The rape of one of our world heritage sites.

World Bank’s (WB) 2016 April report, titled, “International Development Association (IDA) Project Appraisal Document on Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project”, serves as the official document with regard to the ongoing ESCAMP project that stipulates the development of certain selected ecosystems including some protected areas (PA) in the country. The protected areas, identified in the report include Sinharaja, the only rainforest reserve in the country and a world heritage site and the Yala, Minneriya, Horton Plains and Uda Walawe national parks.

Through this project the WB will provide USD 45 million to the Sri Lankan government, to be repaid over a period of 20 years, at a compound interest rate (comprising components like maximum commitment charge, service charge, interest charge etc.) of 2.5% or thereabouts. Our concerns about this project are at least twofold. One is its environment impact. The other is the enormity of indebtedness it induces. This exercise to scrutinise the details of the project will be on those aspects.

Further, it is coincidental that this article was written at a time when the WB’s legal immunity was stripped by the United States Supreme Court for the first time in its 70+ year history, allowing organizations from member countries to file lawsuits against its lending activities. A 7-1 ruling was made against the WB, on 26 February 2019, allowing a fishing community and farmers from Mundra, in Gujarat, India to sue the bank, claiming that its failure to supervise a coal power plant project it funded had caused environmental damage — polluting the air, land and water.

Project details

The Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Forest Department, the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and the Environment and Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife are cited as the borrowers of the loan. The Ministry of National Policy and Economic Affairs is the main recipient of the funds. According to the report, the disbursement of funds, which began in 2016, will continue till 2021. The years, 2017 and 18 saw the biggest chunks being disbursed to the tune of USD 13.14 and 14 million respectively. This year, there will be a further disbursement of 9.50 million. The project development objective is said to be to improve the management of ecosystems in selected locations in Sri Lanka for conservation and community benefits.

The main components of  the project are four in number and include pilot landscape planning and management (for which USD 2.8 million is allocated), sustainable use of natural resources and human-elephant coexistence (USD 17 million), protected area management and institutional capacity (USD 24.2 million) and project management (USD 1 million). By far, protected area management and institutional capacity is the component for which the highest allocation has been made, and the very area of concern of this article, for its impinging effects on the Sinharaja rainforest reserve.

Vise-like grip

The WB’s vise-like grip on the project is so obvious in the agreement. Although the project is guided by an operation manual in the hands of the project implementers, its legal status is totally overshadowed by the agreement (the document reviewed). It states that under no circumstance should it be amended, revised or waved without prior agreement. Even in inconsistencies between the agreement and project operation manual, the agreement is deemed to prevail. This speaks for the sorry state of the local partner, the Sri Lankan government, which has conceded hands down without any leverage for itself, even with regard to safeguard instruments on environmental, social or indigenous peoples’ matters (the areas identified in the agreement), although this is a loan to be paid back.

Nature based tourism – a major focus

The WB report, in order to drive its point home and push its sleazy agenda full length, uses some unauthenticated facts and figures, time and again. For example, while stating that less than 30% of foreign tourists visit the country’s national parks, the reason it gives for poor visitor experience is a result of inadequate management. Further it goes on to say that nature-based tourism in Sri Lanka is under-exploited, although how it arrived at this conclusion is uncertain. Not only are these statements are ludicrous, but could also have repercussions for the country, both locally and internationally. At least the people of Sri Lanka should know what the sources the WB used to arrive at such dubious conclusions.

The WB says that nature-based tourism operates as an enclave industry generating little employment and growth benefits, thus only limited portion of the monetary benefits flow to local communities. This is a well-known fact; not limited to nature-based tourism, but to the entire tourism industry. Although tourism has been thriving as a money spinner for the country for over four decades, this sorry state has continued ever since. However, other than paying lip service, the WB report doesn’t mention how this particular project is going to remedy the situation. Even the subject of home stays has been cursorily mentioned.

Sinharaja, the only rainforest reserve in the country.
Sinharaja, the only rainforest reserve in the country.

Worst of all, the WB document criticizes the country’s forest and wildlife management as inefficient and paying near exclusive focus on strict protection without an integrated management approach. This is very critical. What else does it expect from the guardians of forests and wildlife than their protection? Further, it is the need of the hour considering the rate at which the double whammy of deforestation (even the WB report admits occurring at 7,147 ha per year) and death and destruction of wildlife have struck the country. A report that has mixed up these basic priorities alone should be considered “bad” enough to be thrown in the WPB. With regard to fast depleting forest and wildlife resource in Sri Lanka, protection and conservation should take precedence over everything else.

Infrastructure development in forests

The physical infrastructure to be constructed or renovated supported by the project though not specific to Sinharaja, include visitor centers, comfort facilities, eco-friendly park bungalows , camp sites, infrastructure for new visitor experiences (worth knowing what this is?), nature trails, wayside interpretation points, observation towers, wildlife hides and canopy walks. If not all, some of these facilities, especially ones related to trekking are likely to be developed in Sinharaja as it is the only forest reserve among the protected areas identified in the project that allows trekking.

The road development project in the immediate outskirts of Sinharaja reserve was only 1.5 km in extent. It is expected to improve further trails amounting to 30 km in length. In addition, some of the new infrastructure added to the portfolio will be eco lodges for 10 persons, two rest rooms, four cabins, one dormitory. Although all this may look good for tourism, how good it would be for conservation of nature will be the million dollar question. After all, Sinharaja is all about nature and conservation.

