the rainforest buffer zone, environmental activists remain concerned because the area just outside the forest reserve is also home to endemic flora and fauna that is not only unique to Sri Lanka, but also found only in this particular forest on the island.
A common thread runs through every one of these actions. Behind every assault on precious mangrove forests in Puttalam and the north-west coastline is a businessman with links to influential local politicians. The villagers of Lankagama deserve access to the rest of the Southern Province and better medical care, the Government argues in favour of building the road. But environmentalists also allege that blocks of land privately owned just outside Sinharaja could be development projects that would benefit from a road into the rainforest.
For environmental activists, the sudden acceleration of deforestation and environmental degradation across the length and breadth of the country is the stuff of nightmares. But for the ruling party politicos, this may all be a case of the bills coming due – promises made to cronies and business interests ahead of the election, with these Shylocks now demanding the proverbial pound of flesh. But the sacrifice comes at a huge collective cost. Climate change and deforestation have increased temperatures on the planet and heightened the frequency and intensity of natural disasters across the world. The very survival of the human race will depend on how governments respond to the greatest challenge of our time – dwindling natural resources and an overheating planet. The onus is on the Government to put the brakes on this degradation of Sri Lanka’s protective defences against climate change and the rigours of nature. The failure to act against illegal deforestation and active political patronage for entities that destroy natural resources for profit reflect poorly on a Government that began its journey with the ‘Nidahase Husma’ campaign. If the devastation continues, no Sri Lankan will ever breathe freely again.