Wilpattu: missing the ecological wood for the communalist trees
“‘Wilpattu’ in the sense the term is used here is not a forest reserve located in the North Western Province. Wilpattu is every forest under threat of encroachment; Wilpattu is every tree that is marked for felling; Wilpattu is every creature whose habitat has been threatened by deforestation, development and human settlement; Wilpattu is the oxygen we breathe and take for granted; Wilpattu is the climate change we ought to have foreseen, did not and suffered as a result; Wilpattu is the nation.”
In this article I mentioned the communal element that Wilpattu has come to be associated with. I did not mention any community by name but said that the minister concerned belongs to a communalist party and pointed out that the objectors had a history of violence confrontations with that particular community. That’s it.
Such things need to be mentioned because not to do so would be telling just part of the story. However, the article and the argument therein went beyond the parochial interests of extremists belonging to various religious communities.
Now a person named Reza Nasser has referred to this article and indulged in a bit of fear-mongering, claiming that making Wilpattu an election issue could lead to ‘an ethno-religious bloodbath.’ Nasser has made some tendentious remarks about my political loyalties which are to hilarious to comment on. For me, they are as much a distraction as the ‘communal factor’ with respect to Wilpattu. Nasser would do well to re-read the article and see if (as claimed) I have forgotten other instances of forest reserves, by what he/she calls ‘Royal offspring of the previous regime’ or anyone else.
Now Nasser refers to me as a Sinhala writer. Should I refer to Nasser by the communal identity associated with the name ‘Nasser’? Who then is making this a communal issue and why? The argument is weak: ‘Hands off Wilpattu because Wilpattu is communal-loaded!’ Hands off the destruction, that is. In other words the communal card is being used to stop the debate and to clear the pathway for further destruction.
Let’s get some fact in here. The name ‘Wilpattu’ is derived from ancient administrative system where provinces were called ‘Pattu’. Wil+pattu then refers to a province of lakes. This area with these special villu eco-system spans from Karuwalagaswewa in the Puttlam district to the Yoda Wewa or Giant Tank in Mannar and spreads across parts of the current Puttalam and Mannar districts which belongs to two difference provinces, the North Eastern and Northern. Therefore, all the unseparated and undivided forests reserves, national parks and sanctuaries in this area are together identified as the Wilpattu Forest Complex (WFC) or Wilpattu Ramsar Wetland Cluster of International Importance. The Auditor General’s report on the issue has clearly indicated wrongdoing in the name of settlement of IDPs in so-called ‘ancestral lands’ where ancestry has not been established.
Trees, forests and protected areas do not have communal identities. If trees are illegally felled and if land is illegally cleared then it is wrong. Communal identity of any kind being used to justify such acts is communalistic and should be abhorred, regardless of the community. The difference between what’s happening in the WFC and elsewhere is this: action was taken when environmentalists objected in all such locations except Wilpattu. If communalism is the reason for this difference then the issue is communal, unfortunately. All the more reason to see beyond identity and community in this and similar issues.
People insist, however. For example, I received an email from one Musali Marikkar where in the midst of untenable claims the following is stated: ‘Had the Muslims of the north and east cooperated with the LTTE, you may now have to obtain a VISA to enter into Tamil Eelam. We safeguarded our beloved motherland from the clutches of LTTE and their declaration of a separate state.’
Marikkar too uses the communal card. How should one respond? One possible response is this:
‘An alternative outcome-prediction could be “if they did so, they very well have ended their story in Vellimullivaikkal.” I fail to see how fleeing an area (the LTTE was not saying ‘join or leave’ by the way) amounts to “protecting the motherland.” This kind of rabidly communalist statement undermines the amazing contribution of others of the same community to defeat the LTTE, especially in but not limited to the intelligence units of the security forces.’
But that would be pandering to those who want to keep the WFC communally-colored.
Just this morning I read about another claim regarding encroachment. This, orchestrated by State Minister Range Bandara. Here’s a name that’s part of the WFC: Pukkulama. It is located on the coastal edge of the WFC and is around 40 km from the Eluwankulama entrance to the National Park. It is a fishing village. It is an area that is used seasonally by fisherfolk from areas like Kalpitiya and Puttalam. They come, they stay, they fish and once the season is over they return to their homes elsewhere. Although there are some permanent structures and a church, these too were used only seasonally. There are no land routes to the area. Indeed, it was unused for the most part during the thirty-year long conflict.
After the end of the war, the authorities resumed issuing annual permits to the families that have traditionally used this village during the fishing season. These are issued with conditions annually and for a fee of Rs 2,500.
The previous regime, recognizing perhaps the potential to use this scenic area for economic purposes, cleared a strip of land more than 50m wide to construct a road. They, just like in the case of the settlements that made Wilpattu ‘communal,’ used the ancestral-land claim to create a settlement. Next, steps were taken to carve the area out of the National Park. Finally, a helipad was constructed in Kuduramale.
A committee was appointed to expedite the ‘resettlement’ (sic) process in 2010. The committee recommended the alienation of land for settlement. Relevant agencies objected and have remained intransigent. Environmentalists objected too and were able to dent these plans somewhat. Today, the ‘yahapalana’ successors to the previous regime have revived this ‘project’ and ironically it is led by the man who built a hotel in the catchment of the Thabbowa Wewa, Range Bandara.
Now are we to focus on Bandara’s ethnicity? Are we to say, ‘well, he belongs to a multi-ethnic, multi-religious party that stands for secularism, namely the United National Party, and therefore this is not a communal issue and for this reason look the other way?’ Or are we to say ‘this is a Sinhala communal intrusion’ and paint the entire community as a bunch of tree-fellers?
Pukkulama is larger than a community and a communal issue just as Vilaittikulam is larger than a community and a communal issue. Citing ‘community’ and fear-mongering together constitute a red-herring. No, ‘Wilpattu’ in the manner in which the name has been used metaphorically above, remains a national interest and it is in the interest of all communities to take a stand on it. We cannot let communality blur the issue. We cannot allow communality to blind us or numb us into inaction.
The tree that is felled, the forest that is cleared, has no ethnic identity and neither is it associated with any religious faith. For this very reason both tree and forest belong to all Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and other communities; for this very reason they belong to people of all faith, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. If you insist on secularity, well then they are all ‘secular’ so to speak. Leave religion and ethnic identity out of it. Keep it, and then rest assured you will be named as a communalist.