Is the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration nervous about ordinary folk crying out against environmental destruction?
If the actions of representatives of the State these past several days are anything to go by, it certainly looks like it.
On Friday, March 19th, there were WhatsApp messages going around that a mural, drawn by young members of the Wild Life and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), and erected at the Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo was being taken down. It was painted on-site over a period of a week, by nearly a 100 volunteers. The mural ‘Stop Ecocide’ was depicting the deforestation that has been going on apace in Sri Lanka this past year and a half or so.
The mural was a statement of support for Global Climate Action. And those who oppose the destruction of Sri Lanka’s forests and wildlife were invited to be at the park that Friday afternoon to show their support.
But suddenly both officials of the CMC and the Police descended upon the site, demanding the mural be removed. The CMC Commissioner, a lady officer, said the mural was tied to trees with string, damaging the trees. That, she said is not how people who care for the environment should act. And then, the Police officer, turned ‘official government spokesperson’, told the media that “after our government came to power,” a discussion on deforestation was taking place, which, he said was a good thing! Now, we all know our public servants do the bidding of their political masters. But here was a police officer, in uniform, forgetting that he must at all times be neutral, speaking for ‘his government!’ Since the mural was being painted on-site for nearly a week, one might ask where all the CMC and police officers were until that Friday morning. A call to the presidential secretariat by a media person elicited the response that these were all attempts to topple the government.
Then there is nineteen-year-old Bhagya Abayratne who chose a popular television show to speak out against the apparent destruction of the Sinharaja Forest. She was bold. She was after all, a lone figure, speaking against the deforestation that is taking place literally on her door step.
Bhagya was a contestant on the Sirasa TV Laxapathiya programme (Who wants to be a Millionaire) where during a chat with the producer, she described what was happening near her home. The Sinharaja, a UNESCO declared World Heritage site, has been facing indiscriminate deforestation to make way for what environmentalists allege, hotels and other commercial projects for friends and family of those connected to the big wigs of government.
There used to be three elephants that inhabited the area, Bhagya said. Now there are only two. Further incursions into this rainforest may well drive away those two elephants and other wild animals as well.
“Don’t wild animals have a right to live in their habitats?” she asked.
Sinharaja has been in the news for several months; in July 2020 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the widening of the Neluwa-Lankagama road, much to the consternation of environmentalists who cautioned that without an Environment Impact Assessment certification, the area would be exposed to illegal activities such as gem mining and bio piracy, and the rivers and tributaries impacted. The road itself could be washed away if construction was hurried through, they said.
While he called a temporary halt to the road construction, following the huge win at the parliamentary elections in August, President Rajapaksa once again commissioned the work. Bhagya’s allegations seem to have drawn the ire of state officials; members of the area police as well as the forest department paid her a visit almost immediately, at her home. Pro-government news websites and members of civil society went on attack mode, vilifying the young woman.
The Sinharaja Rainforest is a Biosphere Reserve, and is not only important to Sri Lanka, but to the entire world. It is reported to be the last patch of rainforest in the country. In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Forest as Sri Lanka’s only remaining primary tropical rainforest.
While Rajapaksa promised to increase the country’s forest cover to 30 per cent in his election manifesto, reports from across the country tell a different tale. According to environmentalists, the forests are being cut down in more than 200 different places to make way for commercial enterprises. Dr. Ravindra Kariyawasam an avid environmentalist claimed that the country’s forest cover had dropped to 16.5 percent in 2019 from 29.7 percent in 2017. And the administration seems fearful when ordinary folk speak out.
That could mean only one thing. Organised protests, especially by political parties can marshal its forces and bus in the crowds to the venue.
But when ordinary folk speak out or gather together to show their displeasure that’s another story. Friday’s crowd was mostly from Colombo’s elite and upper and middle class folk. Bhagya is a resident of the Sinharaja area; none with obvious political affiliations.
Former President Sirisena’s infamous failed constitutional coup of 2018 drew people from all backgrounds onto the roads, angered by his blatant violation of the rights of the people. The destruction of the forests seems to be having the same effect on the public.
For an administration that won handsomely at the hustings, that certainly cannot be a good sign.