Friday, March 26, 2010

The rape of Wilpattu controversy – an opinion and an uneasy compromise

The Kala Oya causeway entry into the Park property from the South at Eluankulam

I was in the West Coast of Wilpattu on the day the Sunday Times published the article, with a fake photo showing a wild boar piglet near a sport utility tire. One has to have a compelling photo to make a point and I won’t deny the author that right as it is nevertheless an issue that must be addressed soon and satisfactorily resolved taking into account all the factors. I apologize in advance for the length of this blog, but once you come to the end of it you would realize that all the points to be accounted require the space.

I understand that since the article was published various environmental groups have gone to court to seek some kind of redress and in this case trying to turn back the clock on the inevitable. Before one gets too carried away by my supposed anti environmental views one has only read the thousands of pages in my various blogs to ascertain that my goal is to get people to think clearly about the actions they intend to adopt, and also look to the future to determine how the future would judge their actions.

Wilpattu has about 350K acres making it possibly the largest National Park in the country. I think there are only 15 Wildlife officials to run this park, when I believe the cadre should be at least 200. The park has suffered from years of LTTE infiltration and has finally been cleared. There are still some roads where mine clearance is in progress for the safety of future patrons. The Western half bordering on to the coast has clearly been the least developed and encroached until the LTTE problems surfaced.

Back in days yonder there was a road, now referred to as the Old Mannar Road going north from the Kala Oya crossing point all the way to Mannar, and is now only a four wheel track, with mile posts still visible along the stretch that goes inside the Park boundary. This has become abandoned, I don’t know when, but I suspect a long time before the present troubles. So this road is history as far as the present discussion is concerned. I presume once the park was designated a National Park the public right of way through to Mannar was prohibited

Incredible dust on the side of the road caking all the foliage on both sides.

Then there is the new Mannar Road constructed in the last three years which is a dirt track all the way from the Kala Oya causeway crossing point into the park from the South and beyond the Moderagam Aru crossing point in the North. This has been widened considerably by the security forces and is open to the public till 3pm as long as it is to cross the park and not enter the park from the West. The Puttlam Mannar buses ply this route along with many other vehicles, as well as container lorries spewing out mountains of dust as they go along. As a political decision, the resettlement minister who has a strong following in this area has insisted and provided the heavy machinery to make this road navigable and saved a long roundabout journey to his Muslim constituents who are a major beneficiary of this route. There is no visible speed limit through the park, and so it is all about how well your vehicle can handle the terrain. Trying to impose a speed limit is pointless and I personally feel this road should also be tarred all through due to the heavy dust that would otherwise scar the landscape as it already has.

I go through the Minneriya park all the time on the newly built road at all hours of the day and night and feel the elephants have just got used to the traffic and tolerate the intrusion for the sake of crossing the park to get from Polonnaruwa to the north or West.

Lately the security forces have built a spectacular strectch, colloquially known as the Marine Drive, which if built (currently only cleared of trees and shrubs and dozed and flattened)will be running parallel along the New road, which probably covers about 70% of the distance within the park that the other road does. This runs along the cliff and will if completed be the most beautiful stretch of road in Sri Lanka. It has to be immediately completed, to prevent erosion from the heavy rains that could result in landslides to the sea, now that the damage is done. I am not commenting on the rights and wrongs of what has happened, but there is no way we can let the jungle take over without the damage that I mentioned earlier due to erosion, mudslides and earthslips.

Don’t forget all this is within the National Park and there are legal restrictions on development within the park which were temporarily lifted due to the greater issue of security thereby permitting the security forces to so as they pleased. If the environmentalists have their say, then we will back to the prewar era of no development or transit. That is not possible, as just north of the park, people have been settled, given land, houses built, and agricultural communities restarted on previously abandoned high yielding paddy lands in the Sylvathurai basin. Their connections are both South and North and some have been resettled after being in camps in Puttlam and others are from the Vavuniya IDP camps. There are both Tamil and Muslim communities here. It is too late to play with the lives of these traumatized people and if something was to have been done it should have been a long time ago in planning where the settlements should be in the interests of preserving the spaces from development. Colombo lawyers cannot even dream to know how these poor people would be adversely affected if they are not allowed this through route now.

