Midweek Review
Leave our national parks alone!

by Nadeera Seneviratne
And don’t be misinformed into thinking we’ll be sacrificing anything at all. As economists pointed out in the case of Eppawela, that the monetary returns of the phosphate sell out (thankfully averted) would not have been of profit to the country, take a look at the ADB/World Bank Wildlife Conservation Project and you’ll find that what the country will lose, seems to be the main objective of it. And the entire loan of 34.7 million, will only be an addition to the millions of debt that each person in the country is already burdened with.

And, of the sacrifice if the project is not stopped, let’s begin with the fact that after completion of the six year project, we’ll see Strict Natural Reserve Ritigala, National Park Horton Plains, Peak Wilderness, Uda Walawe National Park, Bundala National Park (a Ramsar site), Minneriya National Park and Wasgamuwa National Park being ‘sustainably developed’ - i.e. their treasures exploited and plundered for export.

The government was scheduled to implement the project on September 1. It has as its supposedly legal backing an MOU signed between the Government of Sri Lanka and the ADB. When the President was made aware of the project she transferred the subject from Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and brought it under her purview. She immediately appointed a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Development to analyse the MOU, but that document had already being signed in Manila in September last year.

The following is a summary of a discussion on the project among wildlife enthusiasts Nihal Fernando (wildlife photographer), Rohan Wijesinghe (Secretary, Wildlife and Nature Protection Society), Ranjith de Alwis (member of Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Development) and Prasanna Kannangara.

RW: The ADB says the government of Sri Lanka approached the ADB with a request to assist it in improving its management and protection of wildlife in 1997. Now we’ve yet to come across who it was from the government that requested this project. So based on that the ADB put forward a proposal along with the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) which loan will be administered by the World Bank, and the Government of the Netherlands, which was among the first OECD countries to ‘fund’ the Amazon forests in return for the right to maintain their own levels of carbon emissions. And they came up with this 34.7 million dollar project.

NF: The most vital thing in this is that they are trying to take wildlife out of government control. The MOU (ADB Report) states: The government will refrain from any action which may interfere with the independence of the PACT (Protected Area Conservation Trust) in its decision making as to which activities it will fund. (ADB Report, September 2000, Specific Assurance No IV, page 32)

RdeA: That violates the fundamentals of the constitution. The government is supreme. The government can at any time interfere in anything that it requires to. It says the government SHALL not. It’s mandated. The MOU is not legal at all, especially because it takes away the right of the government to intervene, and because of the contradictions in it. Now we know that there was no legal mind that went into this document.

It had not been referred to the Attorney General. Because the AG, and the legal draftsman sat with us when the Presidential Task Force met to evaluate the project, and they knew nothing about it. It should have been referred to the AG because the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) doesn’t have a legal branch. Cabinet has also erred in this. Cabinet should first have referred an MOU before they signed to the Supreme Court to see whether it was constitutional or not.

RW: There was such a lack of transparency in this whole thing

RdeA: When the Task Force first asked for a copy of the MOU, through the Presidential Secretariat, we were given the first page, 34, 35 and 36. The local ADB representatives said that the specific assurances in those pages were all that were necessary. Then we found that there were about ten versions, even today. This one is the eleventh. But none of these documents say that all proceeding documents are null and void. All are existing now at the same time, having the same supposedly legal validity.

RW: It is in conformity with such projects to have many revisions - whenever you have a review you come up with a new MOU, but what is important legally is that the previous MOU is cancelled. The very first MOU they came up with mentioned shooting. And thank goodness the 15 members who drafted it, at that time maybe they knew about it and said no way. So that was revised into the second MOU, which dropped that. But there is no legal enjoinder in any of them to say that this supersedes the previous one.

PK: At any time somebody sues, depending on the agenda of the people involved and say this is the document, the government will be in a weak position.

RdeA: If this project is an effort to resolve an issue for the benefit of the country, then it should always fall in line with the existing laws of this country. Now this MOU seeks to invalidate various laws, in furtherance of its objectives.

FFPO

RW: The main thing is that in these 70 odd pages there’s only one footnote that addresses conservation - namely the human elephant conflict. The rest is all about money.

PK: And the MOU doesn’t give a justification as to why they want to remove the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO). It only says in the ADB report: "The amended FFPO will be superseded by entirely new legislation before the end of project year 5, which will be collaboratively developed in the light of the Biodiversity Action Plan..." (Page 7)

RW: All they say is that it is outdated, but they don’t give the reasons. So lets put this into background - 85 per cent of forest cover in this country has been preserved by the DWLC, because of the FFPO. Because of its strictures.

