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Saving the wild heart of Sri Lanka

Saving the wild heart of Sri Lanka

3 months ago | By Venessa Anthony

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  • The battle against the Deep Jungle Festival in the elephant corridor 

After the event dubbed “Deep Jungle Fest”, set to take place in Habarana, adjacent to a world-renowned elephant corridor, faced intense backlash on social media, many organisers and sponsors have reportedly pulled out of the event. However, as of yesterday (14), the event is still set to take place from 17-19 February.

Environmentalists and activists held a press conference yesterday in an attempt to dissuade the organisers from hosting this event in Habarana, drawing attention to the many legal issues that the organisers seemed to have skimmed over. 

Opening the conference, Rally for Animal Rights and Environment (RARE) Founder Panchali Panapitiya stated: “On 9 February, we received information of a ‘Deep Jungle Fest’ to be held in Habarana being advertised heavily on social media. We were shocked to find that this was to take place at an area just next to the Habarana Gal Oya Forest Reserve – a land area which belonged to the reserve just less than 10 years ago – and that there were no objections made by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), with the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) having already approved the event.” 

She explained that the festival was planned as a massive entertainment event lasting four consecutive days full of loud music, concert lights, and flashlights, with a 90x50-ft electric light pandol and drones flying very closely over wild elephants to advertise this event – with the nail in the coffin being approval for the use of fire. According to Panapitiya, the organisers of this event were found to be Habarana Safari Jeep Owners Association President Sumudu Saman Pinthu and a foreigner named Christopher Wyatt, who is the de facto owner of Rasta Rant Sigiriya.

Also speaking at the press conference, Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) Immediate Past President Spencer Manuelpillai emphasised that as conservationists, they are in no way against the festival; they simply urge the organisers to relocate the event to a more suitable area where nature will not be disturbed. 

“We have just come out of a year where we lost the most number of elephants – last year we lost over 400 elephants and this particular area in Habarana is visited by approximately 200 elephants,” Spencer revealed, urging all Government authorities that had consented to the event to withdraw their approval in order to prevent a miscarriage of justice against Mother Earth. 

Organisers to potentially face legal charges 

Spencer announced that if the festival was to take place, the WNPS, along with the Centre for Equality and Justice (CEJ), RARE and other organisations have consulted top legal councils in the country and affirmed that the absolute force of the legal arm will come down on the organisers, and everyone involved in the event will be dealt with legally. 

When asked if they had a message for the artists playing at the festival, Spencer noted that most international DJs had pulled out after hearing of the effect the event would have on the animals. 

“We admire these artists for pulling out and urge everyone else to do the same – especially the local artists living in Sri Lanka; they must understand the impact this would have on their own motherland and do what’s best for the country,” he stated. The WNPS is prepared to offer legal assistance to any artist that wishes to pull out, should they be contractually bound to the organisers. He also added that the artists too would face legal repercussions if the festival was to take place, and they were to perform. “Since permission has been revoked (by the Department of Forest Conservative), this would be illegal and the matter would have to be dealt with legally.” 

The Daily Morning Brunch contacted Forest Department Deputy Conservator Nishantha Edirisinghe for their view of the situation. Edirisinghe informed us that when the organisers had first reached out to them, they were told that the festival was an ode to Sri Lankan culture. “We were under the impression that this would be with drums and other local instruments; only recently did we find out that this would entail loud electronic music,” he told us. Edirisinghe also informed us that they only pledged their support since this was privately owned land and also because the Tourism Bureau had supposedly pledged their support as well. “As soon as we found out that this was not a cultural celebration, nor was it endorsed by Sri Lanka Tourism, we withdrew our permission.” He also added that even though the initial letter specified strict conditions for them to adhere to, it is unlikely that they would have abided by them, given the information available at present.

Willful ignorance

As Panapitiya pointed out, when a Sri Lankan hears of Habarana, elephants come to mind instantly. “You don’t need to be an environmentalist to know that when you go to Habarana, you see elephants – even by the roadside,” she observed, questioning how this music fest got approved, to begin with. 

As per a statement issued on Monday (13) by the organisers of the festival via social media, they claimed that they too have sought expert advice and have the necessary support and approval from the relevant authorities to conduct the event, yet Panapitiya noted that they were unable to reveal any reliable source from which they had received expert advice with the exception of the Department of Forest Conservation, which had approved the event. 

Going back to the organisers, Panapitiya added that she is certain both Christopher Wyatt and Sumudhu Saman knew the area was not appropriate for an event of this calibre as they’ve lived in the area for a significant period of time. “We think this is why they went to the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka to obtain recommendation letters for the event. It is also a point of concern that with all the issues going on in Sri Lanka, both the Prime Minister and President’s offices had time to issue letters of recommendation for this event,” Panapitiya observed. 

Sri Lanka – for or against climate change? 

“The President sings the song of climate change almost every day. He is planning on debt for nature swaps and tries to portray to the international diplomatic community that no one cares for the ‘climate’ more than he does,” Panapitiya stated at the press conference, pointing out that the same President  had recommended a four-day music fest in a critical wildlife area in Sri Lanka. This begs the question of what his advisors thought of the situation, and whether we, as a country, simply do not understand the repercussions of climate change and how negatively it can affect us. 

The Deep Jungle Music and Cultural Festival 2023 is a violation of the most basic right of wildlife – to peacefully live in their natural habitat. It’s time for us to shift our perspective from viewing nature as a resource for humans to use as they please to protecting the rights of all living beings. Without empathy and a genuine effort towards conservation, we risk losing the beauty and diversity of the wilderness forever. As the panellists at the press conference so eloquently put it, let us make a commitment to cultivating empathy in future generations, for the sake of our wildlife, our planet, and ourselves.

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