Thursday, January 28, 2016

Jungle degradation, poverty, and national security. Some hard questions.

By the mid-1980s the world was cognizant of deforestation and its consequences. All kinds of organized behaviors were put into action to stop rainforest destruction and to combat environmental degradation in developing nations. 

Yet those years are exactly the moment that the "Accelerated Mahaweli Project" was put into action here in Sri Lanka, a national initiative that carved out large tracts of native forest, replacing the forest with irrigated agricultural lands that introduced abundant agrochemicals to a formerly pristine-or nearly pristine tropical forest environment. 

Before another word is uttered or written criticizing the Rajapaksa government of its ties with China, let me mention that the massive environmental perturbation caused by the Mahaweli Project was accomplished under an earlier government in partnership with Canadian engineering firms, aided and abetted by the World Bank. That means that our clean green North American partners are as responsible for what happened here as any Sri Lankan government. 

We just came from several days in "Section C" of the Mahaweli Project, an area downstream of of the gigantic Victoria Dam. Some 27,000 poor and landless families were moved into this area, most of them ethnically Sinhalese. Dare I say these desperately poor people were used as pawns in a move to outnumber Tamils in this part of the Eastern Province?

These are old issues I suppose but they resonate still today. As does the beguiling, deliciously humid landscape of Section C, which we spent several days riding bicycles and walking through. That Dehiattkandia, the major town of Section C looks strangely like an Anglo dam town (read Australia, New Zealand or, yes, Canada) provides evidence of its provenance in spite of Sri Lankan touches. It was built in 1986, carved out of the jungle like the rest of the landscape. 

An intimate look around shows that thanks to their hard work, the people of Section C have lifted themselves out of desparate poverty. There are well tended fields, schools full of clean, uniformed children, carefully planted gardens, neat houses, and the usual bicycles and scooter traffic. There are also some huge SUVs, monstrous vehicles we saw pulling into our guesthouse parking area. So some people are getting rich out here. 

There are also many military bases, especially in evidence south of Dehiattkandia. It occurred to me that the road south leading to Badulla, Kandy, and the rest of the country was, in the 1980s, a road that might have needed careful watching. Maybe even defending. 

So how does a small developing country deal with issues of poverty and national security? How did it all play out in this corner of Sri Lanka during the 1980s? How was the environment compromised or recruited as a weapon and by whom? That the LTTE were implacable enemies, even to their own people, is something I think we need to take into account. Yesterday the LTTE took children as soldiers Today Hamas uses the people of Gaza as human shields. How can these behaviors be dealt with? Everyone's humanity is challenged. 

So I listen now with a less jaundiced ear to people's accounts of the former government, to statements that tout the former president as a hero. The violence had to end. But how could it have been stopped? I stop also to think as well of the duplicity of the West, donors, designers, bankers and engineers, who contributed to a massive, coordinated project to "tame" a wild environment. How does this play into the equation? How difficult is this history? How strange is it that a simple Fulbright project undertaken to examine "landscape" leads to all this thought-turmoil. Maybe I should just keep on taking pretty pictures. 

The problems Sri Lanka faced and continues to face seem to get more complex as we move forward into the second half of our Fulbright. No one is asking me for solutions, or for my opinions for that matter. But questions of poverty and terror and their twin conditions, environment and identity, continue to pile up the challenges to my thinking. 

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