Wildlife on Tender


wild1.jpg (17133 bytes)By Nihal Fernando
"Bring me the herbs for which the East is famed"

So said Aristotle to Alexander in the third century B.C. Thus in those days there was the transfer of valuable natural resources from East to West as a result of conquest. Today the same situation prevails and is known as biopiracy. And biopiracy, to my mind at least, is the main aim of the proposal by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to fund the Protected Area Management and Wildlife Consenation Project here in Sri Lanka.

With the rise of the biotechnology industry worldwide, biopiracy has become a trend the world over. India has been one of the worst victims with attempts being made to patent jasmine and basmati rice, strains of rice that have been grown by Indian farmers over thousands of years. Neem, haldi, pepper, harar, behera, mustard, ginger, castor and jaramla have all been patented. Two Japanese inventors Hiriyama Mazoto and Onashi Sashiyo have even filed for patent rights to "hot Indian curry"! In Sri Lanka too the list of plants that have been used for aeons in ayurvedic medicine and that have now been patented is alarmingly long. The list includes:

wild2.jpg (22966 bytes)• Kothala Himbutu - the poor man’s cure for diabetes, available now at Rs 40 for a month’s supply.

• Murutha - available freely on the banks of the Kumbukkan Oya and commonly used in native preparations.

• Sadikka- two patents.

Neem or Margosa - 70 patents.

• Kornarikka or Aloe Vera- used for cosmetic preparations.

• Pila- used for throat ailments.

• Binara - a well known jungle flower.

And the list goes on. In such times one would expect Government officials to be especially vigilant so as to ensure that natural resources are not spirited out of this country and patents conferred to foreign scientists and biotechnology companies. But rather proposals are afoot to sign away Government control over biodiversity and its use, and to invite biopirates one and all into this country.

Government’s loss of control

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOW) for the Protected Area Management and Wildlife Conservation Project states that the "Government will refrain from any action which may interfere with the independence of the Protected Area Conservation Trust in its decision making as to which activities it will fund" (Assurance iv). This is in conflict with the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution and it takes away the inalienable right of the Government to become involved if the need arises. The trust that will be given so much power under this MOU will have nine members including "six eminent people acceptable to ADB" (Appendix 6).

wild3.jpg (15112 bytes)After we have lost our rights to control the six areas richest in biodiversity in this country, any organism or microorganism can be taken out of the country without our knowledge let alone our consent, for ‘biodiversity evaluation’ (Article 53).

How is it that this proposal, which spells disaster for the future of wildlife in this country and which removes control of wildlife from the Government sphere, has even been considered? Well, certain insidious moves have been made to woo influential stockholders and to prepare the ground for acceptance.

1. The project underwent an Initial environmental examination (IEE). A public consultation period used to be a part of this process but has now been removed by the Government in an undemocratic fashion. Thus the IEE for this project had no public consultation component. What then of the Public Participation Policy and the Access to Information Policy of the ADB? Surely the ADB should have either included a voluntary public consultation period or it could have conducted- an environmental impact assessment which would have included public consultation.

2. A variety of benefits have been arranged for beneficiaries who have been gathered together to provide a "consensus". The learned and bearded scientists and conservationists who are well known and respected are given consultancies; the less learned are given study tours. Both groups save enough money on these foreign ventures to allow early retirement. The Yakos are given promises or maybe little things like air conditioned travel or a cheap trip to India to serve on a panel - just little tidbits will suffice.

A former Director of Wildlife who maintained that National Parks were for animals and therefore refused to attend to the amenities in Park bungalows is now a supporter of ecotourism ventures and advocates upgrading Park bungalows for Western tourists - more evidence of the power of the US dollar.

These starry eyed folk are gathered to defend the proposal at public forums and in the media. It would be very interesting to know how many of these people have taken the time to wade through the voluminous and confusing (another ploy no doubt) documents which the Ellepolas and Pilimataluwes of this country drafted. They too are handpicked smartasses who can talk convincingly and who have built up their local contacts very carefully.

As part of the strategy to facilitate acceptance a red herring was thrown out to the public - the closure of park bungalows. At first it was said that bungalows would be closed as requested by the Department which was opposed to private sector involvement in national parks. The next document stated that the bungalows would be used for tourists - this blocks out locals like me who have used these for 3 generations and have created several defenders of wildlife. The bungalows as they stand do not cater to the rich nor to the tourists; they are too basic and deliberately so. This issue of bungalows has captured the attention of the public and has therefore distracted them from the other and far more detrimental impacts of this project.

3. The others needed to get this sellout accepted are the Non Government Organisations (NGOs). Most of the NGOs do very little for the environment. The few honest NGOs in this country have been conspicuous by their absence in the "public consultation" process carried out for this project. As a member of one of these organizations put it so aptly "The project will not alleviate poverty in buffer zone communities, rather it will alleviate poverty in certain NGOs".

Other projects in Sri Lanka

How successful have other wildlife projects been in this country? Not at all is the simple answer. We have nothing worthwhile to show for the last GEF project. It helped build a visitor center in Bundala which is nothing more than a booking clerk’s office - built at a cost of Rs 6 million it has no facilities to attract a visitor; nothing to hold the interest of a school child keen on wildlife. And while money was wasted on this "visitor center" the rangers and watchers continue to work without adequate quarters.