Over visitations

The report also states that it plans to establish the optimum number of visitors to the protected areas and develop comprehensive accreditation systems for nature based tourism services. However, the Forest Department, asked to mention the optimum number of visitors to Sinharaja, has failed to provide an answer, now over two years into the project.

Over visitation is a malady that has already afflicted the protected areas in the country. The WB report itself has acknowledged this, and identifies Sinharaja and all the above mentioned national parks as experiencing over visitation, at present. When things are such, the burning question is how the authorities expect to address over visitation by adding more visitor facilities at these sites.

Political tone of the project

It is also interesting to note that the WB report goes on panegyrizing the present government as having strong leadership for more effective policy decisions and strategies for greater economic and sustainable use of natural resources. Is it becoming of an international organization like the WB to flatter governments for toeing its line so openly?. The dubious track record of the present government in managing matters of the country is another. The government has been put to the test enough and more during the last four years, and the ever worsening social and economic situation speaks volumes for the government’s managerial skills or the absence thereof.

Governments may come and go, but the WB agenda goes on forever. It is indicative that the project which the environmental activists are fighting tooth and nail against is one that was conceived at least seven years ago, during the tenure of the last regime. The report states that the present project is consistent with the WB’s country partnership strategy that was endorsed by the Bank’s Executive Directors in May 2012. This again points to the ever steamrolling nature of the neo liberal economic order irrespective of the colour of the government in the countries of the periphery.

Systematic Country Diagnostic and treatment to ailment

Systematic Country Diagnostic is a tool used by the WB to recommend countries to adopt sectoral “reforms” it proposes. It is not a mere coincidence that “the 2015 Systematic Country Diagnostic for Sri Lanka confirms environmental sustainability as one of the priority areas for sustaining progress in ending poverty and promoting shared prosperity”; and in 2016 the ESCAMP project got off the ground. At best, it could be identified as a well hatched plan.

According to the WB website, with regard to Sri Lanka the findings of the Systematic Country Diagnostic enumerate issues related to the fiscal policies, fostering growth and jobs for the bottom 40%, social inclusion, governance and sustainability as the challenges the country is faced with. Thus, it is hilarious that as a remedy for these, the WB calls for better stewardship of Sri Lanka’s natural assets and emphasizes the importance of natural resources for development of tourism in the country. While identifying improving natural resource management and protecting and improving the natural resource base on which rural communities depend as its twin goals, the WB claims the project will support inclusive development among some of the country’s poorest communities living in the adjacent areas of PAs by inter alia ensuring benefits to the communities from better managed ecosystems.

Nobody denies the idea that the country’s poor need to be uplifted, a sentiment central to development paradigm of the country from time immemorial. That’s what the whole idea of development should be. But whether this could ever be achieved with the methods they are proposing is the question. Poverty needs to be addressed and alleviated through concerted programmes aimed at socio-economic development, but not by exploiting the jungle. It is sad that the government fails to grasp this fundamental truth, probably for the need of a few million dollars to pump into an ailing economy, for reasons well known; corruption and mismanagement.

Project beneficiaries

The WB estimates that 15,000 people will benefit from the project and of them at least 30% are females we are told. This approximation alone is a good indicator of the skewness of the project, and that the community, at large, will not be the real beneficiaries. If the project is as community oriented as the WB claims, then it should benefit men and women equally as the community is an equal mix of them. Considering the nature of the total project (which also includes a component on mitigating human elephant conflict in some parts of the country), it will be safe to assume that the nature-based tourism component of the project, in reality, will be very industry based, far out of reach of the community. In fact, this has been the past experience of tourism related projects in the immediate outskirts of Sinharaja. Also, it is worthwhile asking how many home stays, trackers, interpreters and other community based services the project envisages to have within the five year period of its implantation. (It is reliably learnt that within Kudawa Grama Niladhari Division, two houses have been supported to improve living conditions to accommodate tourists and a community centre constructed from the ESCAMP funds).

The bio-diversity of Sinharaja attracts many poachers.
The bio-diversity of Sinharaja attracts many poachers.

Priority obligations on conservation

As Counterpoint said before (in Volume 2, Issues 5 and 6), more immediate tasks in Sinharaja include re-demarcation of its boundaries and reinforcing it from pirating of its bio-treasures.

Cabinet approval was granted way back in 2004 for Presidential Task Force recommendations to incorporate all lands belonging to the Lands Reforms Commission (LRC) within 500 meters from the present boundaries of Sinharaja reserve along with other forest cover, into the existing reserve. Fourteen years have passed since then, but the Forest Department has done the least to fulfil its long overdue obligation. Had this been implemented, not only Sinharaja reserve would have extended for over 20,000 hectares, but none of these projects would have been possible.

There have also been a couple of abortive attempts to smuggle bio material from Sinharaja, of which the seizure of five Slovakians with their cache last month was the latest. They are just the tip of the iceberg. Much genetic material has been smuggled out of Sri Lanka, and there are at least 35 such known bio pirated products patented elsewhere in the world.

Thus, conservation and protection remain the priority issues for the Forest Department, even with the ESCAMP funds. It must not be allowed to play dumb.


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