Category: Sinharaja.

Saving Sinharaja: The unfinished Story

(August 06, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Whether Sinharaja has been saved or not, is a big question. I keep on receiving e. mails these days asking me to join in a lead role in the ongoing efforts to save Sinharaja from new intrusions which threaten its existence as a unique biosphere area declared as a World Heritage Site in 1984. The most appalling news now is the reported construction of a five foot wide road along the boundary of this World Heritage Site. That could not be with any reference to our international responsibilities and obligations arising from World Heritage status as the World Heritage Committee in which I represented the government both as member and later as Vice President has strict standards. Last year, it de-listed the German Breman Park on ground that a modern bridge was constructed connecting the Park with the opposite peninsula. Similarly, it de – listed Galapagos islands on the ground that steamers were using the Straits damaging the environment. The present situation in regard to Sinharaja could qualify it to be a candidate for de-listing in the near future. That might be good news to many who seek to exploit Sinharaja for private gain and they might even expedite the process.

Please read more from the news source

The construction of roads along the boundary and allegation of a swimming pool inside the reserve for which no one seems to be taking responsibility also violates the Ordinance relating to Fauna and Flora Protection. There were also reports recently of illicit gem mining activity in the streams as well as other invasive activities. While illicit activities such as gemming and villager encroachment may not be part of a direct state plan, other reported activities being carried out by highly placed persons connected to the government might raise questions of credibility of the government not un-similar to the allegations made against it in the conduct of the war. Credibility issues can arise in different fields and it is the totality of them that finally counts.

Why have I been invited to join the protest over these recent happenings in relation to this World Heritage Site? Somebody perhaps, remembers a small contribution I made to get Sinharaja included first in the Man and Biosphere (M& B) programme and next in the World Heritage Projects of UNESCO; and on retirement, and in joining a dedicated group to save the Eppawala phosphate reserve which the former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s personal attempt, personal because she did not discuss it in the Cabinet and seek Cabinet approval (my witness is the then Cabinet Minister Batty Weerakoon who stated it publicly) to offer to two foreign companies on a platter. Let us not open that can of worms –the Eppawala case – here. It has been well documented already. The leading U.S. company and personnel involved had a tarnished image on Human Rights violations in Iran Jaya and environment law violations in Florida, and the other company was later blacklisted for corrupt practices in Singapore and banned by Courts there from entering into any business with that country for five years.

I was pleased to read the article written by Dr. W.R.H.Perera in The Island Saturday Magazine of July 23, 2011 and one must really express appreciation for the valuable contribution he has made to save Sinharaja from the greedy eyes which were bent on the destruction of this one of the few Wet zone Forests in the world. However, I find Dr. Perera has left the story incomplete and my attempt here is to fill the missing page.

My story of Sinharaja began not through professional interest but primarily as a human experience which I developed from childhood, a real ‘Man and Biosphere’ experience at grass-root level. The first of these was my seeing this majestic forest reserve from my childhood days in our village when I was a primary school-child. From our school building where the Primary classes were held, where we played “Pancho-Ali-babo”games we had a beautiful view of the landscape of the interior. On one side was the Samanala Kanda not always visible but in another direction was the exciting view of the Hinidum Kanda (Mount Haycock) in the furthest background deep blue as ever against the clear sky, the Sinharaja Forest with its changing foliage in season in the mid ground and Nawalakanda tea estate which was about two miles away from us in the foreground. We started the day with a bow to nature’s gift as our lady teacher taught us. That was a view from a South Western village.

The tales of wood – cutters about the ‘Beeri-Aliya’ and of pilgrims from our village who went in groups (‘Nade’) to Adam’s Peak carrying ‘Chulu’ lights through the borders of this forest range emerging at Weddagala in the Ratnapura district in the early morning hours came next to fill my enthusiasm about this forest range.

Around 25 years later I was to see this magnificent forest range again from the opposite direction on the Weddagala side. It was a closer view of the forest alone. The older people at Weddagala remembered these pilgrim parties arriving early morning with ‘Chulu’ lights burning. It was this long unused track that the retreating JVP insurgents from my village used trying to escape when their first insurrection failed.

My other experiences were negative ones. In the 1960s I witnessed the destruction of forests, not in Sinharaja but at Siyamalanduwa, where selective logging was done earlier, completely disappeared from the map as a forested area. Then came the destruction I saw of mechanized logging of Sinharaja to which Dr. Perera makes reference.

On my return from abroad I saw the destruction done at Sinharaja under the Canadian project. Under the Canadian project, massive machinery replaced the axe – wielding wood-cutters, elephants and WW II vintage improvised trucks which had been used earlier. Huge trucks were seen hauling trunks of giant trees from Sinharaja which, from their sheer girth alone one could say, were over 500 years or more old. One could also see the environmental destruction from the way the clear placid waters of Kukule Ganga coming gown from Sinharaja and joined by its tributaries which encircled our family estate had already silted down stream. The damage was wholesale and had it gone on, the winds would have just passed without bringing down seasonal rains. Everyone who stepped in to stop that national devastation should be remembered.

Now to return to Dr. Perera’s story, it is correct that we had a few dedicated persons in the UNESCO Man and Biosphere (M&B) Committee in Sri Lanka like Dr.Perera but at UNESCO any effective coordination had been taking place when I assumed duties as the liaison person with UNESCO in my capacity as Deputy Permanent Delegate/ Minister of the Embassy in 1975. Perhaps, as Dr. Perera has explained, the M&B Commitee’s work had run into difficulties with the newly established Timber Corporation. Mr. Perera says that the Chairman and the Directors were sacked by Minister Kobbehaduwe overnight after they had exchanged blows the previous day.

Finding that UNESCO was looking for a good project in Sri Lanka, and seeing the early enthusiasm of the M& B Committee in Sri Lanka but which had evaporated, I recommended on my own initiative the inclusion of Sinharaja knowing that I would be supported by the M&B Committee. But to the contrary, against my expectation, the government proposed the Kanneliya forest reserve.

This must have been the time Dr. Perera refers to as a difficult phase when he had to face severe opposition from vested interests in logging the Sinharaja. The Kanneliya proposal was rejected by UNESCO as I expected on the ground that the area covered was too small for a M&B project. That gave me the opportunity to press for Sinharaja. Kanneliya was later logged heavily meanwhile by private contractors some of whom were politicians. In fact, while I was overseas, all the timber for my house construction had come from Kanneliya supplied by a politician – contractor!

The next step was the World Heritage progrmme of the 1980s. That included Natural and Cultural Heritage projects but unfortunately, due to bungling by the Central Cultural Fund which was hogging on to everything from archaeology to environment, UNESCO’s interest in the Natural Heritage aspects came to be overlooked. Nearly one year was lost on this account to present our request for World Heritage status for Sinharaja.

Category: Sinharaja