Midweek Review
Exploitation or conservation?
Striking a balance

birds.jpg (11465 bytes)Dr. Mala Amarasinghe
It is not unrealistic to expect different people to view nature and its myriad resources in different perspectives. For a true conservationist who perceives that all parts of environment, be it animate or inanimate, are equally important in maintaining life on earth, nature is incomparable and sacred, therefore has to be protected in its best form. On the contrary, a businessman, especially one whose businesses are based on natural products, would view nature as an unlimited source of income, as far as he manages to keep the buyers attracted to particular natural products. If the resource is exported, they would claim more importance and hence privileges for their businesses, for earning much needed foreign exchange to the country. They also will point out the same reason to justify that their economic activities should be safeguarded by the government in such a way that resource extraction and exportation is not hampered under any circumstance. Consequently government institutions and officials are forced to take unscrupulous decisions and courses of action to protect them in the name of development.

In the late eighties and early nineties when shrimp farming was spreading along the north western coastal belt like an uncontainable bushfire, destroying the coastal vegetation, particularly mangroves and salt marshes, wildlife habitats, traditional farmlands, groundwater resources and even human habitations, the officials in government institutions were either attempted to, or lavishly bribed, and in yet other instances were threatened, by the prospective shrimp farm developers to obtain approval for their proposals. Most of these coastal areas that they have proposed to establish shrimp ponds were either mangroves, salt marshes or part of the lagoon, which are ecologically important areas to maintain the coastal productivity, including that of near-shore and estuarine fisheries. The ecological processes that take place in these ecosystems, for instance, photosynthesis or the production of organic matter (food) using sunlight, carbon dioxide and water provides the primary source of energy for majority of aquatic life in these waters. Besides, this environment provides refuge and habitats for these aquatic creatures, without which they perish and cease to contribute to the fisheries. This becomes a cause for the very strong relationship that researchers have revealed between the extent of mangrove areas and the commercial shrimp catches. However, there had been occasions where corrupt officials in local government authorities have instructed the prospective developers to cut and remove all the mangroves in the proposed site, prior to sending the application for permission.

At the end of the mad rush for shrimp farming, by 1996, there were nearly 900 farms, covering more than 3000 acres along the thin coastal belt from Chilaw to Kalpitiya. It was also interesting to note that a little less than half of these were operating illegally, their owners had not even bothered to get official approval for their undertaking that changes the environment and affects life of others. Realizing the significance of managing this fast-growing, lucrative industry, then Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has set up a scoping committee to scrutinize and technically evaluate the proposals in terms of the potential environmental impacts that they would bring about and to recommend the Ministry on the proposals appropriate to be given sanction. As a member of that committee I can recall that there were occasions where proposals that have been turned down by the committee have seen daylight miraculously. For a conservationist, this would provide enough grounds to stage a protest and lobbying against the decisions, but for a businessman it would be another ‘patriotic’ action of a fellow businessman, as it fetches foreign exchange to the country.

What has this scenario led us to? Shrimp farming is no more a lucrative business because of the deadly viruses that they have to fight with to protect the shrimps in their ponds. These microbes are no strangers in the coastal waters, but when the water is polluted and less oxygen is available for breathing, these pathogenic forms proliferate at the expense of the others. In the process pathogens feed on the shrimps and the harvests fall with the profits of the farmer. It was the over-crowded legal and illegal shrimp farms that discharged pollutants to their source of water and caused the death of shrimps in their own ponds. This is reality and this is how nature works. Nature doesn’t care how wealthy or powerful one is, how well has one bribed the officials to acquire mangrove lands for shrimp pond construction or how clever one has been in hoodwinking the scoping committee. When ecological processes do not take place at the right pace, it ceases to produce the services, like provision of oxygen that had been hampered in shrimp ponds due to pollution.

So what’s the problem? Culprits who broke the natural laws have been punished by nature, their profits fell and they couldn’t back pay their bank loans. Have they really been punished? Not really! A good volume of their debts has been waived off. So who are the real victims? All of us as citizens of Sri Lanka. We lost our valuable natural resources and the life-supporting capacity of our coastal waters in addition to the money that had been borrowed from the local banks. Where had been the conservationists and environmentalists in this scenario? Not that they were absent altogether, but their voice was too weak to be heard above the ‘patriotic’ businessmen who ‘contributed to economic development’. I can remember how scientists of NARA had been blamed by these ‘patriots’ for not containing the disease epidemics and protecting their enterprise. I can also remember the level of arrogance some of them showed when their proposals were asked to be modified or turned down by the committee for good reasons.

Rise and fall of shrimp farming industry in the north western coast of Sri Lanka (as in many other developing countries) leaves us with a living paradigm of lost harmony between the goals of human race and the laws of nature, particularly when one opts to the current dominant development model. In the process, we cumulatively destroy the very life-support system s upon which all humans are ultimately dependent.

It is prudent therefore not only to understand but also to accept that businesses planned and executed in a scale beyond nature’s sustainability, are doomed. Apparently this lesson is never learnt.

It was last week that the local press reported an attempt of illegal exportation of 1500 kg of Kekatiya (Aponogeton ulvaceus) bulbs by an exporter with a track record of illicit export of live corals. This weight would have contained around one million Kekatiya bulbs that would have been collected from an area of 50 -100 acres. Based on the value that the exporter has indicated, a Kekatiya bulb (one plant, once grown) would fetch a meager six rupees. There are still other aquatic plants, which are sold for two rupees each. The amount of foreign exchange that this export commodity earns is therefore marginal.

