Betraying our heritage by throttling Wilpattu
By Rukshan Jayewardene
Speech made by Rukshan Jayewardene at the end of the “Protect Wilpattu” protest on Friday.
I am speaking to you not as the honorary president of the Wild Life and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka but in my personal capacity as a conservationist who has worked in this field for over 20 years. I am here before you today to say a few words about this protest march and what it stands for.
Wilpattu is symbolic of a vast (by Sri Lankan standards) wilderness area, well watered by natural depressions that collect rain water. Some are in part spring fed and hold that precious water deep into the dessicating dry season of the north western plains. Wilpattu national park is centered on this villu eco system with upwards of two dozen large villus or lakes and several smaller ones. Uniquely for inland water bodies surrounded by forests some are brackish while others are positively salty during the dry season.
Besides the essential life giving waters and food that these lakes provide, the mineral salts provide essential nutrients and trace elements to a myriad species of mammals, reptiles and birds that frequent the villu waters and receding shoreline. Wilpattu actually stands for the pattu or ‘province’ of villus. The villus however are by no means restricted to Wilpattu National Park and extend north and southward beyond the bounding rivers.
So you may ask what ails Wilpattu? Firstly, a new road (the new Mannar road) travels like an arrow through the heart of Wilpattu, five km from the park. A vast land grab in the guise of the right of return of internally displaced people (IDPs) is also going on. New houses, new towns, road networks, power and communication towers are all being established even as we speak; carved out of the pristine forest area of this villu eco system. These lands formerly forest reserves have been fraudulently obtained with the blatant connivance of the Forest Department of Sri Lanka.
The forest is being pushed back using bulldozers, backhoes, chain saws and other heavy machinery. In many areas you can see the remaining forest as a wall where the clearing ends containing trees some at first glance perhaps a century or more in age, giving the lie to IDPs returning to their home areas now overgrown following the ethnic cleansing by the LTTE some 30 years ago. Thousands of hectares have been cleared of forest cover affecting the percentage of forest cover that remains on the island. These forests contain valuable hardwoods such as Ceylon ebony, calamander, satin wood and last but not least red and white sandalwood. These native forest species are state property; the natural wealth of all Sri Lankans. This is our heritage. Where is that timber now?
So don’t IDPs have the right to return to their abandoned home areas? Of course they do. But not to other forest lands demarcated as conservation forests and are the villu and river watersheds of the area. Meanwhile, some of the old settlements such as Mullikulum are deliberately neglected and allowed to remain overgrown with 30 years of growth in order to maximize false propaganda and to form the backdrop of many a photo op to further the same cause. Hard luck stories of growing up in refugee camps and making good by dint of hard work finds currency only with politicians looking for vote banks and mouthpieces with cheap price tags.
In the southwest of the national park a small shrine has begun to expand with many auxiliary buildings being constructed over a short period during the past five years. A burgeoning pilgrim population that violates every possible park rule converges on this spot within the park that is centered in the vast grasslands of Pomparippu. This is the only reliable area to view Wilpattu’s elephants on any given day. The disruption to wildlife during the heady days of the feast is unacceptable by any ecological measure and recovery is slow despite a cleanup. Long after food refuse has been consumed by opportunistic wildlife or plastic bags have flown away into the wilderness or adorning thorn bushes; remain an eye sore for months.
In the NE of Wilpattu, encroachment and settlements are violating park boundaries and adopting a strategy of creeping expansion into the wilderness of the park. These tentacles are consolidated over time as the Park boundary is quietly shifted. Meanwhile, the Dept of Wildlife Conservation turns a Nelsonian eye to all these violations often knuckling under direct political pressure that is brought to bear on them. Even at this late stage we would urge the Conservator General of the Forest Department to resign his post due to dereliction of duty after being party to fraudulent propaganda videos, false and misleading statements made to his Excellency the President of the Republic and the Honourable Prime Minister. It is time to salvage even a shred of dignity and remaining reputation and go home.
In Sri Lanka the likely result of inefficiency and dereliction of duty is simply a kick upstairs. Powerful political coercion especially during the heady days of the previous regime; a time of impunity is no excuse not to do your job to the best of your God-given ability. In the event of one’s inability to carry out the responsibilities of State of that August office, early retirement is the only dignified option available. As IDPs and genuine devotees, a mere flock of sheep become pawns in a religious-political chess game, Wilpattu national park suffers the privations of all this illegal human activity. A national park as we have mentioned before is a parcel of land that the people and their representatives in Parliament in their farseeing wisdom have decided to afford the maximum possible protection legally available to this nation state. When that protection is ineffective and violations are carried out with impunity even a resilient bio-diverse nation’s sustainable future hangs in the balance. Future generations will point to these times and write in red letters that we their ancestors failed them miserably.
Today, we are in the middle of the sixth great extinction on earth. There is overwhelming evidence for the previous five that can be recovered from the fossil record that is locked in the ancient sedimentary rocks of our planet. Unlike all previous extinction events, this one is fueled by human activity. In one incandescent moment over Hiroshima in April 1945, human beings realized that they had just taken their fate in their own hands. Our industries our settlements, our farms, highways roads and cities, our transport systems and our sheer all consuming weight of teeming masses, all exact a killing toll on this once blue green planet.
Anyone who refuses to believe this fact lives in a fool’s paradise cocooned by our own arrogance. Our refusal to accept that we are part of the biological continuum and not a part of our technological bubble puts us at risk of extinction like never before. Despite the threat of thermo nuclear annihilation receding into the past, we run the risk of being a part of this sixth great extinction that we started.