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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)
To hell with the environment
A six-foot high bund on either side of the road, bunkers and at least two rows of high fence are being put up as troops of Operation Jaya Sikurui consolidate their positions north of Omanthai. The most convenient way to build a bunker is to reinforce sand and mud with sturdy trunks of full-grown trees.
Palmyrah provides the ideal with its straight and strong trunks. The road to Omanthai is dotted with Palmyrah palms in the shrub jungles. When the supply is short forest trees are bulldozed. Besides Palmyrah the government teak plantations on the Horawapatana Road have also fallen victim, say sources among Tamil groups working alongside the army in Vavuniya. Large teak trees have been felled and removed for the construction of bunkers.
The Main Supply Route from Vavuniya to Kilinochchi which the army is trying to open now will require, in its initial stage, at least one large bunker at every 500 metre interval. An average-size bunker requires trunks of at least three large trees. There has to be a camp for every two kilometre stretch of road between Nochchimoddai and Kilinochchi which is about 73 kilometres long. (This tentative calculation of a camp for every two kilometres and a bunker for every 500 metres plus bund and fence is based on the manner in which the MSR to Mannar from Vavuniya has been defended.)
Camps have to be constructed with a minimum of 20 real and decoy bunkers. In all at least 2,415 large trees will have to be felled to defend the MSR from Vavuniya to Kilinochchi. To this, we have to add the number of smaller trees that have to be bulldozed off from either side of the road to put up the double fence by the bunds which will cover the route through the Wanni. Already thousands of Palmyrah palms have been chopped down to build hundreds of checkpoints, mini camps and bunkers in places under direct army control in the peninsula. Local conservationists say that the palm is central to Jaffna's ecosystem and that the degree to which palms and groves have been destroyed following the completion of the Riviresa Operations can do irreparable damage to this system. It is estimated that about 2.5 million Palmyrah palms have been chopped down in the northeast during the Eelam wars. The vast majority of these were felled in the peninsula.
The EPDP which has nine members of Parliament from the district of Jaffna has voiced concern over the depletion of the Palmyrah palm in the north. 'I have already raised this matter with the President and several officials,' said EPDP chief Douglas Devananda. 'The next time I see her I will have all the facts relating to the degree of this senseless destruction of the Palmyrah palm so that we can take concrete steps to curb the unprecedented environmental damage,' he added. Mr Devananda claimed that his party is going to allocate funds under the decentralized budget of the nine EPDP MPs to raise one million Palmyrah saplings for a replanting program in the peninsula. With its own funds his party hopes to soon implement a plan to distribute an equal number among the local population.
The other party in the Eelam War, the LTTE needs money to run its war. The coral reefs on the coasts of the northeast are vanishing fast to fill Tiger coffers. The destruction of coral reefs for lime burning brings in huge revenues to the Tigers by way of 'taxes' imposed on traders who transport the lime for sale to the towns and Colombo city. Many picturesque reefs which used to be full of tropical fish in places such as Mankerni and Punnaikudah in the east and in some parts of the of coast in northern Mannar have been completely destroyed for lime burning.
The environment seems secondary to the LTTE except where it concerns its survival. In certain strategic parts of the Wanni Tigers have imposed a strict ban on logging allowing the local population to collect only dead wood. Fourteen years of war has seen only environmental destruction and no one has seriously tried to solve this problem. If the government is seriously interested in the environmental damage it can take some steps to rectify the crisis. Discarded tires make a good substitute for tree trunks. They can, when reinforced with loose sand, absorb machine gun fire and withstand RPG fire and some degree of shell impact. One indeed finds a few defences of the army constructed thus. But the substitution of tires may solve the problem only in urban areas like Jaffna and the coastal parts of the east, mainly because the destruction of large tracts of thick forest on either side of key roads held by the army in the northeast is considered necessary for the security of the troops stationed there.
The army seeks to practically erase the element of surprise which the LTTE may enjoy in densely forested areas by bulldozing the jungles for at least two kilometres on either side of a road or round a camp and then setting fire to the undergrowth periodically to ensure that the terrain remains flat, free of anything that may supposedly hide a guerrilla or two. The road between Manampitiya and Valaichenai is good example of this kind of forest depletion in the northeast. This stretch of road is about 60 kilometres, and before 1991 was covered on either side for the most of its length by high dry zone forests and teak and Eucalyptus plantations. The Forest Department had successfully raised these plantations under a reforestation program begun in the early sixties. After a major ambush carried out by the Tigers on that road near Punanai in 1991, the army decided to destroy the jungles. There were allegations that vast profits were also involved in the cutting down of the thousands of mature teak trees which the Forest Department had painstakingly nurtured over two decades. Illicit timber dealers had been avariciously eyeing the teak trees for a long time but found it difficult to operate in the plantations until the war began. Forest officials and the police just stopped supervising these parts.