Now you will say what about the traumatized animals, and the road kill as well as the rape of the archeological sites along this route that will be inevitable along with the tree felling once easy access is provided. Well I say the 200 Wild Life officers is the answer to befriend their interests and police the area.

Kala Oya at the southern border where we bathed, opposite is the park.

I suggest the roads are finished to the best possible standards of highways. I suggest a nighttime curfew is enforced in the park from 5pm onwards for transit traffic. I suggest a 5star hotel be built in the park on the ocean to benefit from the spectacular scenery, with exclusivity, so the park well get an annual royalty of Rs100M, in much the same way that the National Parks in the US do it. I further suggest a Park entrance gate at the Kala Oya and Moderagam Aru crossing points, where all transit traffic is charged a fee, preferably on type of vehicle. So buses and lorries would be charged Rs500 and at the lower end the motor bike be charged Rs50. Of course a season ticket system for regular users. A separate entry gate at the Marine Drive which would primarily draw sightseers, would be charged another fee say an additional Rs200 a vehicle. This drive should have parking spots at look out points for viewing and photos.

Moderagam Aru at North Western Border - the opposite side is not part of the park.

If the above is done, then this will generate revenue to maintain the whole park, employ about 500 people to conserve and protect, none of which will be forthcoming if the environmentalists have their way. A reasonable speed of say 50kmph to be strictly enforced in the stretch that goes through the park, and a drive to open up more of the archeological sites for excavation and eventual public viewing. Additional entry points to the park from here will reduce the crush at the only entrance now possible. New education centers to teach youth about conservation and protection can be set up.

The funds so raised will enable environmentalists to fund studies on all the plant and animal life and increase our knowledge in this area that only a well-funded park can provide. I would argue that this approach will be more environmentally compatible, especially with education of the future generations to conserve, value, admire and be proud of our heritage of conservation, none of which is apparent. Environmental activists should not be restricted to the Colombo leisured classes, but to every village child from whom the real protection of the environment takes place in a practical sense.


Jack Point said...

I agree in principle on sustainable development and the productive utilisation of resources such as national parks for tourism.

What makes me so uneasy is the shroud of secrecy that surrounds all these things.

With no proper debate or assessment of issues shortsighted decisions can ruin long term prospects, something that has been recurrent theme since independence.

Anonymous said...

i think you missed out on a very important aspect of conservation, namely that of the buffer zone.

However strict one is about the protection of the Park, if the buffer zone is treated as the trunk of gold for politicians to dole out land for votes, then the whole integrity of the park is compromised.

This is the most important matter for environmentalists to go after, and ensure legislation with teeth to enforce creates these zones that are inviolable.

thekillromeoproject said...

While I agree with your views, I also think that 'Anonymous' also has a very valid point regarding the buffer zones.

Those who have power and control over legislature regarding these vast amounts of undeveloped lands need to be very transparent in their dealings.

Unfortunately, most of the time, the reverse is true and this leads to gross abuses of power and severe mismanagement.

IMHO, an independent foundation, that looks at both the economic and environmental factors equally, should be established to develop and enforce proper legislature.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that environmentalists are no compromise people. So to save a long drawn out legal battle, the government just goes about a surreptitious exercise under the guise of the security situation to build a road, for political gain.

If the enviros were a little more flexible, then some prior plan can be agreed to as a compromise. The govt. attitude does not help as they just want to steam roller through any opposition without checks and balances.

The story of SL past, but can we change this for the future?

Kirigalpoththa said...

Toll gates on the road across Wilpatthu is a good idea so as the hotel and royalty fees. I think that is the way forward.