On Saturday, 3 April, a collective of independent environmental protection organisations gathered at the Viharamahadevi Park to protest persisting environmental destruction happening within the country. The event “පරිසර සංහාරයට එරෙහි ජන හඬ – Voice Against Environmental Destruction” saw many notable participants, including Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Executive Director/Senior Environmental Scientist Hemantha Withanage, Ven. Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera, Vedda Chief Wishwakeerthi Wanaspathi Uruwarige Wannila Aththo, the Vedda community of the Pollebedda village, and a number of others.
The collective of environmental activists consisted of representatives from a number of diverse organisations – Protect Sri Lanka, සුරකිමු මහනුවර, Movement 941, සුරකිමු දුම්රිය, Protect Sinharaja, මුතුරාජවෙල සුරකිමු, Protect Wilpattu, and a few others.
Speaking at the event, CEJ Executive Director Hemantha Withanage commented that while they have taken up legal action against the perpetrators and those endorsing these destructive behaviours, he said that relying on court procedure or on other attempts like publishing papers and writing open letters is insufficient. “We must step out onto the streets,” he said, adding: “We still don’t believe that even 1% of the population in the country has yet opened their eyes to the destruction that is ongoing; they are all yet to wake up and see what is truly happening and this is primarily due to this country’s party politics. People are so very used to turning a blind eye, be it due to personal benefits, misguided loyalty, or even fear.”
Gathering before the Buddha statue in Viharamahadevi Park on one of the hottest days of the year, the crowd held signs, pointing out various discrepancies that have taken place over the years in aiding the continued destruction of Sri Lanka’s forests.
Withanage pointed out that there are a number of divisions, which have resulted in things going awry, and one such glaring point of contention is the doing away of the previously required licence to transport sand, and also the No. 5/2001 circular, which brought residual forest/other forests under the protection of the Forest Department. He said that political pressure has resulted in the Forest Department being unable to carry out their activities and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes.
On behalf of the Protect Sri Lanka Organisation, Ven. Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera commented that they are addressing anyone who cares about the environment, and that they have fought hard to bring attention to the collective of educated people in this country who are demanding the same thing – to put a stop to this massive environmental destruction that is taking place in all areas of the country.
“We have identified 270 protected areas that have been absolutely destroyed; this is 62,000 acres of land,” he said, claiming: “Before the next 20 years Sri Lanka will face a massive deficit in water, and we are soon to become a country of people who must live in a land abundant in environmental disasters.”
Vedda Chief Wishwakeerthi Wanaspathi Uruwarige Wannila Aththo also shared that, as a community that is reliant on the continued existence of the environment, they hope that their request is heard, adding that he is present only because they wish to educate the populace, in the hopes that they will be able to gift these resources that our land has been so kind to provide for us to future generations.
He further stated that everyone who breathes, not only us as humans but also all other organisms who rely on the air that we share, has a right to these resources, adding that the massive environmental destruction in the government forest reserve of Galwalayaya, which is in close proximity to the Ampara District’s Maha Oya, and his village of Pollebedda have inspired him and his community to come here and share the truth of what is happening.
The collective of activists shared that they are not there to make the Government uncomfortable, or to put them in an unwarranted position of difficulty; they simply wish to be heard and inspire change.