Caring youth and potential for effective conservation action

Thursday, 29 March 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

I am of the view that there is strong potential in using the knowledge and the caring among our youth in protecting our natural assets. It is sad that the vast reservoir of knowledge and information our young nature enthusiasts possess is not adequately harnessed for conservation decision making.

Herein is an appeal to policymakers and officials designated to protect and/or conserve our forests, other naturally endowed and environmentally sensitive areas and our wildlife within and outside protected areas, to use these voluntary resources within a framework designed for it. That can be done by harnessing such interest, enthusiasm, knowledge and information for augmenting the work they need to do.

What is needed is the setting in place a transparent and open-sourced mechanism for such involvement.

This is an adaptation of an article I wrote some time ago in another journal and I chose to revisit the issue once again, considering its vital importance for protecting our assets.

I belong to several Facebook (FB) groups on nature and things to do with nature. To be specific, they are about Sri Lanka’s natural heritage seeking to share information about this lovely and mysterious world within and around us. Some operate as open groups while, yet others are open only by invitation.

Some merely share facts and post beautiful images of marvels of Mother Nature, while others point to where foul deeds are done to hurt her. Some are activist and move to protect and preserve this treasure-trove world that most others seem to only see as an opportunity to exploit, sell-out and make fast riches.

Among my favourite local FB nature sites are: ‘Nature,’ ‘Sri Lankan Wild Life,’ ‘Young Zoologists Association (YZA),’ ‘Sri Lanka Bird Life,’ ‘Flora of Ceylon,’ ‘Sri Lanka Wilds; Youth for Nature conservation,’ ‘Aliya,’ ‘Sobha Sumituru Minisun Wanne Keseda’ (how can we be lovers of nature) and the more intimate ‘Sapumali the Elephant’ and I continue to learn from them of what unfolds around us in the bosom of Mother Nature, so close home here in Sri Lanka.

Depth of knowledge

What impresses me most is that most of these groups are initiated, maintained and subscribed to, by caring young people. The intensity of activity within makes me both proud and sad. For someone who has seen Sri Lanka’s environment movement grow since the ’60s, the pride I share is in observing the depth of knowledge, the attention to detail and the hands-on work most of the youthful members of these groups put-in to express their love of our nation and her wonders of nature.

They traverse the wilderness and look for species of insects, frogs, butterflies, dragon flies, birds, large and small mammals, even the sharpest of untrained eyes may not see.

Like in the past, they are no longer elitist kids who considered their encounters with nature mere fun-filled adventures but cover a wider spectrum of youth, who truly care about maintaining the sound health of Sri Lanka’s natural wealth. While the major portion of the comments and postings are in English, several Sinhala entries are also made and we should soon see the use of Tamil as well.

They study moss on waterways, springs and around our waterfalls relating them to changes that take place in that environment. Fish in natural ponds, water lilies, wild flowers and large trees and reptiles form their subjects. Photographic images they place on these pages are wonderful and need be celebrated as great tributes of homage paid to Mother Nature by those who have inherited such from generations before them and seek to leave them intact for those that will come in the future.

The elephants are seen not as log-pullers, ride-makers, exhibits at pageants or at tourist attractions, but as another link in the most complex and exciting eco-chain that has supported us for so long and helped us survive. To most of them, there is no differentiation between ‘us’ humans and ‘those’ species in the natural world.

They know we are one and cannot do without the other. To them, the innocence of the Loris and the intense pain seen in the weeping eyes of about-to-be slaughtered cattle, express the same truism. They both have the right to live and we must let them live through their natural cycle of life in their own environments.

Threats exposed

I read posts on these pages focussing attention on the issue of land of the Somawatiya Nature Reserve that was leased to Dole Plantations for banana farming. That a road is to be built dividing the only natural world heritage site we have of ‘The Sinhalaraja’. That elephants are to be ‘deported’ to other parts from the jungles close to the new city development of Hamabantota.

That the Fauna and Flora Act is to be amended to allow tourism and other facilitation development in the buffer zones and within the wildlife parks and that the Uda Walawe ‘Ali Athruru Sewana’ cubs were gifted to temples to become domesticated beings, when the expressed aim of this and the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage facility was to release them to the wild, once they are able to fend for themselves.

I also saw recommendations made for planners in the railway department to make speed limits and for calls to undertake programmes training and sensitising of engine drivers and other relevant staff of the need to minimise the loss of our elephants due to collusions with trains.

I also read critiques and counter comments on attempts of several of their own members to build and operate bungalows adjacent to the wildlife parks, erecting barbed wire and electric fences to protect the weekend revellers from the very wildlife they claim to want to observe, care for and appreciate.

