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Ella burns!

01 Sep 2019

By Tharumalee Silva The tragedy that occurred at the Ella Rock region gave much-needed attention to an annually occurring scenario. The timing of the tragedy, which was parallel to the wildfires in the Amazon Rainforest, also drew attention, especially of the international community. The cause of the recent fires still remains a mystery. Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Wildlife Ranger A.R. Piyadasa of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (Central Province) stated that the fire erupted from an uninhabited area. “The fires flared from three directions – one from the direction of the Ella-Wellawaya Road, one from the direction of the Ella Rock, and one from the direction of the Ravana Cave,” he said. Insights into its value Whether it is a manmade or natural disaster, the Ella Rock in Sri Lanka must not only be protected due to its vast tourist appeal, but also due to the cultural importance of the rock. The Ella Rock is also home to the famous Dhowa Rock Temple, or Dhowa Raja Maha Viharaya, a 2000-year-old rock temple famous for its half-carved Buddha statue that is a representation of the Mahayana sculptures. The Dhowa Rock Temple, previously known as the Kumbaltissa Ariyagala Vehera, was turned from cave to temple by King Walagamba, who wanted to pay his dues to the chief priest of the temple who provided the king sanctuary during the war. Although the temple was not completed during his reign, the construction was concluded by the end of the Kandyan Kingdom. Further, the rock is home to the famous Ravana Cave. As far as the myth goes, the Ravana Cave is said to be the location where Rama freed Seetha from the chains of King Ravana. Legend has it that the cave is equipped with a tunnel which leads to the Palace of Ravana. Sharing site information, Piyadasa stated that the fire was successfully prevented from reaching the Ella town. “With the help of the Sri Lanka Army and later the Air Force, we managed to curtail the fire,” he said. According to Piyadasa, overall around 35 hectares were damaged by the fires, which could have been worse had the authorities failed to douse it within 24 hours. He further stated that the incident did not impact tourism due to the frequency of the occurrence. Piyadasa also mentioned that the plain would return to normalcy following rainfall. Methods to combat According to renowned environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardana, the fires in Ella are an annual occurrence. “These fires erupt quite frequently and the authorities have still not figured out the root causes or a way to prevent these fires,” he said. Gunawardana stated that according to his research, these fires erupt due to various manmade disasters. “Fires in Ella erupt due to various reasons. Firstly, local farmers set fires to grow new grass to feed their livestock. Secondly, the forest is set on fire by hunters. And thirdly, when a member of the local community starts a small fire, to burn his household waste for instance, in rare instances, the fire gets out of hand and spreads into the forest.” He further stated that there should be more officers with authority within the premises as Ella is one of the largest tourist destinations in Sri Lanka, adding: “The Department of Wildlife Conservation currently does not possess the capabilities to equip more officials due to the lack of resources.” According to him, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Department of Forest Conservation, Sri Lanka Police, and other relevant authorities in the area must co-ordinate and establish a co-ordination committee. “There are two dry seasons in this area – one in July, August, and September and the other from January to March which, in some instances, extends to mid-April. If we could organise an especially vigilant group during this season where nature lovers and others too can volunteer to protect the area, I feel this issue can be mitigated,” he stated. Through these mechanisms, authorities will be able to know as soon as a fire breaks out before it causes further damage to the rock or the surrounding forest. Furthermore, visitors will be more cautious when visiting this area while the locals will be cautious about how they carry out their daily routines. “The main culprits of the tragedy are locals surrounding the area, not the tourists. There are some instances where some people set fire just for their own perverse pleasure, even though that is a rare occurrence,” he said. Human activities have now become the most common reason for forest fires. According to recent reports, the wildfires in the Amazon Rainforest, the largest rainforest in the world which provides about 22% of all of the world’s oxygen, was also human-induced. The Space Research Institute reported that their satellites recorded an 84% increase in forest fires from 2018 to 2019, with nearly 75,000 fires occurring in the Amazon alone. Many have continuously blamed the Government of Brazil and President Jair Bolsonaro for the Amazonian fires, stating that it was their pro-business attitude that encouraged farmers to chip away at the rainforest. In an interview with CNN, Carlos Rittl of the Observatório Do Clima (climate observatory) stated: “Over the past six months, Bolsonaro and his Environment Minister have been devoting themselves to the dismantling of the governance of the Brazilian environment and neutralising regulatory bodies.” Key issues Further sharing information with The Sunday Morning, Gunawardana said: “Some individuals are trying to grow trees in this area, which I feel is way more dangerous, taking into consideration the fact that the area is mainly occupied by dry grass. Their intentions may be good, but the result might be dangerous. There should be a proper environmental study before they proceed to take action or else, this would be even more dangerous – invasive species and other creatures could be birthed from these scenarios and pose a bigger threat to the surrounding habitat.” This information was confirmed by Tourism and Commercial Association Chairman Malith De Silva, who reiterated that a meeting held on 28 August with Central Province Governor Keerthi Tennakoon and officials from the Departments of Wildlife and Forest Conservation revealed plans of growing trees in the area that has been scorched due to the fires. According to De Silva, the main cause for the rapid escalation of the flames was the lack of water at the peak of the rock. “There are no waterlines at the top of the rock. We have been urging the authorities to construct a waterline which will transmit water to the top. We would then be able to douse the flames as soon as a fire erupts. We do not need to grow trees in an area that has been burned. Since it is dry grassland, as soon as there’s rainfall, the grass will naturally start to grow. The area that caught fire was not the forest and no trees were burnt, only the grass area was burnt,” he said. Furthermore, De Silva stated that there was a delay in the relevant authorities reacting to the incident. Contradicting the statement given by Wildlife Ranger Piyadasa, De Silva stated that there was no co-operation by and between the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Department of Forest Conservation, and the Disaster Management Centre. According to him, there were articles and other statements on social media stating that the dousing of the fire was credited to Sri Lanka Army as the fire was extinguished once they appeared. He further voiced the need for a fire brigade in the area. “The nearest fire brigade is in Monaragala or Bandarawela, which are approximately one-and-a-half hours away. With the frequency of the fires that erupt in the area, you would think a fire brigade for this area would have been established by now, but unfortunately, that has not happened as yet,” said De Silva. He further stated that not a single fire brigade showed up at the premises when the rock caught fire and the people are hesitant to call them because whoever calls the fire brigade has to bear the brunt of paying the bill, which people do not like to do. The situation at Ella Rock reveals that the recent wildfires were one of many. Authorities, having failed to provide a sustainable solution for this almost annual tragedy, leave the premises of this historic site in eminent danger.

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