Exportation of Kekatiya and other aquatic plants without the approval of the Conservator of Forests is prohibited under the provisions of Gazette Extraordinary (1161/6) of 5th December 2000. It was the hard labour of the conservationists that made the relevant authorities take action to protect the dwindling aquatic plant populations. However, with the request of the National Chamber of Exporters of Sri Lanka, exportation of cultured aquatic plants has been allowed by the Ministry Circular No 03/2001issued by the Secretary to the Ministry of Forest Resources and Environment. In order to facilitate this process, a special group of experts have been appointed to inspect the aquatic plants intended for export.

It was also reported that the exporter has threatened the life of the customs officers who attended to the matter. This entire scenario is an analogy to shrimp farming story, but this time it is even worse, the contraband Kekatiya has not been cultured like the shrimps, it has come from the wild through poor suppliers who remove 20,000 plants when the exporter demands 10,000. If they were cultured, exporter wouldn’t have hesitated to obtain the approval of the Conservator of Forests.

Other reports revealed that the consignment detected as contraband the week before has been exported (legally) subsequently. I know nothing about the legality or the process of making contraband dignified commodities within a week, anyway, Bravo!! for the exporter! Again he has managed to perform a heroic patriotic act, earning foreign exchange for this poor country!

This situation raises a number of serious issues that we should probe into. Kekatiya is a common aquatic plant in our marshes and tanks for time immemorial. Thanks to the exporters, it has now come to limelight because of the exchange value that it carries now in the market. Kekatiya is exported mainly to US and Singapore and in S’pore, the bulbs are grown to some extent and sold to US for US$ 4 each. Kekatiya plants exported as bulbs fetches only 10 SL Rupees to us. Some other plants are even sold for two rupees (according to their price lists that are available only for the foreign buyers. This is no surprise, because the prices are determined not by the exporter but by the buyer. Exporters duty is to satisfy the wants of the buyer with quality and quantity or else he loses the buyer and his source of income. This scenario would logically lead to continuous collection of species of Aponogeton at an escalating rate, until they are no more seen in our marshes but in the tissue culture laboratories in Singapore or elsewhere with a patent to claim for its improvement as an aquarium plant. Kekatiya in Madampe wewa, Weras ganga and Boralesgamuwa has almost been wiped out by the collectors for exportation. Hypocrisy and dishonesty at its best is evident with the information the web sites of some exporters maintain, that their products come from the cultures and not from the wild. In the point of view of the exporters, revealing these facts is bad advertisement for the trade (that earns foreign exchange!) but I cannot help pointing out the deadly mistakes the shrimp farmers did, which eventually ruined their own industry. When pollution caused diseases they used banned chemicals to contain them and also kept it a secret, without taking action to treat the root cause.

It is high time that we behave as responsible citizens in the 3rd millennium and not as Neanderthals who didn’t know propagation through seeds or tissue culture but obtaining their needs only from the wild. Still there is a distinction, to be fair by the Neanderthals, that they haven’t destroyed the life-support systems for the sake of ‘development’ or for profit! The popular complaint by the exporters of the prohibitively high costs of artificial propagation has proved a damp squib. We should take our hats off to those exporters who truly propagate their plants through seeds or other methods, without exploiting the wild stocks and make them extinct.

Conservationists had fought their battle to impose bans on dwindling stocks of plants and animals. They who brought to the notice of the relevant authorities that most of these plants have become endangered due to mass collection for exportation. Mass collection becomes necessary when the plants are sold for such low prices. It is the maximization of profits that drives some exporters to mass destruction of biodiversity. This exactly is the fundamental flaw in the capitalist development model, the ever-increasing pressure on the natural resource base due to pursuing efforts in attaining its goal, i.e. higher standards of living. In reality, profit maximization has its own limits set by the natural laws and processes. Even if one wants to collect 10 million Kekatiya bulbs at once to earn more foreign exchange, it is hardly possible as the pace at which it produces new plants depends on the environmental conditions prevailing. Yet, if one pots to culture them under ideal conditions (by adding fertilizer etc.) better Kekatiya plants can be propagated at a higher rate than in the wild, but definitely at a cost. Another means through which the profits could be maximized is to bargain with the buyer for better prices for their goods. It is an idea worthwhile trying than thrown out of the window as crazy. If the information provided in the websites is correct, for an exporter who earns 3 million Rupee- profit a month, even setting up an artificial propagation facility wouldn’t be an impossible task.

It is equally important that action is taken to reduce the ambiguity of existing laws. While the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance prohibits the exploitation of certain plants and animals, other directives allow it with the permission of a competent authority. Exportation of Kekatiya and other aquatic plants collected from the wild is banned through the directive of 05.12.2000 (Gazette Extraordinary 1161/6) and their ban is planned to be lifted for six months throw a cabinet paper prepared by the Minister of Industries. The reported consignment of 1500 kg of Kekatiya appears to have been collected from the wild to make use of this opportunity. There may be yet others who have already made aquatic plants extinct or near extinct to earn maximum foreign exchange to the country during these six months. In a country where the masses are fed with borrowed money, wise use of natural resources has marginal sense. We take almost no effort either to use or to preserve the diverse and valuable genetic stock that we are endowed with, which could be made our lifeline in time to come. Except for selling our natural resources for unacceptably low prices, adding value to them and creating sustainable sources of foreign exchange is inconceivable. We export China moss (Gracilaria sp), collected from Puttalam lagoon for a penny and import 500g of agar agar extracted from this seaweed for 3000 SL rupees. Even at this late hour, it is wise, if the public be enlightened of the harsh reality and persuade the authorities to adopt a strategy of the latter day rather than changing the law and allow a handful of unscrupulous exporters to adopt methods of the Neanderthals’ which are more than 10,000 years old. (The writer is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Botany, University of Kelaniya.)