2nd January 2000
Environmentalist Rohan Pethiyagoda comments on Lanka's pressing conservation problems
By the beginning of the 20th Century, the paradox that today bedevils biodiversity conservation in Sri Lanka has already become a reality. On the one hand, individual enthusiasts, true amateurs had seen to it that the description of the island's fauna and flora has been treated with a thoroughness rarely equalled anywhere in the world.
Henry Trimen had in a five volume treatise, described the island's flowering plants, beautifully illustrated by the Harmanis de Alwis family. Frederic Moore and Vincent Legge have dealt comprehensively with the butterflies and birds respectively, in works yet to be surpassed. George Bennett, E.F. Kelaart, E.E. Green, G. Duncker, the cousins F and P Sarasin and a handful of other naturalists had made significant progress in uncovering the diversity of fishes, insects and mammals.
In the first half of the succeeding century, many of the loose ends would be tied up by natural historians such as George Wall (snakes), P. Kirtisinghe (amphibians) and P.E.P. Deraniyagala, a jack of all trades and a master of them all.
The paradox, however, stems from the fact that by the time most of these scientists came to explore the diversity of Sri Lanka's fauna and flora, the island's incredibly bio-diversity-rich forests had been cut down to make way for cinchona, coffee, rubber and tea. Today the 4% of Sri Lanka's rain forests that remain are referred to as a "Global Hotspot". Fat lot of good that is, for the rape goes on thanks to ignorance, greed and perhaps worst of all, indifference.
By 1850 almost 20% of the Central Province which contained much of the island's rainforests and the headwaters of the Mahaweli, Kelani and Walawe rivers, had been felled. By the turn of the century, 70% had gone. Today just 5% remains.
Even since Independence in 1948, the people have shown neither the vision nor the will to address the country's long term future. The most pressing problem we face is probably that of population growth. Our already over-crowded island has upwards of 18 million souls inhabiting its 65,000 sq km. While in 1948 we lived on average only to an age of around 50 years, thanks to better health care, we now live a quarter century longer.
The fact is that our country's population continues to grow at around 600 people per day. This means 600 more jobs to be created daily, a new school the size of Royal College to be built every week, a new Colombo General Hospital to be built every month and 1,000 more diesel-fuming buses to be put on the road every year. Where, in all this socio economic turmoil, can we spare a thought for biodiversity?
The problems that confront biodiversity are so acute, so urgent that it is vacuous to talk of the new millennium when we cannot plan ahead even for a decade. In the coming decade however, we can implement reforms that could have a millennium-long impact. Some of these are easy, but costly. For starters, we can insist that the Petroleum Corporation provides us only with unleaded petrol and low-sulphur diesel, thereby cleaning not just our lungs but those of all creatures inhabiting this island.
We could develop an intelligent land-use policy, actually planning the logical allocation of separate areas for housing, industry, farming, recreation and biodiversity conservation.
In a situation where more than half the population depends on firewood illegally extracted from our dwindling forests, we could develop an energy policy that would make intelligent use of renewable resources such as solar and wind power, and also distribute fossil fuels to where they are most needed - the villages bordering forests. We have to address the issue of alien species that are invading our inland waters and what remains of our natural forests.
Given our growing population and its increasingly consumerist philosophy, we have also to plan the management of our limited water resources, something we have not thought of seriously until now.
We also need to put some life into the moribund Central Environmental Authority, to alert it to the dangers not just of domestic and industrial pollution, but also pollution by the thousands of tons of biocides that the agricultural sector pumps into the environment each year.
Unless we act fast, we shall only be wasting our breath wishing each other a happy new millennium on January 1. The century that has passed has seen the greatest destruction of biodiversity in the past 65 million years.
The challenge before us is to find the wisdom to learn from our mistakes and make courageous decisions in the next few years. Do we have the intelligence and strength of conviction to do this? I doubt it.
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