Of the many uncaring ‘amateur nature photographers’ who crowd protected areas falling over each other to take pictures of the very wildlife they profess to protect creating congestion, disturbance infringing on the world of the wild. I read posts that are pleas from the caring, to those in positions of power, to address the issue of overcrowding of vehicles and visitors to our protected areas and wildlife parks, paying attention to limits placed through nature’s own carrying capacities of these areas.

On a Sunday a few months ago on impulse, I drove alone on the Kirinda road through Bundala and then on to Tissamharama. I had not done this for some time. The road-way along the bund of the Bundala tank remained the same as how I had seen it a decade or so ago.

But when I reached the stretch of human settlement beyond, the newly-erected electric fences reminded me of the sad tale of the conflict between man and elephant. While, ‘who must be kept away from whom’, will always remain a sore talking-point, the pressure seem to be mounting on both alike. For one, it is an issue of survival, while for the other it is one of dominance.

Power of social networking

I wrote earlier that the postings on the FB groups on nature made me both proud and sad. What makes me sad is that most of those that create policy and make decisive decisions on the fate and survival of our natural areas, do not have access to much of the information presented on behalf of Mother Nature.

It is not that they do not have physical access to it, but because they do not consider it worth their while, to make time to browse through them or to understand them, it often stands ignored. It is left for those who write the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and to those who evaluate them to deal with, or are simply placed on back-burners as comments of those of anti-development or reactionary elements.

Here I wondered why we did not seek tools of social networking to tap and harness the immense depth of knowledge and information, members of FB and other forums and Blog Groups possessed. I am sure policy makers could benefit from such input when making decisions on dealing with impacts development activity will have, on the environment.

A system of ‘virtual public hearings’ can perhaps be instituted by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) utilising social media, to help seek wider involvement of those who care, without leaving it in the hands of a few with vested interests or short-term objectives.

While in the current format, most EIAs essentially do not go through a process of effective public hearings, the power of interactive social media could be harnessed, to make rapid consultations, avoiding delays while ensuring broad-based participation of knowledgeable and caring people. For decision makers and the political process, this would also present an opportunity to avoid unnecessary controversy and conflict.

What most do not desire to see, is a situation where such issues are used to gain petty political advantage. It is sometimes a sad reality that sit-ins and protests on these are staged not by those who seek justice for the environment, but by political elements and henchmen, seeking to create niches for themselves.

 Bridging cup-lip gap

It is encouraging that the Government in its policy statement, the ‘Mahinda Chinthana,’ has dedicated a chapter to the making of a ‘Haritha (Green) Lanka’ within the nation’s development agenda between 2010 and 2020.

Respect for fauna and flora is its theme and its activities are geared “to protect our water resources and catchment areas, protection of the ocean and aquatic resources, prevention of air pollution, soil conservation, the introduction of innovative methods for agriculture, promotion of renewable energy sources, promote eco friendly industries, build healthy towns and housing schemes, develop an environmental friendly transport system, implement waste management systems, prepare the country for environmental change, and to promote cultural awareness and education as necessary.”

The launching of the ‘Girithuru Sevana’ programme to re-forest the catchment areas and to plant local trees instead of the imported species under the ‘Hela Thuru Sevana’ programme are two of the initiatives that have been undertaken. On the issue of protection of threatened species the policy outline states that a new programme has been launched with an allocation of “Rs. 2,600 million, to protect threatened animal species and to promote environmental conservation from the year 2010.”

Like they say the gap between the cup and the lip sometimes can be wide in these matters, for it is necessary that all organisations and instruments of government follow the dictums of this policy for it to be effectively implemented.

Today, the Wildlife Conservation Department is placed in the charge of the Ministry of Economic Development, posing a fresh challenge to those who manage its affairs in being mindful of their role in the conservation, protection and management of our wildlife.

The Ministry of Environment and its implementation arms of the Forest Conservation Department and the Central Environmental Authority and the like, must all gear to always stand up on behalf of their missions without yielding to any pressure for they are the guardians we have for the protection of our environment.

Utilising the huge base of knowledge and goodwill available in the social media will assist them to further strengthen their position to deliver on their mission. They would indeed need to think a bit out of the box, embrace the new tools available and move on to be more empowered, to protect our environmental resources.

Beyond the armed forces that performed heroic deeds in winning the war against terrorism, they will be our next frontier of heroes, in protecting our nation’s integrity through the protection of our natural environment and the massive wealth therein. And they need to be allowed to do this, without fear or favour.

(Renton de Alwis began his professional career as a lecturer in development economics at the Keleniya University during the 1970s. He was also a member of the pioneering team that set up the Coast Conservation programme in Sri Lanka in the late 1970’s and was an active member of the environmental movement of this country. A former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism he served two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He had earlier served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA) based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at