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Where is the usual public outrage over the destruction of Nature Reserves and Wildlife?

India’s farmers have been on the streets for several months protesting the passing of three farming Bills in September 2020.


They believe the Bills are not in their interest but will open the way for big private companies to gobble them up. Their ‘Delhi Chalo’ (Let’s go to Delhi), movement has been gathering momentum, with rights advocates including climate change activists supporting the farmers’ cause. The Indian government has tried both cajoling and aggressive tactics; offering to put off enacting the proposed laws while also cutting off internet access, detaining journalists and arresting activists.


The protest has received support and media coverage both locally and internationally.

Even as protestors called for a nationwide rail strike on February 18, it was clear that neither side is prepared to relent.


Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, a group of Southern farmers have been engaged in a sit down protest (Satygraha) demanding the government issue the gazette notice and implement the Elephant Management Plan that has been in the works since at least 2011.


The plan which envisages grouping Bundala, Udawalawe and Bibile as one forest reserve, is meant to mitigate the human-elephant conflict which has, over the years taken a heavy toll on both man and beast. In fact, Sri Lanka has been registering high casualty rates both of humans and elephants due to this conflict, with 2019 notching up the highest number of elephant deaths in the world. Thankfully, 2020 has seen a slight drop, with 318 elephants killed as against the 407 in 2019. The 112 human lives lost in 2020 are believed to be 8 per cent less than the number killed in 2019.


The sit- in is expected to continue until February 23, the day when the government has promised to resolve the issue.


The plan which envisages grouping Bundala, Udawalawe and Bibile as one forest reserve, is meant to mitigate the human-elephant conflict which has, over the years taken a heavy toll on both man and beast. In fact, Sri Lanka has been registering high casualty rates both of humans and elephants due to this conflict, with 2019 notching up the highest number of elephant deaths in the world. Thankfully, 2020 has seen a slight drop, with 318 elephants killed as against the 407 in 2019. The 112 human lives lost in 2020 are believed to be 8 per cent less than the number killed in 2019.


The sit- in is expected to continue until February 23, the day when the government has promised to resolve the issue.


But, unlike the wide support and media coverage Indian farmers are enjoying, the protest of their counterparts in Sri Lanka seems more like an ‘also ran.’


Sri Lanka’s fauna and flora are under threat.


Sadly, efforts to counter it are limited to those who really care for the environment. It is interesting to note that the weeks-long demonstrations against the government’s proposal to lease 49 per cent of the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port to India organised by Port workers, affiliated unions and political activists drew far more support and media coverage than the efforts of poor farmers committed to protecting Sri Lanka’s wildlife.


Tragic!


Tragic because, ever since the reins of power moved into the hands of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s forests and wildlife have been in grave danger. Within days of taking office, his government withdrew the transport permit for sand and clay, drawing fire from environmentalists. While changes were made later regarding the permits, it was not before our rivers and rivers beds were further eroded. What’s more, forests and wetlands are being decimated to make way for commercial cultivation under the pretext of empowering the poor, while unused and abandoned agricultural lands lie idle.


Not even the mighty rainforest Sinharaja, a UNESCO designated heritage and biosphere site has been spared. Amidst protests from environmentalists, the President no less, ordered the widening and tarring of a road, right through that forest. Now, there are more reports from environmentalist who have been showcasing on social media further incursions into Sinharaja, where land is being prepared for commercial cultivation of crops such as cardamom.


In 2018, the Ramsar Convention added Colombo’s network of wetlands to the already accredited six other sites in Sri Lanka. It is Colombo’s wetlands that make the urban city sprawl livable. Yet, even these precious wetlands are becoming fair game for unscrupulous businessmen who enjoy political patronage.


Overriding objections from conservators, the government transferred ownership of more than 500,000 hectares of ‘Other State Forests, to Divisional Secretariats, permitting the latter to release these lands for economic and suitable commercial purposes. Such actions not only endanger wildlife, but destroy entire ecosystems.


And while those with hidden agendas are busy destroying every inch of our forests, wild animals and birds have been visiting villages in search of food.


The pundits who hold ministerial and administrative positions meanwhile believe the issue of wild animals invading human habitats could be dealt with by arming the public!

First, it was an attempt to arm civil defence force members, a move that was quickly shelved when environmentalists protested. And now, not only are farmers who own more than an acre of land are to be given firearms, ( estimates say there are 2 million farmers), the department of Wild Life Resources and Conservation is planning on sterilising wild boar, monkeys, flying squirrels and porcupines!


Guess it’s time we renamed the department to Wildlife Destruction!


And, who, one wonders is advising the President on environmental issues. He has been heard instructing officers to drop all charges against those who are in violation of laws protecting nature reserves thus undermining the authority of the officers and paving the way for undesirables to enter wildlife sanctuaries. Such forages into the Reserves will, warn environmentalists, result in more bio-piracy, illegal felling of trees, commercial cultivation, gem and sand mining and poaching of wild animals.


True the situation has raised the hackles of many environmentalists and other interested parties. But, unlike the mass protests organized during the 2015-2019 regime, against the parceling out of the Wilpattu Nature Reserve for instance (which also involved racial undertones), disapproval is mostly limited to social media chatter, online petitions and Youtube exposes.


Most environmentalists backed a return of a Rajapaksa rule believing that the country’s wildlife and forests would be better protected. Yet, in the face of the mass scale destruction of our pristine forests and biodiversity, there seems to be a reluctance amongst even civil activists to take to the streets as they usually do, and launch a public campaign to raise awareness and prevent the ecocide that’s happening before our very eyes.


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