Protect Wilpattu Movement set in motion 5K strong turnout march in peaceful protest to UN office & handover petition
By Arjuna Ranawana
"This is the beginning of a new movement that will bring the environment to the forefront of the national conversation," says activist Amal Lanka referring to last Thursday's gathering of around five thousand people at the Vihara Maha Devi Park in Colombo united on one thing – save Wilpattu, the country's largest wildlife reserve.
Coming together under that banner was a wide variety of people, ranging from animal activists, homemakers, movie stars, singers, lawyers, politicians, journalists and Buddhist monks.
The organisers, a loose collection of environment groups, never expected such a turnout they said. But it was a testament to the growing consciousness of the need to protect Sri Lanka's environment and the power of social media.
It was a big gathering for a weekday afternoon, and the rain held off so it was possible for the many protestors there to take an oath, listen to some interesting speeches and finally march down the road to the United Nations office and hand over a petition.
The crowd seemed determined to be peaceful, not use any abusive language and certainly no violence.
"This is a new movement which has one matter and purpose we can all agree about, protecting Sri Lanka's environment and safeguarding our future," says Amal who is the spokesman for the organisation Protect Wilpattu.
Wilpattu was the main focus and the arrest of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen the main demand of the gathering. But there were other issues that were dealt with. The crowd was exhorted to boycott political parties at the upcoming Local Government elections which use plastics for their campaigns.
Wilpattu, these activists say is emblematic both for being the largest forest and nature reserve in the country and also for the threats it is facing from rapacious politico-businessmen. They accuse Bathiudeen of cutting down hundreds of acres of established forests to build houses for internally displaced Muslims.
Amal says "before the war there was one small settlement which was seasonal as fishermen from other areas would occupy.
Bathiudeen points to that small place and cuts down thousands of acres of forest which is more than a hundred years old. The government and particularly the Environment Minister President Maithripala Sirisena have done nothing about it."
We made attempts to contact Minister Bathiudeen on Friday and Saturday but there was no response.
That so many Muslims lived here is fiction, he says. However the campaign should not take a racist tone, instead we need to focus on the damage being done to the forest, he adds.
Amal also accuses State Minister Range Bandara of encroaching on Wilpattu by settling some of his supporters. He also blames Minister Lakshman Kiriella as Highways Minister for building roads that cut through the forest.
Flouting the rule of Law
Lawyer Piyumani Ranasinghe writing in the web pages of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) says the "underlying issue in Wilpattu, is undoubtedly the lack of a strong institutional backing in conserving natural resources entrusted to the State. Institutions, simply put are the 'rules of the game'; where the problem at hand entails weak institutions resulting in the players flouting the rule of Law, which forms the very marrow of strong institutions."
But justice has not been served and the powerful and the corrupt hold sway because there is no rule of law. Ranasinghe says, "that justice is best served timely by competent, ethical and independent representatives and neutrals that are of sufficient number and have adequate resources."
Sadly we do not have those stipulations
The President of Reforest Sri Lanka, Achala Meddegama, a local NGO, says the government claims that nearly 30 per cent of the country is forested. He says this is not true as many of the forests are logged and while it may look like forest from the outside, there are no trees inside.
Meddegama has a radical idea as to how Sri Lanka should reforest. He says Bhutan has in its Constitution that the forest cover should be 60 per cent of the total landmass. Said Sri Lanka could get to 50 per cent if most of the people were moved to mega cities in Colombo and elsewhere and the rest of the country re-forested.
Maddegama says the US Government has given the government a grant of US$ 99Mn for reforestation but very little is being spent on actually planting trees. "We have been going about planting trees in many areas but have seen very little activity from the government."
Ranasinghe quotes American Ecologist and Philosopher Garrett Hardin as saying "ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons (the air the water and the forests.) Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all or locks everyone into a system of "fouling our own nest..."
If we do not stop the destruction of Wilpattu and other precious ecosystems we will sure foul the nest – meaning make our island and the world unliveable.
But at the end Amal strikes an optimistic note saying, "the movement we started on Thursday will go beyond politics, beyond communal ties and religious differences and create a political leadership that will be supported by those who love the environment."
Let's hope this dream will come true.
Eight reasons to make the protection of Wilpattu a priority
1. Wilpattu Villu ecosystem. (The world has a very low spill-over ecosystem, the salt water of the Wilpattu and the freshwater mixed system is unique to Wilpattu).
2. This unique Villu Ecosystem is so important in the international arena that it has been named as an internationally important wetland system under the Ramsar Convention.
3. Under other international treaties, Sri Lanka is obliged to protect forests important to the international migration of birds and the Wilpattu system is the first shelter of migratory birds from the Indian sub-continent. There is a risk of not leaving again due to this massive destruction of beautiful migratory birds that increase the beauty of our country.
4. Wilpattu forest reserve is Sri Lanka's largest forest. It plays a greater role not just in Sri Lanka but in the design of the climate system all over the world.
5. One of the top 35 'West Gas & Sri Lanka' Biodiversity hotspots. It belongs to the western slave of India and the whole island of Sri Lanka. This is Wilpattu, the closest forest linking Sri Lanka's forest system with the Indian exit of India. Due to this massive forest destruction, the ecosystem of Sri Lanka further distances itself from the western expanses.
6. Wilpattu's forest system is a 4-web Network Nutrient Forest. The destruction of the hostel area of Malwatu Oya, Kaluaru, Modaragam Aru and Kala Oya is directly affected by the water cycle in Sri Lanka.
7. On the other hand, the marine biological diversity of the Mannar Bay is enriched by these rivers. It is important to safeguard this massive forest system in order to preserve the bio diversity of the glacial organisms of the world's most rare marine pigeon from dolphins and whales.
8. Of the Big 5 of Sri Lanka, the largest of the five largest animals in the world, can be found in the same location. (Big 5 = Elephant, Sloth Bear, Leopard, Sperm Whale, Blue Whale).
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