Foreign assistance was provided to prepare a report on Bundala national park. Several foreign consultants, allegedly paid as much as 10,000 dollars per month were hired. The report was comprehensive but what difference has it made to the park? The roads are still bad; the boundaries down; fishermen and cattle keepers are still resident; the bane of the park "Prospsis" continues to fill vacant areas and is of no use to man or beast; and undisciplined trackers and tour guides ignore all rules.

Another significant feature in all of these projects is that foreign "specialists" are hired at exorbitant rates. Not surprisingly, this creates ill feeling amongst the Department staff who are paid much less (and in rupees) and who often have far greater knowledge about the ground situation in Sri Lanka. The problem is exacerbated because local staff have to undergo "training" from these "experts". In a country with a powerful bureaucracy such a situation is a recipe for disaster because it creates animosity and antagonism between staff and the "experts" from whom they are supposed to learn. The end result is that there is motivation and no interest amongst staff, to implement the plans and programs created during these projects.

Where to from here?

Do we have to yield to the strong arm tactics of the ADB and submit to this proposal that will result in:

• The end of state control of wildlife.

• The shift of control of biodiversity to the Forest Department, a department with a dismal record of reduction of forest cover.

• Division of the department’s duties with the Forest Department thereby causing confusion.

• The use of 10 foreign specialists who will be selected by tender.

• The total control of wildlife and protected areas by ecotourist organizations and bio pirates.

Manel Tampoe wrote in an article about the Forestry Master Plan that "foreign investment is a double-edged weapon; to make it work for you, you have to be astute and imaginative, capable of planning several moves ahead. Our record in the utilization of Aid and investment has been dismal. In reality it is a dangerous tool in our hands because we use it so naively (April 1995)" It appears that the passage of time has not made us more knowing or more wary of the wiles of these foreign donors.

Why can we not address the problems of the department ourselves? There are adequate funds from gate collections and money already in the wildlife presentation fund and the wildlife trust. These can be used for conservation efforts. The other main problem is the appointment of unsuitable Directors. There have been 7 directors in 7 years. These appointments have been political appointments and thus inefficiency and negligence have often been rewarded rather than punished.

One example is the way in which the attacks by the terrorists on Yala national park was handled by the Department. The Director at the time, held that the attacks were not related to the terrorists and that there were no terrorists hiding out in the park. This was in direct contradiction to everything that happened and everything that the trackers and bungalow keepers and others on the ground were reporting. The result was that security to the park was delayed causing a tremendous loss to the tourist trade and more importantly a loss of morale amongst the staff. The culprit behind this inefficiency was promoted.

What has to be done now? Not much. Transparency in transfers, fair play, judicious use of funds. Make use of the talent already within the Department - there are native doctors, writers, artists, drivers, superb cooks and knowledgeable trackers. Tap this valuable potential, rather than stifling it. Open up Kanneliya forest to reduce the stress in the other parks. Return to the system of visitor restriction. Do not restict privileges of the locals in favour of foreigners - it is after all our heritage.

The famous slogan of Eppawela "Apey paduwe inna thenda" (Let us be as-we are) applies here too. Also pertinent here is the Supreme Court judgement in that case which stated that ‘our democratic republic sets great store by the discovery of truth in matters of public importance...by vigorous and uninhibited public debate... David Korten, the Founder President of the People- Centred Development Forum, once observed: "The capitalist economy has a potentially fatal ignorance of two subjects. One is the nature of money. The other is the nature of life. This ignorance leads us to trade away life for money, which is a bad bargain indeed."’ Let us not trade away our wildlife, our biodiversity and our land for me loan of a mere 12 million dollars.

A Personal Plea

On a personal note, I have stayed in every bungalow in the national parks and camped at every camp site. To stay inside is to experience the love of a place and to protect it. People see their first grasshopper, the landing of the first migratory duck. Tired and exhausted from city life, the harmony of the changing light on Buttuwe rock (now banned to locals) or the moonrise from Senukgala bungalow remind one why Sri Lanka has long been known as an island paradise. The simplicity of these old bungalows is a lesson in less being more. Let us keep the simple values and pleasures ourselves, while they remain affordable.

Let the grants and loans be for the most important aspects of conservation - electric fences, protection of boundaries and poverty alleviation in border areas thus giving these communities a stake in protecting a resource. Giving them jobs as gardeners and servile waiters will not help. Let the small businessman run small guesthouses for locals and tourists - as is already happening in Udawalawe and Wasgamuwe. Give them concessions; encourage their businesses. Their profits remain in this country and are ploughed back into our economy.

Above all let us never forget that what is at stake here is not ours to squander. We have not inherited the earth and its bounty from our parents. Rather we have borrowed it from our children. And as such we have a duty, an obligation to hand it back to our children in the state in which we received it, or in an improved state. We have no moral right to degrade or destroy it in any way. Handing over control of this invaluable treasure to foreign donors and investors is not the way to go about protecting it for our children.