The actors were the so-called 'Environmentalists'. Their hyperbolic claim was the 'Rape of the Wilpattu forest'. The outcome was Mawillu being Gazetted as a Conservation Reserve Forest.
Neither has a single alleged offender been apprehended nor have the 'environmentalists' substantiated their claims. Much to their embarrassment, President Maithripala Sirisena later confirmed to the nation that there is no deforestation taking place within the Wilpattu Forest Complex.
So then what is the rationale behind all this, hullabaloo about Wilpattu? Couple of theories abound. One of which is to project power in a contested region to reshape geopolitics. Protecting the forest is just a façade for this endgame.
Had there been real environmentalism, we wouldn't have experienced Rathupaswala, Meethotamulla, the Colombo port city, rice-based breweries undermining food security, the list of environmental failures is growing. Even at the time of this writing, virgin forests in Vavuniya and Mullaitivu are being cleared. It is also reported that there is also a Court case fixed for hearing for the 27th April 2017 instituted by the people in the surrounding regions of Maduru Oya Nation Park against the government releasing 50,000 acres from within the National Park for sugar plantation by Chinese. Where are the environmentalists? These are apparently, the foot soldiers of their paymasters and political overlords.
Unfortunately most of the Sri Lankan environmentalists are amateur hobbyists aligned to NGOs. They are not environmental scientists trained in environmental science and the scientists are a small minority in the current environmental discourse.
The scientific community has shed the archaic linear approach to environmental analysis and instead has embraced a more holistic and integrated ecological approach based on the sustainability matrix of environment, society and economy. Sustainable development is borne out of this core approach. Our environmentalists' approach is outdated. We are at the threshold of Circular Economy. A concept which aligns the supply chain and the waste chain to re-supply sustainably to a sustainable future where forest and urban forest are integrated as part of the supply chain integrating humans with nature to ensure ecological sustainability. In contrast to this, our environmental and economic thoughts are languishing in the 18th century fossilised carbonic thoughts with linear approach and a soiled mentality.
Linear environmental approach often has led to disturbing the ecological equilibrium undermining the environment, economy and society. It exacerbates conflict between environment, society and economy and ultimately undermines the whole ecology. Mawillu forest reservation prompted by the environmentalist lobby is a classic road to unsustainable futures. Mawillu once acclaimed the rice bowl of Sri Lanka would become fodder to the environmentalists but would undermine food security to the nation.
Today in the highly complex technologically driven society, disruptive technology and consequent disruptive human behaviour changes the shape and hue of life between morning and evening. For the State alone, without the support of the intellectual, scientific and academic community to guide the government, to take control of society and directing them sustainably is not tenable. Especially, in the presence of false prophets, masquerading as environmentalism's promised messiahs. The government to succumb to them is hara-kiri for the whole nation. Sri Lanka was a sustainable country with a sustainable society however; the post-war trend of re-shaping the economy, environment and the society to cater to a particular class of people undermines national sustainability. The pearl of the Indian Ocean will soon lose its lustre.
Mawillu is a litmus test to prove how unpatriotic and self-indulgent the protagonists of the Gazette are. How myopic is the government to succumb to the pressure and impose a Gazette undermining national sustainability. Mawillu requires a holistic analysis to chalk a common future to all to render it sustainable to the society, economy and the environment. It is an area the government lost its writ during the conflict and hence could not protect its citizens. The citizens there were ethnically cleansed by the LTTE and driven out as IDPs. Why did the Sri Lankan forces shed their blood on the soil here? Is it to establish a forest reserve or to re-establish the writ of the government? In this region, people and the flora and fauna were cohabiting since time immemorial and their attitude towards nature and environment is shaped by their historical memory and a lifestyle influenced by their physical environment nurturing a symbiotic relationship.
Reconciliation and re-settlement
The priority of the post-war government should be to re-settle the IDPs of this region to the pre-1990 positions, the year they were ethnically cleansed. It is their right and the government owes a duty to them. The government utterly failed in their responsibility to protect these people during the conflict and failing to protect them in the post-conflict period. The government has become inquisitorial by clamping a Gazette declaring their traditional lands as a reserve forest whilst permitting greener rainforests in other areas to be raped. Where is environmental justice to a people displaced by war and prevented from re-settling? This questions the bona-fide of the environmentalists for their silence for environmental rape in other areas and their agitation here? Double standard environmental advocacy is more dangerous than no environmental advocacy.
The Gazette notification No. 1759/2 dated 21.05.2012 is flawed in its GPS coordinates demarcating the boundaries of forest reserve. This had one coordinate point in Marricikatti, another in Anuradhapura and a third point into the sea 25Km off Galle.
