The politics of environment

Tuesday, 23 March 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

International Days for different causes are sprinkled generously across every calendar year. Some of them are significant and celebrated at State level but most are not. However, the International Day of Forests appears to have struck a chord with most Sri Lankans who remain intensely engaged around environmental degradation and continue to demand action from the highest officials in Government. Ignoring their concerns could come at political cost. 

It is clear from statements made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently that the heated debate of environmental protection vs. development has reached the highest levels of Government, but the response has failed to impress key groups who regularly undertake social media campaigns and other forms of civil protest to demand substantial action. The push for environmental accountability is important for the Government on multiple fronts and has garnered the interest of stakeholders beyond traditional environmentalists. 

One of the key reasons for this is because the President and the ‘Viyath Maga’ movement campaigned on a platform that included environmental protection. This was seen as a key pillar in the set of promises made during the campaign trail and one that many voters considered could be kept with relative ease. However, the handling of this issue by the Government since coming into power suggests that the deeper malady of inefficient governance is impacting issues around environment significantly, and policy makers seem unable or incapable of formulating a solution. 

Degradation of the environment does not take place in a vacuum. There are many political, economic, social and cultural factors that contribute towards creating the ecosystems for destruction. Sri Lankan politicians and even the private sector’s definition of environmental protection and the public’s understanding of environmental conservation appear to be moving in opposite and opposing directions. This is made worse by the ingrained belief that politicians do a poor job of standing up for public interest and are more concerned about development at the cost of the environment. 

Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa drew much public ire this week after he outlined plans to develop two reservoirs with Chinese involvement in the Sinharaja Forest, which is Sri Lanka’s only rainforest and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. He was roundly bashed for suggesting that reforesting a different area would balance out the loss caused in Sinharaja. His comments underscore the poor understanding and out-of-touch approach taken by politicians, and while he may find people to support his views in Hambantota, it is unclear whether the rest of the country would be equally on board. 

Interestingly, thousands of farmers in Hambantota and elsewhere drove the fight for the Government to declare a wildlife reserve for elephants. Just a few days ago in Colombo, the youth were protesting and joining the ‘ecocide’ battle. This clearly indicates that environmental protection is cutting across class, race, religion and other demarcations, coalescing into a movement that is defying political denial and demanding to be heard. 

Given the absence of a parliamentary or presidential election on the horizon and the presence of an, as yet, ineffectual Opposition, the Government has breathing space, but the emergence of environmental destruction as a deeply personal issue deserves credible attention by the Government. Not least because their own survival may be tied to it.