Armed Tamil groups which had little concern for environment at that time found it profitable to strike deals with timber merchants. But this could not be carried on a very large scale due to logistical impediments arising mainly from the difficulty of selling large amounts of prime teak in the towns which were under army and police control. The trade was, however, profitable enough for the timber dealers to give a substantial cut to corrupt officials in the police in addition to the payments made to the various Tamil armed groups.
It was the Indian army that first began the wholesale destruction of vast tracts of virgin forests in the Wanni and in the east. The IPKF was also the first to use defoliants. In several parts of the Mullaitivu district where the Indian commandos were trying to close in on spots suspected to be Prabhakaran's hideouts, the foliage was destroyed before the troops were sent in. Defoliants were sprayed on the thick forest cover days before the Gurkhas stormed the Niththikaikulam hideout of the Tiger leader in 1989. Reckless logging was also permitted for various reason ranging from profit to the granting of personal favours. Colonel Nanjappa who was in charge of the IPKF unit in Akkaraipattu rewarded some Tamil boys who were operating with his soldiers as trackers by permitting them to engage in unlimited logging in the dense Kanjikudichcha Aaru jungle area of the Ampara district. Although the large tracts of forest destroyed in the Wanni by the Indian army have come up again, those which the IPKF cut down and burnt in Batticaloa remain arid expanses, interspersed with some shrubs and rotting stumps. This can be seen at Ayithiyamalai, Pulipanjakal, Iluppadichenai, Unnichchai and Adaichchakal Kulam. There were 127,204 hectares of forest in the district of Batticaloa in 1986. (35077 h.a of reserves, 33423 h.a of proposed reserves and 58704 h.a of 'other state forests')
An official of Mandru, the only environmental NGO working in the region, quoting Forest Dept. figures, said that 70 percent of these forests have virtually been wiped out ''for security reasons' since 1987. The large and valuable teak plantations raised under reforestation programs at Rugam, Pullumalai, Vakaneri, Punanai, Koppaveli, Mankerni, Kattuththengai Kal etc., have been completely destroyed on grounds of security since 1990. Huge profits were made no doubt. Rainfall patterns have been drastically affected in these parts since 1989. The catchment areas of at least 40 minor irrigation tanks have been rendered worthless owing to this forest depletion. Water levels in other tanks have been affected due to silting which is inevitable when hinterland jungles, and with them the ecosystems they sustain, vanish. Destruction of large ecosystems comprising lagoons, marshes, mangroves and hinterland dry zone jungles which characterize many parts of Sri Lanka's coast has also taken place on an unprecedented scale since the commencement of Eelam War II. Mangroves are central to the life cycles which sustain this system. They abound in the marshes and lagoons on the east coast.
Tamil armed groups discovered in the mid eighties that the mangroves could provide excellent cover against the most devastating machine gun fire. The LTTE even mastered the art of setting up hideouts in these when it was fighting the IPKF. When the Indians discovered this, they set about destroying large mangroves by the lagoons and the marshes on the east coast which they assumed could pose a threat to some key areas which were under their control. The STF has continued with this practice. In areas like Kallar and the western edge of the southern coastal strip of Batticaloa the mangroves are cleared regularly by the STF.
The local male population is drafted to the task. This has prevented the regeneration of the mangroves in many parts of the east. Seventy percent out of 1,390 hectares of mangroves in the region have been destroyed in this manner since 1988. An attempt has been made by local environmentalists to regenerate the mangroves again in three areas. But mangroves planted under this scheme at Kankeyanodai which is six miles southwest of Batticaloa town were destroyed by the army for security reasons. The local fishing population has been hit by the depletion of this vegetation. Many varieties of fish, crabs and prawns spawn in the mangroves. The mean temperature of the lagoon has increased as a result of the destruction caused to these plants affecting feeding patterns of the fish.
'The bio diversity which made the lagoons of the east a key component of the island's ecology is on the verge of vanishing' lamented a local university scholar. Both parties to the Eelam War are little prepared to consider the overall damage they are causing to the common environment that has to sustain all of us in the long run despite their present political differences.