Photo courtesy of Rukshan Kuru-Utumpala

Environmental conservation in Sri Lanka is as challenging as the economy of the country. Environmental degradation is fully supported and carried out with the blessings of corrupt politicians. This has been the case since the British left Sri Lanka with a forest cover of close to 50%. Thereafter, we began the destruction that goes on at an alarming rate today in many forms be it deforestation of rainforests and mangroves, mining of sand, metal and gems, water pollution, air pollution, soil contamination and conversion of forests to non-forest uses that go on under the guise of development. From the felling of the Sinharaja forest in the early 70s and the fast-paced Mahaweli development project to more recent development projects such as highways, the Hambantota port and airport, reservoirs and agricultural projects, they are contributing to the degradation of the environment alarmingly and rapidly. Yet we are still a developing country that is almost bankrupt while many countries that were far behind have surpassed us in terms of the economy and the quality of life. This simply proves none of these so-called development projects have contributed in any way but have instead indebted the country and destroyed natural assets in a way that cannot be measured in rupees and cents.

Environmental destruction happens not because of the lack of laws but because of the lack of enforcement. In some cases the fines are only Rs. 100 because they have not been changed for decades but the fines come with an option to imprison the wrongdoer, which does not happen.

Who is responsible?

Environmental destruction happens due to four key groups. They are, in order, corrupt public officials, corrupt politicians, corrupt and greedy businesses and business people and the selfish public.

Most of the environmental crimes are committed with blessings or due to the ignorance of public officials and not because of politicians. Politicians cannot make policies without the support of public officials; without them, they cannot twist laws and regulations to comply with laws, acts and policies. Public officials advise politicians on almost everything. From secretaries of ministries to chairmen and director generals, they are the ones who are leading the institutions and enforcing the acts, with the minister being the person responsible to ensure the function of a ministry or institution. Often these officials have the power to change the course of a country and they are either supporting bad policies or promoting them. They turn a blind eye to the very piece of legislation they must enforce.

In the last two decades environmental destruction has gone on apace. The most recent examples are President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s plan to convert state forests to farmlands and other development activities that could result in almost 500,000 hectares of forest cover loss.  In addition, almost 100,000 acres of Mahaweli lands have been converted for various agricultural and development projects while over 1.5 million acres of Land Reform Commission (LRC) lands are being looted by politicians and individuals with money, power and connections.

What is at stake?

Since the current government came to power, there have been thousands of incidents related to environmental destruction. The majority are deforestation incidents followed by mining-related issues. Major deforestation or land use changes can directly be attributed to changes of land policies influenced by the ministers such as Basil Rajapaksa and S.M. Chandrasena. The president backed them by making damaging statements that had significant consequences because the only beneficiaries of these policies and statements were the environmental criminals and land scammers.

With the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the economy, the country lost foreign exchange from tourism and foreign remittances. Agricultural productivity needed to be enhanced to ensure food security. Instead of improving productivity and efficiency, the government went on the path of enhancing the arable land area by releasing more lands belonging to government entities although the arable land area in Sri Lanka exceeds 62% and the remaining forest cover is around 17%.

Here are some of the environmental resources and ecosystems that faced severe threats in 2021.

  1. Land resource belonging to the state, Forest Conservation Department, Wildlife Department, Mahaweli Authority, Irrigation Department, Agrarian Development Department, LRC and Ministry of Plantation Industries;
  2. Various policy changes and circulars relating to state lands and land development limiting conservation powers the Department of Forest Conservation had resulting in thousands of acres being de-protected;
  3. Changes in mineral mining license and permit issuing process that allowed both accelerated legal and illegal mining including mining activities in protected areas and riverine ecosystems;
  4. Allowing various foreign companies and parties and their local agents to carry out mining precious minerals illegally or with licenses issued without the due procedure being followed;
  5. Deforestation of all types of forests (private and government) including mangrove forests and lack of enforcement of the National Environment Act;
  6. Violating the Soil Conservation Act by decimating hills and slopes including landslide-prone areas;
  7. Catchment degradation and river degradation including the destruction of river buffer zones for agricultural activities, construction of hotels and houses and mining activities;
  8. Violation of the Coastal Conservation Act and ad-hoc development without monitoring and regulation by both Coast Conservation Department and Marine Environment Protection Agency;
  9. X-Press Pearl disaster that resulted in the largest marine disaster Sri Lanka has ever faced. The incident was mismanaged and the authorities allowed the destruction of marine ecosystems to escalate without ensuring the damage was controlled at the outset;
  10. De-gazetting and re-gazetting of protected areas that limited the area that was protected under conservation agencies;
  11. Escalation of Human-Elephant, Human-Leopard and Human-Animal Conflicts due to degradation of habitats and encroachment of transit homes;
  12. Escalation of unlawful methods of killing or chasing away animals considered pests including illegal fishing methods and explosives;
  13. Continuing degradation of Mahaweli reserves managed by Department of Wildlife;
  14. Degradation and development in the central hills including the Knuckles range where forest lands are being converted to resorts or agricultural lands with political influence;
  15. Filling up of wetlands, paddy lands and low lands including protected areas. Both Urban Development Authority and Land Reclamation and Development Corporation projects as well as private fillings are causing severe damage to flood regulation ecosystems in residential areas;
  16. Construction projects, hotels and housing in sensitive ecosystems such as Hantana. Similar projects are being done in Sinharaja, Knuckles, Sri Pada Samanala and in the buffer zone of national parks;
  17. Letting people enter protected areas such as flood plains and forests for cattle grazing, illegal tourism activities, chena cultivation and harvesting forest products without any regulation;
  18. Promoting destructive mini-hydro projects with approvals given for halted projects such as Athwelthota, Makeli Ella and Ranukkanda mini-hydro projects;
  19. Destruction of estuaries and lagoons for fisheries and aquaculture projects;
  20. Tank reservations are being violated repeatedly with no action taken;
  21. Garbage dumping by local authorities in sensitive ecosystems including forests and wetlands ;
  22. Exploitation of natural water resources including underground water table;
  23. Air pollution is a big issue despite various regulations imposed for prevention. Emission tests are exempted for state-owned vehicles while vehicle owners are faking emission reports for license renewal. Industrial emissions are not regulated, contributing to air pollution;
  24. Soil degradation due to the application of agrochemicals while other chemicals and toxins such as battery waste, tire waste, hospital waste, plastic and polythene waste are dumped;
  25. Forest fires burn down many forests annually. There is no prevention mechanism when it comes to forest fires that removes between 5,000 to 10,000 acres of forests annually.

We can no longer wait until the government and the institutions get it right. We need to push them to get it right through discussions, litigation or forcing them. Conservation is the greatest challenge for the country since it impacts our food, our water, our energy and our health. Natural disasters will ruin economies worse than Covid-19 did. No matter how much we are indebted or how fast the rupee depreciates, we will always have water for free, good fertile soil to plant our food and a livable environment but only if we protect our environment.

Our struggle in 2022 will be a tough one. As citizens we have a shared responsibility to live sustainably, conserving the resources we use while protecting the environment for future generations. The fight will have to be fought strategically because politicians, corrupt officials and business people know how to manipulate the public and how to brand destruction as development. Let us unite to protect our pristine ecosystems in 2022.