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Sri Lanka’s environmentalists brace for economic meltdown’s toll on nature

  • The deepening economic crisis in Sri Lanka is expected to hit the environment and biodiversity conservation hard, experts warn.
  • Acute fuel shortages mean the Department of Wildlife Conservation having to ration out fuel, when it can get it, for its patrol vehicles, while its revenue from tourism receipts at national parks has evaporated.
  • Experts warn that skyrocketing prices of food and other essentials could push a growing number of desperate Sri Lankans into environmental crimes such as illegal logging for firewood, poaching for meat, and sand mining.
  • The crisis also threatens to undo hard-earned gains and undermine future commitments, such as programs on emissions reduction, ending deforestation, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

COLOMBO — Stuck in the long lines of vehicles queuing up for what little, and expensive, fuel is available at Sri Lanka’s beleaguered gas stations are the SUVs bearing the sign of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).

It’ll be three or four hours before they get their turn at the pump. If they’re lucky, there will still be some fuel left, but it will be rationed out. More likely than not, they’ll have to return running on fumes.

The rangers responsible for these SUVs, whose job it is to patrol Sri Lanka’s national parks, are among the millions of Sri Lankans experiencing the worst economic crisis since the country gained independence in 1948. Fuel is scare, hours-long power cuts are a daily occurrence, and prices of food and other essentials are skyrocketing.

For the Department of Wildlife Conservation, one of the many consequences of the crisis is that it now has to scale back patrols because of the uncertainty of when it will be able to fill up its vehicles next.

“We are trying not to reduce patrolling within the protected areas, but when the country is having a fuel shortage, we are quite helpless,” said Chandana Sooriyabandara, the head of the DWC. For now, it’s rationing out fuel to its personnel. “We are trying to use our funds to keep things going,” Sooriyabandara said.

Much of the DWC’s revenue comes from tourist receipts at the various national parks that it manages. But the fuel shortage means visitor numbers have also cratered, along with Sri Lanka’s wider tourism sector.

Long lines for fuel have become a common sight across Sri Lanka as the island’s economic crisis continues to deepen. Image courtesy of Tharaka Dilshan.

Research on the back seat

“Research and conservation activities will usually be the first to be slashed in an economic crisis and the government conservation agencies will soon feel the pressure to abandon this vital work,” said Sarath Kotagama, an emeritus professor of ecology at the University of Colombo and former director-general of the DWC.

Kotagama said he fears that opportunism will increase as conservation agencies are forced to scale back their operations and monitoring, leading to an increase in land grabs and other illegal activities.

The hyper-inflation also threatens to drive more people into desperate acts to survive, with the environment bearing the burden, said Hemantha Withanage, an environmental scientist, conservationist and founder of the Center for Environment Justice (CEJ), an NGO.

“People will try to find an additional means of income and will not care for nature. Many may turn toward natural resources,” he said. “Poaching, sand mining, forest clearing will increase rapidly as a result.”

Withanage told Mongabay that the economic crisis didn’t happen overnight, and had built over several years due to the government’s corruption, mismanagement, and lack of financial discipline.

“Let’s not forget that Sri Lanka’s environment was brought under severe pressure in the past two years,” he said. “These crises were often created at the behest of politicians. For example, the government released a large extent of forest land for agricultural purposes with the intention of putting an end to the importation of some crops such as corn. There had been seriously ill-conceived proposed projects.”

Illegal logging will increase as demand for firewood increases amid the shortage of liquefied petroleum gas for cooking. Image from the DWC’s Ape Pituwa Facebook page.

Among these, Withanage said, was the transfer of non-protected forests, known as “other state forests” (OSF), to regional authorities. The stated aim of this initiative was to boost agriculture and development, but it came at a significant cost to the environment, he said.

“This situation will only get worse in the future as the economic crisis intensifies and natural resource plundering will spike,” Withanage said.

The economic crisis will also affect environmental safeguards such as environment impact assessments, said Rohan Pethiyagoda, a taxonomist and a naturalist who previously served as deputy chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission.

“For example, given our thirst for electricity, the EIA process for future power plants will not be as stringent as it has been in the past,” Pethiyagoda told Mongabay. “More and more people will turn to firewood for fuel, with impacts on the rate of deforestation.”

With the local currency cratering and prices of food and other essentials skyrocketing, environmentalists warn that ordinary citizens will be pushed by desperation into environmental crimes such as illegal logging, poaching and sand mining. Image from the DWC’s Ape Pituwa Facebook page.

Undermine environmental gains

Ananda Mallawatantri, head of the IUCN office in Sri Lanka, said the economic crisis will undermine some of the environmental gains Sri Lanka has worked hard to achieve. These include standards on energy efficiency and air quality, programs related to the country’s emissions reduction goals and its post-2030 biodiversity commitments, and more.

“These priorities will no longer remain on the priority agenda and some of the achievements may even be reversed, with our goals and priorities shifting drastically,” Mallawatantri told Mongabay.

“At the same, as we say in disaster management, we have an opportunity to build things better if we stay focused and find a distant silver lining in the dark cloud,” he added.

Eric Wickremanayake, chair of the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL), an NGO, said Sri Lanka could benefit from issuing so-called blue and green bonds — sovereign debt linked to marine and terrestrial conservation programs — as part of its debt-restructuring process. Sri Lanka has several commitments to environmental conservation covenants as well as the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The country recently pledged to declare 30% of its waters as protected areas, and has signed up to the Bonn Challenge on ending deforestation. There’s also its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement.

“All of these can be used to negotiate blue and green bond-based debt restructuring,” Wickremanayake told Mongabay.

As Sri Lanka grapples with economic meltdown, environmental experts say the focus on conservation should not be lost, as this would reverse hard-earned gains and make Sri Lanka’s environmental issues even more challenging to resolve over the long term.

 

Banner image of a protest organized by Sri Lankan environmentalists in April to demand measures to protect the island’s environment, courtesy of the Center for Environment and Justice (CEJ).