Similarly, incorrect coordinates assigned to demarcate Marricikatti-Karadikkuli forest reserve in Gazette No.1779/15 of 10.10.2012. This is overridden by the latest Gazette No.2011/34 of 24th of March 2017 declaring Mavillu, Weppal, Karadikkuli/Marichchakatti and Periyamurrippu as Mawillu Conservation Forest. The process of gazetting is dubious. The secrecy is questionable and not following legal procedures, getting the coordinates wrong and finally hemming the nearly 35% of the re-settled IDPs' settlements with Conservation Forest Boundary in their backyards arouses suspicion. This looks more like a deep State activity coercing a weak President to agree to something harmful to national interest.
Violation of the Right to Return
The government and the international community have failed to address the resettlement/ compensation for the Muslim IDPs from Mannar District. With the advent of the new Gazette, about 65% of the IDPs yet to return cannot move to their original places of domicile. The new Gazette hemming and enveloping them with new Conservation forest boundaries along their property boundaries without a buffer zone between human settlement and reservation will potentially cause Human Elephant Conflict (HEC). The writer visited these sites and found the boundary stone laid precariously inviting HEC.
The government's talk of reconciliation is hollow. Injustice is the fundamental factor for conflicts in society. However much the powers that be try to cover up their intrigues, it will break loose like cancer from another side. The government is responsible to find long-term solution to this.
Hollow Environmental Argument
The type of forest cover in the Mannar District where Mawillu is, consists of Dry Zone Thorn Scrub forest consisting of short trees not more than five metres high, dense thorny shrubs interspersed with pockets of taller trees and grassy plains. There is less biodiversity and flora and fauna compared with other forests. According to the National Red List 2012 of Sri Lanka prominent plants found in this region are 'Secondary forest under progressive succession'. These areas have been continuously under human habitation until abandoned due to the conflict. This led to uneven growth of green cover which is not forests by universal definition. Therefore the argument that this should become a reserve forest is not valid.
Substantiating similar strains Senior Environmental Scientist Rohan Pethiyagoda writing in the Ceylon Journal of Science in his research article titled 'Biodiversity conservation in Sri Lanka's novel ecosystems' comes with counter arguments against the hollow ecological premise the protagonists of Mawillu Conservation Forest are advocating. He cites that the elephant population in Sri Lanka has grown from 1,600 in 1959 to more than 6,000 in 2011. This is despite of 100-150 elephants killed by farmers annually. Similarly he contends that Sri Lanka's forest dwindled to about 23% since independence whilst homestead vegetation doubled (16.4% -30.1%) and mixed-scrub vegetation increased by 20% over the same period. Furthering his argument, he says that 'the proportion of the island's urban population has remained static, at around 15% of the total over the past decade, notably low in comparison to other Asian countries' (30% in India, 72% in Malaysia: UN, 2011).
Considering the aforesaid factors, the environmentalists' arguments are hollow. For instance the fact that Mawillu is a dry zone secondary forest with long history of human settlement, the population increase of elephants whilst forest cover is dwindling is indicative of elephant's adaptive capacity. It is possible that other fauna and flora too may be increasing in population and are adaptive. Growth of homestead vegetation and mixed-shrub vegetation as a totality does not diminish the forest and green cover required to protect the available eco-system. Complementing this growing urbanization, regional metropolises and Western Province Megapolis would during the next 15 years attract migration towards urban centres possibly doubling the urban population of Sri Lanka to 30-40%. This would release more land for forest reserves, agriculture and cultivation. All these corroborating information prove that lack of proper scientific research and agenda driven attitude of the protagonist do not stand the test of reality. The government and the president are being taken on a jolly good ride. They are being misled to make unsustainable moves in the name of environmental protection.
The LTTE ethnically cleansed this predominantly Muslim area with the goal of creating a mono ethnic Northern Province in support of Tamil Eelam. The government may think that by declaring a sizable portion of the Northern Province as Conservation Forest it would be under the government's control in the event of North-East merger becoming a federal entity. Contrary to this, the government's failure to re-settle the Muslims to 1990 position consolidates the Eelamists' stance of consolidating the mono ethnic Tamil province to justify their case with the international community. It is intriguing to note how the Gazette declaration is rewarding the Eelamists to create a defacto territory. It may be possible considering who the ultimate beneficiary is to presume that the Eelamist Tamil diaspora may be indirectly funding the environmentalist and Buddhist extremists by their front organisations to checkmate the Sri Lankan State in the final analysis.
Limitation of this article does not permit further corroboration with facts to substantiate the status quo is wrong and more harmful to national interest. Considering the afore mentioned factors, it is wise for the government to de-Gazette to 1990 position, re-settle people in their original location, relocate the military to State lands and deliver the benefits of future urbanization to alienate sufficient land for human settlement and then after proper consultation with all stakeholders to demarcate new boundaries protecting the interests of all including a new forest to give a lasting solution.
(The writer is a Sustainability Consultant and a Chartered Environmentalist)