Conservation must be centered around local groups


President Sirisena’s action increased the SFR area by 27,136 ha. One km for 27,136 ha seems like a very reasonable trade.

Villagers 'out of order,' visitors 'ok'?
Villagers ‘out of order,’ visitors ‘ok’?

A road connecting a village called Lankagama bordering the Sinharaja Forest Reserve (SFR) and the nearest urban area, Deniyaya, is garnering much attention because 1.1 km of the planned 18 km road will be inside the SFR. This is not a new road. The road, according to the government has been in existence since the time of King Valagamba who reigned in 103 BC and then again from 89 BC until his death in 77 BC.

What is new is a stretch of the road that is to be cut through the SFR. The new stretch is 1.1 km in length. Environmentalists are up in arms about the kilometre stretch of the road because it falls within the demarcated SFR. SFR is a Biosphere Reserve (BR) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated World Heritage Site.
Biosphere Reserves are important in that they are helpful to understand ecological and human interactions and also in managing/preventing/reducing conflicts between the two spheres. The ultimate objective of biosphere reserves is to manage human development in an ecologically sustainable manner. The designation of biosphere reserves is done by countries and they retain sovereign jurisdiction over the BR’s.

The World Heritage Site designation is a recognition granted to a place, site or structure that is of cultural or natural significance. Unlike biosphere reserves which are designated and controlled by individual states, world heritage sites can only be classified as such by UNESCO. UNESCO classification is generally considered a boon for tourism and countries usually do their utmost to retain the classification.

There have been only two instances of UNESCO delisting heritage classifications; the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman and the Dresden Elbe Valley of Germany. In both instances, Oman and Germany undertook changes to the sites that were deemed unacceptable by UNESCO.

SFR and its bordering areas is the home to approximately 5000 people who live in 22 or so villages in and around the Reserve. Only two of the villages are within the Reserve. These families make their living from farming outside the Reserve as well as through harvesting fauna and flora from the Reserve. The ecological impact of their actions within the forest reserve is considered marginal.  The main source of income for these families come from growing tea and they must transport their harvest to the nearest town, Deniyaya, to be sold. Under existing road conditions this trip takes around 4 hours. That’s a lot of time to travel a mere 18 kms. The new stretch of the road is estimated to reduce the travel time to 45 minutes. That reduction is likely to be of significant benefit to the people living in the SFR and adjoining areas.

UNESCO’s MAB website says that in 1996 there were 20,000 visitors to SFR. The number is probably significantly higher today. Sri Lanka’s tourism sector has been growing steadily since 1996. In 1996, 300,000 non nationals and 500,000 nationals visited SL and by 2019 those numbers had grown to 1.5 million non nationals and 1.4 million nationals.

Shouldn’t we be concerned about the environmental impact of these thousands of visitors traipsing through SFR each year by way of five entrance points to the Reserve? How about the dozens and more hotels, motels, restaurants and other services that have sprung up along the SFR buffer zone to service these visitors?

Those who are adamant that the one km stretch of road will create an ecological disaster are conveniently and purposely ignoring the economic realities facing the inhabitants of the area. They have refused to acknowledge that people living in SFR and close vicinity have the right seek improvement of their living conditions. The environmentalists seem to be treating those living in and around SFR as invasive species who need to be destroyed. 

In November 2019, President Maitripala Sirisena expanded the SFR by almost four-fold. President Sirisena’s act increased the area of the SFR from 8,864 ha to 36,000 ha. Once the new ordinance is gazetted, it will provide protection to a number of satellite forests with similar levels of biodiversity as SFR.

Considering, can we not grant the long-suffering families of Lankagama and other villages a long overdue respite by providing a reliable road way? President Sirisena’s action increased the SFR area by 27,136 ha. One km for 27,136 ha seems like a very reasonable trade.

Sri Lanka’s environmental activists however intimate that they wish to block the building of the road by any means necessary, including seeking external intervention in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. These activists are seeking the help of UNESCO to pressure the government of Sri Lanka to abandon the project, as they did in 2013.

Theirs is the conservation approach rooted in the privileged and the western NGO connected enclaves of urban Sri Lanka. These environmental warriors refuse to respect the values of impacted communities. They brush off the notion that people who live in and around the SFR have a right to seek a better life for their children and push aside their values and culture as archaic. Alternately, they seek to impose their world view on these politically and economically marginalized communities.

Such behavior is deeply disrespectful and is unlikely to convince the impacted community and the political leadership the value of changing the proposed course of action in order to protect a habitat.

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