NF: It has not gone down at all -

RW: It hasn’t gone down at all. The Ordinance says you can’t take even a square inch out of it without an act of parliament basically. So 85 per cent has been controlled and kept by the department. The Forestry Department has less than 15 per cent, and it is reducing, because the ethos of the Forestry Department is totally different. They are for growing timber species for exploitation. That is their ethos, which is completely different to the Department of Wildlife. But what the ADB says is - this is where it doesn’t make any sense - lets take it away from the DWLC, and give it to the Ministry of Forestry and Environment.

Take India, after years of having wildlife and forestry together, they have realised that’s it’s not working and they are bifurcating.

Making parks vulnerable

RW: Under the Ordinance nothing can be removed out of a National Park and a Strict Natural Reserve (SNR). It’s written there. They want to make them into what are called bio-diversity reserves. Now under the Biodiversity Convention which was signed a couple of years ago, anything can be removed from a bio-diversity reserve. So based on that, in the MOU they talk about, for example, the sustainable development of Ritigala, which is a Strict Natural Reserve and which has never been explored. That means they are talking about removing things from there.

RdeA: When you have a SNR, you can enter that SNR only for research purposes. What do you mean by developing? You can’t cut down trees, neither can you grow trees. So you can’t ‘develop’ a strict natural reserve. Once they do away with the FFPO, the Forest Ministry will have certain acts in place regarding genetic resources, traditional medicines etc. And that is completely outside their purview. For example, traditional medicine should come under the Ministry of Health. Now why are they pursuing this? Because once you suspend the FFPO which gives the power to the Wildlife Department the other two acts will be place and under those they will have power to declare bio-diversity parks. When you declare bio-diversity parks that’s it.

RW: They want to have walking tours through Bundala, as part of eco-tourism. So I asked them, how are you going to tell the band of elephants that are in Bundala that this is an official walking tour so please don’t step on them? They are also talking about baiting - having platforms and attracting the animals by throwing food.

PK; Which of course changes their behavioural patterns completely. Then it’s no longer ‘wild’ life we’re talking about. And in Ritigala they are also talking about taking stuff for medicinal plants.

RdeA: Yes, they talk about exploiting the pharmaceutical potential in protected areas. Now when an area is protected, what is the potential you can check? Even if there is gold, or platinum?

Current DWLC problems

RW: There are problems in the department, but they are not due to the legislation - the legislation is good. It is due to the legislators. Let me give an example of what has happened in Uda Walawe. Uda Walawe is burnt. Totally. Poachers and encroachers have set fire to the park. There is NOTHING left. I went there yesterday and found that the elephants had gone to Embilipitiya in search of water and food. And they are having a huge problem trying to drive them back. Imagine the distance from Uda Walawe to Embilipitiya. They are desperate. There’s no food because all the grass was being burnt. Fires occur in Uda Walawe every year - they happen due to natural causes as well because there are so many grass plains and sometimes lightening strikes and starts a fire. But there’s been lots of teak planting there - and some of it falls, which is natural with elephants pushing them down. But the trees were being kept there. Till this year, the Forestry Department said they planted the teak originally so therefore they wanted to harvest it. And the Department of Wildlife agreed to them taking the fallen trees. Now how this was possible under the present legislation I don’t know. It should not have been allowed. Under the present legislation you can’t take a thing out of a national park.

And take the fall out as a result of this. The fallen trees, while they were there acted as a natural fire breaker. They stopped the fires growing and preserved greenery and fodder for the elephant. This year they have taken them out and it has just burnt right through - even trees have burnt. So this is the sort of sustainable development that the ADB talk about - extracting timber species from national parks and this is what can result if they do. Also the ADB, which has been funding a project with the Forestry Department for the past couple of years, have instructed that Department to de-regulate 127 species of trees including several indigenous species, making them available for exploitation.

Disposal of funds

RW: On the surface, 34.7 million looks like a lot of money. However, when you analyse it you quickly realise that it’s not 34.7 million that’s coming into the country - more than half of it (17.6 million) is being kept overseas for payment of foreign consultants and for the payment of equipment like jeeps etc. They’ll be armies of foreign consultants coming in. And they don’t talk about any controls to stop these people from taking stuff.

