When Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced from office this month, among those leading the people power movement against Sri Lanka’s deeply unpopular president were the country’s environmental activists.
For Rajapaksa, whose term in office lasted less than three years and ended with a resignation letter sent from Singapore, where he’d fled in the face of the protests, it was a far cry from how his presidency had begun. Rajapaksa’s 2019 election manifesto contained multiple promises of environmental protection and the sustainable use of natural resources.
He was hailed for running the first-ever “zero carbon presidential election campaign” in Sri Lanka. But 16 days after being sworn in as president, that “environment-friendly” image was shattered when he issued an order to revoke the requirement of a permit for the transportation of sand.
This order was aimed at expediting construction activity, but was widely criticised as short-sighted because it paved the way for unsustainable sand mining, says Kusum Athukorala, chair of the Global Water Partnership (GWP) in South Asia. “Sand mining destroys the riverbanks and impacts water security, which could have several repercussions including food security concerns. It was not prudent decision-making,” Athukorala says, adding that environmentalists had to go to court to have the presidential order overturned.
“Revoking sand transport permit decision was just the start and during Rajapaksa’s tenure, there was uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources and land grabbing, all carried out with political blessings,” says Jagath Gunawardana, a veteran environment lawyer and naturalist in Sri Lanka. “It contributed to the loss and degradation of a number of sensitive habitats.”
Resistance to ‘ecocide’
A mass resistance movement quickly emerged last year against the Rajapaksa regime’s attitude toward the environment. The youth wing of one of Sri Lanka’s pioneering environmental groups, the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) designed and set up a large “Stop Ecocide” mural in a prominent neighbourhood of Colombo, which drew much public attention and popularised the term “ecocide” as being associated with the Rajapaksa administration.
“The ‘Stop Ecocide’ mural was set to raise awareness of the deforestation in Sri Lanka, but despite prior approval, the mural was forcibly removed by the police,” says Spencer Manuelpillai, the WNPS president at the time.
People are in the survival mode, desperate for food, energy, gas, and medicine. The responsibility of the new president will be to ensure law and order is maintained and there are measures taken to protect the environment unlike what we witnessed before.
Jagath Gunawardana, environment lawyer, Environmental Foundation Limited
The worst part of Rajapaksa’s legacy, Gunawardana tells Mongabay, was his failure to ensure law and order relating to such plundering, “in violation of the country’s environmental laws.”
Another aspect of Rajapaksa’s legacy was the pressure he exerted over the government agencies responsible for environmental protection. He appointed a key ally, Wimalaweera Dissanayake, to the post of state minister for wildlife conservation, and moved the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) under Dissanayake’s control. On several occasions, Dissanayake openly confronted wildlife officers trying to do their job, environmentalists say.
Rajapaksa himself also reportedly leaned on wildlife and forest officers to allow certain illegal activities, such as encroachment and clearing of forests, to facilitate villagers and loyalists. This pressure, coming from the very top, made it difficult for officials to make interventions according to the law, says Hemantha Withanage, a prominent environmental campaigner with the Colombo-based Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ).
“At times, village goons [used] the president’s main PR program, known as ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandara’ [Dialog with the Village], to bypass environmental regulations,” he says.
The day after one such dialogue, villagers, who thought they’d been given the green light by the president himself, invaded an elephant corridor in Dahaiyagala in the Anuradhapura district of north central Sri Lanka. In a similar instance, a road project running through a sensitive ecosystem within the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was personally overseen by Rajapaksa.
The policy with perhaps the most far-reaching impacts for the natural environment in Sri Lanka came in July 2020, Gunawardana says. That was when the government transferred the administration of non-protected forests, known as “other state forests” (OSF), to local authorities, with a view to releasing them for agriculture and development.
Some of these OSF areas constitute biodiversity-rich habitats, including watersheds; many others are sanctuaries for elephants on the peripheries of protected areas. The government’s dismissal of these areas as “residual forests” rankled environmentalists, who pointed to the wealth of life in those forests, including many species found nowhere else on Earth.
Ignoring scientific counsel
During the first months of his presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa established a committee of top experts to seek scientific solutions for human-elephant conflict, one of Sri Lanka’s main environmental issues.
Many rural Sri Lankans and wildlife conservationists had pinned their hopes on this committee bringing a lasting solution to the problem. On average, about 300 elephants and 50 people are killed every year due to HEC in Sri Lanka, giving the country the worst record in this regard of any elephant-range country.
Yet even this pursuit of a science-based policy failed. The government, disregarding what the experts said, resorted to digging trenches around protected areas to prevent elephants from leaving them and straying into neighbouring villages.
“The elephant prevention trench option was discussed at the task force and was overruled as a complete failure and was no solution,” says Sumith Pilapitiya, a former head of the DWC.
Rajapaksa himself also suggested several times driving elephants into protected areas — notwithstanding the fact that 70 per cent of Sri Lanka’s elephants live outside protected areas. This approach, too, proved a failure, with the president once again shown to have ignored scientific recommendations when taking decisions, Pilapitiya tells Mongabay.
It was also under Rajapaksa that Sri Lanka perpetrated what animal rights activists decried as a major wildlife crime. Under the administration of the previous president, Maithripala Sirisena, the government had seized 38 elephants from private owners who had allegedly caught the animals in the wild as calves.
In 2021, however, Sri Lanka’s attorney general requested that courts release the elephants back to the suspected kidnappers. The court duly complied, acting on the revision by the government of existing regulations that loosened the requirements for keeping elephants in captivity. This effectively paved the way for the release of these elephants to their unauthorised keepers, Gunawardana says.
Of all the ill-fated policies, the one that lit the fuse on Rajapaksa’s presidency was the sudden ban in April 2021 on imports of chemical fertilisers. The decision enraged Sri Lankan farmers, who have long been heavily dependent on chemical fertilisers. Soon, farmers were protesting throughout the country, demanding access to fertiliser and warning of food insecurity across the island.
Rajapaksa tried to spin the move as an achievement, claiming that Sri Lanka was the world’s first country to turn 100 per cent to organic agriculture. But, as feared, the policy precipitated a national food crisis, with rice having to be imported to feed the population of 22 million, and vegetable cultivation falling by half.
Withanage says that while this policy may have been made with good intentions, it was both immature and premature as it was implemented overnight instead of in a phased-out manner to allow farmers time to adjust.
“The country was not prepared for this vital shift, promotion of organic farming and required facilitation was not done prior to this announcement,” he says. “Eventually, just as much as Rajapaksa is faulted for driving the island to bankruptcy, he is also responsible for the massive food crisis we experience here.”
Withanage says that during his own interactions with the president, he felt Rajapaksa had a genuine interest in pushing the island toward renewable energy.
Environment to take a back seat
Following Rajapaksa’s exit, an interim government is to be set up by July 20. Navigating Sri Lanka’s many crises unfolding concurrently, including the worst economic disaster in the country’s history, won’t be easy for the next head of state, Gunawardana says.
“People are in the survival mode, desperate for food, energy, gas, and medicine,” he says. “In such desperate situations, the last thing people stop to think of will be environmental protection. As they struggle daily, there will be more plundering of natural resources and we will hear of more environmental crimes.
“The responsibility of the new president will be to ensure law and order is maintained and there are measures taken to protect the environment unlike what we witnessed before,” Gunawardana tells Mongabay.
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.
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