In this photograph taken on February 24, 2020, a Chinese laborer works at a construction site on reclaimed land, part of a Chinese-funded project for Port City, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: AFP / Ishara S Kodikara

A UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution of March 16 brought extensive charges against Sri Lanka over alleged human-rights violations, but is arguably seriously flawed. Opportunistic and strategic use of human rights by the Western powers to maintain hegemony continually ignores violations of the rights of nature and humanity rooted in the destructive model of economic development the same powers introduced to the world.

Historical background

Ancient Sri Lanka was known for its Buddhist ecocentric approach to life. The origin of the contemporary ecological and social crisis can be traced to the colonial period and the incorporation of the country into the global capitalist economy.

Vast tracts of forest were cut to establish mono-cultural coffee, tea and rubber plantations and local people lost their rights to ancestral lands and resources. Deforestation destroyed water resources that irrigated the rivers, leaving village tanks dry. Multi-crop subsistence agriculture was undermined, leaving people to become dependent on imported food supplies.

Sri Lanka’s forest cover declined from 84% in 1881 to 70% in 1900 and to around 50% in 1948, when the British left. Deforestation and plantation development laid the basis for land erosion and loss of animal habitats and biodiversity.

The origin of the current human-elephant conflict is attributed to deforestation starting in the British era, along with the widespread colonial practice of killing animals for sport and trade. The revered elephant was declared a pest and a reward of a few shillings was given for the head of one of the animals.

With the introduction of the open economy in 1977, Sri Lanka became subjected to neoliberal policies such as privatization and structural adjustment, largely as conditions for loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The massive Mahaweli River Development Program of this period provided access to land for the poor and a significant increase in the country’s food production and power resources. However, the construction of dams and irrigation networks, roads, and similar infrastructure also radically altered soil and water systems, including degradation of watershed conditions and loss of wildlife habitat and populations.

A related agricultural reform began in the 1960s (the “Green Revolution”), with a campaign to promote the use of agrochemicals and transgenic crop varieties, resulting in the loss of original indigenous seed varieties.

The Mahaweli program and irrigation have supplied the water for most of the rice cultivation in the North Central Province. This area ­is also – likely not coincidentally ­– the site of the nation’s highest incidence of chronic kidney disease among poor farming communities.

Current realities

The rich industrialized countries in the Global North are responsible for nearly 80% of historical world carbon emissions. Yet poor countries in the Global South such as Sri Lanka ­– whose carbon footprint is negligible – are the greatest victims of climate disasters.

The current and looming impact of climate change on Sri Lanka is massive:

  • Annual mean air temperature increased significantly between 1961 and 1990, by 0.016 degree Celsius per year;
  • Annual average rainfall decreased by about 7% between the 1931-60 period and the 1961-90 period;
  • Forecasting a rise in sea levels, Sri Lanka will be faced with a devastating coastal erosion rate of 0.30-0.35 meter a year, with adverse impact on nearly 55% of the shoreline.

The 2004 tsunami drastically highlighted the vulnerability of the low-lying plains in the coastal zone to any future rise in sea level. Northern and eastern coastal areas claimed as traditional Tamil homelands are vulnerable to submersion, as they are flatter than other coastal areas. This has serious implications for both population displacement and renewed political conflict, concerns totally absent in UNHCR resolutions calling for political devolution.

In 2015, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), an international aid NGO, identified Sri Lanka “as the country with the highest relative risk of being displaced by disaster in South Asia. For every million inhabitants, 15,000 are at risk of being displaced every year in Sri Lanka.”

In 2017 alone, the country experienced seven disaster events, mainly floods and landslides, and “135,000 new displacements due to disaster. Sri Lanka is also at risk from slow-onset impacts like soil degradation, saltwater intrusion, water scarcity, and crop failure.”

Sri Lanka was ranked second among countries most affected by extreme weather events in the Global Climate Risk Index of 2019 and sixth in 2020.

Deforestation

Deforestation is considered the greatest environmental threat facing Sri Lanka. It ranked fourth among countries with worst deforestation of primary woodlands in the world in the 2000-05 period. Forest cover, which had declined to about 50% by the end of British rule, further declined to 44% in 1956 and 16.5% in 2019.

A highly controversial current case is the housing development supposedly constructed for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Wilpattu National Park. The housing will remain despite a recent court judgment that declared it illegal. The “polluter pays” principle was upheld, but this only requires that the offender reforests other lands “in any area equivalent to the reserve forest area used for re-settlement of IDPs.”

Even this court decision is under appeal by the seventh respondent, former industry and commerce minister Rishard Badiuddin. Moreover, as ecologists point out, mere tree planting elsewhere will not lead to recovery of the intricate forest ecosystems that were destroyed.

Another major controversy involves the Sinharaja Rainforest covering an area of 7,650 hectares. It is home to more than 50% of the country’s endemic species and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Deforestation is now taking place in the Sinharaja area for the construction of a road for an isolated village bordering the Forest Reserve and, it is suspected, for the building of hotels, shops and other encroachments.

