By Rohan Wijesinha
On the 8th of December 2020, the National Parks of Sri Lanka were closed to the public as the employees of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) took industrial action to protest the unjust public castigation, by a State Minister, of two of its officers for doing nothing more than try and uphold the principles of conservation, the very core of what they are supposed to do. Astonishingly, the Minister in question was, no less, than one of those who are given responsibility for conservation, the ‘State Minister of Wildlife Protection, Adoption of Safety Measures including the Construction of Electrical Fences and Trenches and Reforestation and Forest Resource Development’!
During the course of his tirade, the Minister stated that he was there to look after the interests of the people, not of wildlife. In which case why has he been given this portfolio?
Getting the right people for the right job
One of the basic tenets of Human Resources Management is to hire the right people for the right job. In the appointment of this Minister, have the Government achieved this objective? Prior to analyzing this, it is of interest to note that while this Minister is a State Minister, there is also another Minister, a Cabinet Minister, the Minister of Wildlife & Forest Conservation. It is not just the presence of two Ministers for Wildlife that is cause for confusion but the fact that the DWC has been placed, under gazette, to the State Minister and not the Cabinet Minister. While overall wildlife conservation policymaking remains with the Cabinet Ministry, the agency mandated with implementing the policies is under the State Ministry. In the past, the Cabinet, State and Deputy Ministers, were under one Ministry and under one budgetary vote, making for a chain of command and accountability. But now we have a situation where policy is made by the Cabinet Ministry while the DWC and its budgetary vote is under the State Ministry. This is an ideal prescription for a dysfunctional wildlife sector. This can work only, and only, if there is exceptionally close coordination and cooperation between the Cabinet and State Ministries. It is sad to note, however, that Sri Lanka is a country where good coordination between Ministries and agencies for the betterment of the country is a pipe dream, as individual egos govern the day. This is quite apparent now in the wildlife sector. So who is responsible for wildlife, especially as the State Minister has now openly stated that he is for the people and not wildlife? This is an important question that needs answer as of the 70+ State Departments, the DWC is the only one mandated with the responsibility for wildlife conservation.
So in analyzing these appointments one wonders whether the Government has appointed the right people to post for wildlife conservation, or whether they have placed precisely the right people there to achieve their objectives, that of opening up the protected areas of this country for commercial exploitation.
Conservation is primarily about people
Elected on a ticket of providing those with the necessary qualification and science to direct policy, instead, the country has been foisted with the ilk of this State Minister who clearly has no empathy or understanding of the role he has to play assuming, of course, that he is not playing the role he was placed there to do. Conservation has always been about people. One of the most important roles of the DWC, one hardly ever mentioned, is that of protecting the water-catchment areas of this island. Cut forests and destroy the wilderness, and we will soon run out of water. We then all die!
Even for development to take place, it is heavily dependent on ecosystem services without which it is doomed. These are services such as water availability, fertile soils, climate control and weather, to name but a few. The aim should be to ensure healthy ecosystem services, and not to aid in their destruction.
Come see our wildlife…before we drive them to extinction
Of considerable irony is the fact that this Government places great hope in tourism earning the country much-needed revenue once this pandemic ends. Over 50% of all visitors to Sri Lanka visit at least one of the protected areas. Recent studies have shown, in real terms, the enormous revenue generated by these pristine places for the country and, most importantly, for the local economies that border these areas. Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that the Ruhunu National Park (Yala) was generating Rs. 7 Billion a year for the local economy (SLAITO Report). The Uda Walawe, Wilpattu, Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks attract similar large figures. In fact, if managed properly and emphasis was placed on quality and not quantity, then these figures could be much higher, as Sri Lanka has the potential to be the best wildlife tourism destination outside Africa. Why should not all the protected areas be protected and managed to be of such benefit to the people who live by them? This is sustainable, and will be of greater benefit to the majority, rather than just the immediate profit from timber from a cut tree or a tractor load of sand, that will soon be spent and, worse, irretrievable.
If the State Minister is intent on looking after people, he could best achieve it by protecting those areas he has been mandated to do, and manage them efficiently, so that the local populace could share of its bounty as do those who live around Yala, Uda Walawe, Minneriya, et al. Failing which, he should inform his political masters to abandon long-term expectations from tourism.
An inquiry against whom?
Bearing all this in mind, it is sad that the industrial action taken by the employees of the DWC failed to raise a headline in the popular media. 18 Trade Unions came together for this action and unless we, the conservation community, support them, we will be deprived of more than just a day of visitation to a National Park. These are the people who are on the frontlines, often risking their lives to protect the wildlife and wilderness that we all love. At stake is the integrity of the protected areas of this country and of the safety of the wild creatures they host.
The State Minister has called for an inquiry against the two officers concerned and knowing the way things work, and politicians work, they will be punished for undertaking their duties with integrity, and for not succumbing to the bullying of a State Minister who was in the wrong. Sadly, the punishment will be meted out by the hierarchy of the DWC and will send a message to all other of its employees to look the other way while politicians lay waste to the protected areas. If this was indeed the Government’s intention in appointing this Minister, then they have succeeded and we, the people, should hold them to account. If not, then there should be an inquiry, against the Sate Minister, for abrogating the duties which he has been entrusted with.