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Protecting the Environment in Times of Economic Turmoil

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Photo courtesy of Sierra Club

World Environment Day is celebrated every year to highlight the importance of the environment we live in. This year the theme is only one planet but to Sri Lankans it would be more relevant to rename it only one Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is very small in size, just 65,610 square kilometres, with 22 million people so we have very little land in relation to the population. We need to work together to preserve whatever natural heritage is left.

There are any threats arising from the current crisis and the impending food and resource shortage. We have to look at what we can do to conserve what we have left in terms of policies and their implementation.

One of issues we have not addressed is the fallout from the X-Press Pearl ship disaster. We should get at least one billion dollars as compensation. There is no study on the pollution impact or proper monitoring of ongoing pollution, data analysis or reports being put out. We do not know what pollutants are remaining and what impacts were caused to marine life.

The circular where state lands were transferred to the Forest Department and given back to Divisional Secretariats for development projects has resulted in land misuse. The destruction of state forests needs to be resolved. There are six cases in the Supreme Court and Appeal Court that are dragging on. There are 500,000 to 700,000 hectares of state forests in danger of misuse, abuse and exploitation. The former Minister of Forests and Wildlife, C.B. Rathanayake who was supposed to protect forest lands, under the influence of Basil Rajapaksa, has ruined state forests by giving out land to people who should not get it. Regulations, laws and other legal means were completely ignored. In certain areas 3,000 acres of forest lands and elephant habitats have been destroyed due to the circular. Land given for agriculture should have been used to increase forest cover since we have had promised the international community that we will increase it by three percent.

Other unresolved issues include the protection of Muthurajawela, which is being subjected to illegal felling and illegal land grabbing. Land grabbing is going on across country and forest lands belonging to Land Reform Commission (LRC) and the Mahaveli Authority are being parcelled out. For example,  50 acres of Mahaveli land has been given to Bandula Gunewardena’s son who lives abroad as farmland. People with power and businessmen connected to politicians have got large areas of land for cultivation but they have not produced any agricultural output; they are just holding the land. Tens of thousands of acres of Mahaveli lands have been mismanaged by politicians such as Mahaveli Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, who has given land to many businessmen for agricultural projects to make the country self- sufficient in food, so how can there be food shortages is a question we have to ask.

LRC lands bordering the Sinharaja forest were supposed to be given to the Forest Department but these lands have not been legally transferred by the LRC. The current chairman said he would complete the transfer in 2021 but this did not happen. In 2020, he said he would count the exact acreage the LRC had but he not taken any steps to do this. The lands can be stolen and sold without any trace because there are no records. Forest lands in Knuckles and Sinharaja have been sold, vandalised and encroached but LRC won’t do anything because officials take bribes.

The managed elephant reserve in Hambantota has not been sorted out because Mahaveli lands in the managed elephant reserves have been given out by Chamal Rajapaksa to his supporters. He promised to resolved it and a gazette came out but the illegal cultivators and land grabbers have not left and he has not taken any steps to get rid of them. As a result, the human elephant conflict has intensified.

Many meetings were held on conserving and protecting rivers to ensure water security. Former Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera made statements about the plans but nothing took place. Through the budget hundreds of millions of rupees were allocated for river conservation projects that have not materialised. Where are the funds, how much of the funds allocated were used and was there any output?

The myriad shortages of essential supplies have exacerbated the environmental crisis. Even in Colombo people are cooking on wood stoves outside their houses because there is no gas. There is an increased demand for firewood even for boilers that were running on waste crude oil. This wood is coming from forests that are being cut down in a systematic manner.

There is a looming food crisis because of the lack of fertilizer and diesel to cultivate fields. People have been asked to cultivate every inch of land. This will be misused by land grabbers and encroachers into forest areas. Businessmen and mafia groups are already grabbing land with the excuse that the government said all lands must be used. Destruction will increase in state forest areas, which should not happen because 63 percent of all our lands are agricultural lands out of which we have not productively used even 40 percent; 60 percent of the agricultural lands are abandoned or not efficiently used. In different parts of the country such as Kalmunai thousands of acres of paddy lands have become dry lands and are not cultivated. On some land productivity is only 50 percent. Most of the cultivatable lands are not used. Many lands in Kantale have been abandoned, which can be used for cultivation.

In every crisis there are opportunists who will take advantage of the situation. To solve the energy crisis, the mini hydro power mafia has said it can add 50 megawatts to the grid. We have 200 mini hydro power projects generating 350 megawatts but when there is a drought they can’t produce even one percent of the country’s energy needs. Money from generation goes to a private person’s pocket and people are deprived of water rights. When it rains, mini hydro power is not needed because enough is generated by existing power stations. We need a solution for drought times. Mini hydro power plants are very destructive to the riverine ecosystems. The solutions we need are solar, wind and wave with small scale solar panels on rooftops of houses, offices and other buildings, which will generate sufficient energy for day time consumption. CEB engineers have been blocking this for a long time demanding coal power stations, knowing that coal will not be allowed so they can go for diesel and private power purchases that can earn them money.

We have to maintain the 17 percent of forest cover and the  29 percent of green cover that we have;  our forest cover cannot be compromised. No economic activity or economic development will be of benefit when environmental degradation happens. Pollution will result in a sick nation, which will be costly for the health sector. If there is no water or fertile soil for agriculture, there will be no economic benefits. If there isn’t a moderate climate and there are droughts or floods, any economic benefits will go to disaster management, recovery and relief, which is why we have to maintain and sustain ecosystems whether it be paddy lands, forests, mountains, riverine systems, tanks or reservoirs and protect them for future generations.

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