RdeA: When you take away the amount that will be spent on buffer zones, and the project director’s salary which will be Rs. 65,000 multiplied by 12 and multiplied by 6, plus perks and a car, about 60,000 worth of fuel (all tax free), how much of it will go into the parks? The project director’s salary and fuel cost alone for the six year period will be 9 million, and in addition to that they’ll be the costs of a driver, service charges and repairs.

NF: The preservation of the parks depend on a dedicated field service. And that dedicated field service are completely put off by these fellows who have come from abroad and the local fellows who are employed on very high salaries. And already they know all about the project director and they call him heta paha (65).

PK: And they even amended the criteria for the person applying. Normally for government service at this level the basic qualification is a degree. But what they did was they made ten years management experience a qualification for applying as well. They amended it despite the fact that in a thing like this you must have a basic degree.

RW: They had a similar project in India, a GEF project. That was sixty eight million, (twice this) with the focus on saving the tiger. In a report done by Sanctuary Asia (Vol. XX, No.5, October 2000) it was revealed that India had lost 25% of their tiger population because of it. The report said: "Predictably, wherever the project was initiated wildlife conservation has suffered". Because, like this, the focus was on increasing management. As a result the field staff was reduced, so there’s less protection.

NF: And another thing we don’t want this money. A simple administration change where they get the income from the parks into the development of the parks is all that is necessary.

RW: A lot could be done with that money, because there is money. Yala makes a million at the gate every three days.

RdeA: During the Sinhala New Year they make a million per day.

RW: Uda Walawe makes that in a week - so that’s a tremendous income. Plus you must add that to millions of rupees in the Preservation Funds and the Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka.

RW: Then why do we have to go into multi million dollar debt, which will take years to be paid back?

Privatising parks

NF: So what do you think is the purpose of this whole thing. In my opinion, it is to privatise the parks.

RW: On the ADB web site on this they have very clearly stated that the idea behind this is to privatise management of the national parks. To quote: "The project will actively explore the transfer of the management of the national parks to the private sector or NGOs."

NF: They want to privatise bungalows and take it outside the reach of the local people. We can’t pay tourist rates.

RW: Already I know of one hotel which is coming out in a big way for the bungalows, because they want to market it for the tourists. So that means you and I, ordinary people won’t be able to touch it. And the MOU states that the only departmental official allowed in the bungalow once they take over will be the tracker. After that, total control of whatever goes on in there will be under the owners. So it’s frightening. I can seen flood lights being put, pollution, baiting - there’ll be no control. Besides, the FFPO states that no organisation can do anything in a national park.

RW: Now what the ADB and World Bank claim, is that this document was written in collaboration with conservationists who were representing their NGOs. The thing is I’ve read through this MOU many times - it’s a 76 page document - and I still can’t quite understand it. Because there are so many contradictions. And the ADB representative from Manila - Adrian Ruthenberg - at an open meeting organised by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, stood and said ‘I wrote this document - I can’t see anything wrong’.

PK: So now the document has moved from one that was supposedly done by this committee, to one person from the ADB who’s said he wrote it.

PK: Fifteen people sat 7 times late in 1999 to formulate this document. One of them is involved in the tourist industry - the deputy chairman of John Keels, Jagath Fernando and Mr Mano Tittawela (PERC/People’s Bank). Tourism is a significant aspect of this. So these people, 15 of them, sat 7 times only, and the important thing is that when these 15 people sat, all these 15 gentlemen were not there all the time - the number of people who were there tended to vary at each meeting. But anyhow they have supposedly come up with this document.

PK: Rohan Pethiyagoda was at every single one of these meetings.

RW: And I have a copy of the letter he wrote to the members of the Presidential Task Force to say, in effect, it is not your business to criticise these things, it is your business to facilitate it.

PK: Jayantha Jayawardena was a member of the committee that sat to draft the MOU. At the same time he was appointed Chairman of Group 1 of the task force which looked into the MOU early this year, on which RdeA was also there. Now that Task Force, wrote for the President a document criticising the project setting out some of its weaknesses, signed also by Jayantha Jayawardena and dated February 20.

RW: The report said that the it was ‘not acceptable’ to quote.

NF: Now we find that Jayantha Jayawardene was one of the signatories pushing this whole scheme in a letter to the President three weeks later, and he has been appointed the Project Director. That letter, dated March 14, 2001, has been signed by Ajit de Costa, Lakdas Fernando, Nimal Gunatilleke, Jayantha Jayawardena, Sarath Kotagama and Rohan Pethiyagoda. Now of these six signatories, four are beneficiaries through NGOs. The two others have consultancies under the IMF. They stated: "We urge you (therefore) to support this vital project".