A national plan based on surveys and clear demarcation of boundaries of forest reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and conservation areas and enforcement is urgently needed to avoid conflict over and encroachment of remaining forests.

A recent announcement was made by Minister of Irrigation Chamal Rajapaksa regarding proposals to construct two irrigation tanks inside the Sinharaja, each spanning an area of 2 hectares, with Chinese involvement. Plans for a 30-kilometer tunnel to transport fresh water to areas in the south (including possibly Chinese-controlled Hambantota Port) are also reported. This announcement has raised alarm over the environmental impact and likely loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status.

Mining, dumping and export-led growth

There are, unfortunately, many other environmental controversies, the most destructive of which involve export-led growth and foreign companies.

In 2017, 263 waste containers carrying biomedical, plastic and other waste from the UK were brought for illegal dumping in Sri Lanka. Such toxic dumping by rich Northern countries in the poor countries of the South is sadly a common practice. After a legal victory by environmentalists, the containers are being sent back to the UK.

A proposed new project in the Eastern Province is the Eastern Minerals Project of Capital Metal, a UK company that plans to mine the “highest-grade” mineral sands containing ilmenite, rutile, zircon and garnet. While it promises to be a highly profitable venture, environmentalists fear massive and irreversible damage to the vulnerable eastern coastline.

Yet another controversial mining project is proposed by Titanium Sands, an Australian company, which wants to mine titanium on Mannar Island off the north coast of Sri Lanka. Mannar is a bird paradise and local environmentalists blame the Australian company of illegal conduct and plans to transform the ecosystem dramatically and limit land use by the local community.

Neocolonialism

Just as the world is at the cusp of a new era of technological and corporate authoritarianism, Sri Lanka, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, is also at a decisive historical juncture.

The island is facing new forms of external intervention and competition primarily involving the expansionist and national-security efforts of China, the US and India. These three countries are also the biggest carbon polluters, pursuing unbridled economic growth despite the impending global climate catastrophe.

Sri Lanka is centrally placed in the maritime route of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China is now in control of Hambantota Port, Colombo Port City, a terminal of the Colombo Port and a hybrid renewable-energy project on three islands off the Jaffna Peninsula, just 50 kilometers from India’s Tamil Nadu coast.

The Quadrilateral Alliance of the US, India, Australia and Japan is challenging this Chinese expansion, and is, in turn, in control of key strategic positions and natural resources.

India, for example, is in control of the British-colonial-era Oil Tank Farm in the seaport town of Trincomalee. It is reported that the development of the west terminal of Colombo Port will also be given to the company owned by Indian billionaire Gautam Adani.

The US Millennium Challenge Corporation’s proposed Compact with Sri Lanka was turned down by Colombo because of local protests over resource exploitation, land grabs and an effort to splinter Sri Lanka into two separate entities under the control of the United States. However, there is suspicion that some of the main objectives of the MCC to digitize land registers and privatize land to make it available for development by transnational corporations may be continuing in other ways.

The US signed an Acquisitions and Cross Services Agreement with Sri Lanka in 2017 making the island a “logistics hub” allowing US military vessels open-ended access to Sri Lanka’s seaports and airports.

A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the US and Sri Lanka, which could turn the island nation into a US military base, has been proposed but not yet signed because of local protest.

Neocolonialism and eco-social implications

While the implications of neocolonialism for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity have been much discussed in media recently, the ecological and social implications remain relatively unexplored. Some of these are:

  • Conflicts between Chinese interests and farming families around Hambantota Port over Chinese offers to buy ancestral properties of locals.
  • Protests and legal action by environmentalists over Colombo Port City, especially coastal sand excavation and dumping of chemical waste.
  • Control of the west terminal of the Colombo harbor by India’s controversial Adani Group, which has a history of environmental and financial violations in Australia and India.
  • Effects of militarization of the island under the ACSA and possible SOFA agreements and military confrontation between the Quadrilateral Alliance and China in the Indian Ocean.

Future survival with the wisdom of the past

Sustainable agriculture has a long history on the island, as in any long-lasting indigenous culture, and it needs to be brought back to the fore. Local self-sufficiency and agro-ecology are the only solutions to future food scarcity and surviving the vicissitudes of the global economy.

Sri Lanka and the rest of the world have enough natural resources to support people if resources are shared equitably and sustainably used. It is the apocalyptic destruction of the unregulated greed of neoliberalism that must end.

For this to happen, policies of corporate regulation must be put in place at both the national and global levels. These policies also need to incorporate a broader definition of human rights that includes the rights of nature and people’s rights to natural resources and livelihoods.

There is an urgent concurrent need for environmental education that transcends political and ethno-religious divisions and unites people both with one another and with a survivable environment. Environmentalism is also humanism that looks to the future, and the rights and survival of future generations..

Asoka Bandarage

Asoka Bandarage PhD is the author of Sustainability and Well-Being, The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka, Women, Population and Global Crisis, Colonialism in Sri Lanka and many other publications. She serves on the boards of the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate and Critical Asian Studies and has taught at Yale, Brandeis, Mount Holyoke, Georgetown, American and other universities.