Environmental activist and communicator Piyal Parakrama’s sudden death last week, of a heart attack, jolted Sri Lanka’s closely-knit green community. The activist community may bicker and argue endlessly among themselves, but there is also strong kinship among its cacophonous members. Many of them are still trying to come to terms with the loss.
As indeed am I – even if I’m not quite a certified member of the activist community, I consider myself a fellow traveler. I turn to words – either reflective prose or verse – when I want to make sense of something, and over the last weekend I wrote a new essay. It runs into 1,800 words and, as with all my tributes to public figures, this one is also social commentary laced in anecdotal reminiscence. It expands on initial thoughts that first appeared on this blog .
The full essay has just been published by Groundviews, and is titled: Death of a Green Activist: Tribute to Piyal Parakrama (1960 – 2010).
Here’s an excerpt where I talk about challenges faced by Sri Lanka’s environmental activists:
During the past three decades, Piyal and fellow activists have taken up the formidable challenges of conserving Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, long under multiple pressures such as growing human numbers, rising human aspirations, and gaps in law enforcement. Adding to the sense of urgency was the 1999 designation of Sri Lanka as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, where high levels of endemic species (found nowhere else in the wild) were threatened with extinction. Public and media attention is disproportionately focused on a few charismatic mega-fauna like elephants and leopards; in reality, dozens of other animal and plant species are being edged out.
In search of viable solutions for entrenched conservation problems, Piyal collaborated with scientists, educators, journalists and grassroots activists. Some industrialists and investors hated his guts, but he was much sought after by schools, universities and community groups across the country. Concerned researchers and government officials sometimes gave him sensitive information which he could make public in ways they couldn’t.
Some eco-protests grew into sustained campaigns. Among them were the call to save the Buona-Vista reef at Rumassala and struggles against large scale sugarcane plantations in Bibile. A current campaign focuses on the Iran-funded Uma Oya multipurpose project, which involves damming a river for irrigation and power generation purposes.
While environmentalists ultimately haven’t block development projects, their agitations helped increase environmental and public health safeguards. Occasionally, projects were moved to less damaging locations – as happened in mid 2008, when Sri Lanka’s second international airport was moved away from Weerawila, next to the Bundala National Park.
The hard truth, however, is that our green activists have lost more struggles than they have won since the economy was liberalized in 1977. They have not been able to stand up to the all-powerful executive presidency, ruling the country since 1978 — most of that time under Emergency regulations. In that period, we have had ‘green’ and ‘blue’ parties in office, sometimes in coalitions with the ‘reds’. But their environmental record is, at best, patchy. In many cases, local or foreign investors — acting with the backing of local politicians and officials — have bulldozed their way on promises of more jobs and incomes. Environmentalists have sometimes been maligned as anti-development or anti-people. In contemporary Sri Lanka, that’s just one step away from being labeled anti-national or anti-government.
At the end of the essay, I try to sum up the multiple challenges faced by ALL activists in Sri Lanka today:
“Activism is not an easy path anywhere, anytime, and especially so in modern day Sri Lanka. All activists – whether working on democracy, governance, social justice or environment – are struggling to reorient themselves in the post-conflict, middle-income country they suddenly find themselves in. Their old rhetoric and strategies no longer seem to motivate the people or influence either the polity or policy. Many of them haven’t yet crossed the Other Digital Divide, and risk being left behind by the march of technology.”
I had earlier touched on these concerns in a January 2009 blog post titled Vigil for Lasantha: Challenges of keeping the flame alive. If I was harsh in that commentary, I have tried to be more considerate in the latest essay.
After all, I want our activists to be effective and successful as society’s conscience. My suggested author intro for this latest essay, somehow now included in the published version, read: “Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene dreams of becoming an activist one day, but for now, he remains a ‘critical cheer-leader’ of those who are more courageous.”
Read the full essay on Groundviews: Death of a Green Activist: Tribute to Piyal Parakrama (1960 – 2010).