And all the other NGOs are waiting mouth watering to benefit from this project. And as you know the NGOs in this country are nearly all rackets. In collusion with the people at that (the funding) end. They are also beneficiaries.

RW: The Presidential Task Force evaluation of the project was a very good one, not only because it criticised but because it took a positive view in an even thicker document to say that this is what it should be. And these were all conservationists speaking - no economists and businessmen. They gave a document with recommendations to say this is what Sri Lanka needs right now. And basically what they were emphasising on was the protection of the parks.

Current

RdeA: Recently I was shown a letter which the French ambassador had written to the Presidential Secretariat, requesting five species of the endemic and endangered amphibians be sent to France for exhibition through the Wildlife Heritage Trust. When this was shown to me I said just throw this letter into the wastepaper basket! I was asked why and I said, if the Government of France wants anything they should deal directly with our government, what has the Wildlife Trust got to do with this? That’s a target NGO. In similar cases previously, they have never got the animals back.

Fish exporting is big business these days. When a former Director of Wildlife wanted to amend a schedule to the Fauna and Flora Ordinance to include forty species of fish that should have been protected, reportedly fish exporters got hold of politicians and chucked out forty and included just 12. The rest was to be exported.

The IUCN puts out a book called the red data book, which gives you the endangered species. That had 19 species of fish published in 1994. In 1996 it was dropped down to nine. It can’t drop down to 9 in 1996 because it should increase, with urbanisation etc. So one of the task force recommendations of the legal committee was that none of the international conventions like Ramsar, CITES etc. be made laws in this country. Because if you make it law by way of act of parliament in this country, and they try to amend the schedule, as it pleases them, you’re stuck with that. But if you don’t make it law, and we are only signatories, even if they say tomorrow, ivory is allowed to be exported, our Wildlife Department can say no - we are not allowing you to export ivory. By trying to take away the Ordinance they will take away this authority vested in the Wildlife Department.

RW: And you see some of these fish, to export six of them alive you need to catch about a thousand.

RdeA: You’ve got to look at the whole picture, all the issues. We have the world’s best nutmeg. But now there’s no export of nutmeg because they have patented the gene in the States, and they are feeding it to soya bean and extracting it from that at one tenth the price. They have patented seven medicinal plants in Japan. As long as the DWLC is vested with power we are safe. But this MOU proposes to amend, supersede and replace the FFPO.

Eco tourism

RW: The biggest problem facing the national parks is too much traffic. Something like over 320 vehicles entered Yala on each day of the Sinhala/Tamil New Year this year. That’s total chaos. The animals were stressed out, they took off and no one saw anything. It took weeks for them to return. Even the other parks are stressed out - in Uda Walawe over 100 vehicles come in a week. There is potential for eco-tourism, but what is needed now is control. In the early 1980s, Lyn de Alwis used to have coaches going in - small buses with tourists. That way you don’t reduce the number of visitors but you reduce the vehicles that go in - because it is the vehicles that cause the emissions, noise, and stress.

The MOU is contradictory on this. In one component of it they say yes, this is a problem, in the next component they’ll be moaning the fact that only 10 per cent of the tourists who come to the country actually visit the national parks. And they say that they want to increase this figure dramatically. The only way to increase under the present system is to increase the traffic going into the park.

RW: They don’t give any mechanisms on how they are going to achieve this without harming the parks.

RdeA: There will be about forty consultants coming in especially for visitor centres and eco tourism. This particular MOU cuts right across the recommendations of the task force regarding eco tourism. They said that there should be a limitation on visitors and vehicles. Now the MOU says that is not the way - you have to have platforms to view animals, tree top houses, nature trails and the whole works, and increase the number of visitors and vehicles into the parks. But now, I think you know all of us will agree on one thing - the army is there - in small numbers and they have tree top houses and all these things and they keep walking around. And the behavioural patterns of the animals have drastically - completely - changed. So if you increase the flow of visitors into these parks what is going to happen is the animals are going to go haywire and are going to be shot or killed.

PK: We should be talking about conservation, about keeping something static without it being touched for the enjoyment of the future people.

RW: In my mind what is important is that this is a national treasure and it is the responsibility of the government to look after it for future generations. Why do we need to sell it off?
(Picture courtesy of Studio Times)


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