Palitha Lakshman de Silva (1959 – 2010): Animator, stilled.

Palitha Lakshman de Silva, 1959-2010

For the second time in just over three months, I went to the Colombo general cemetery to bid farewell to a fellow traveller. This is becoming a worrying habit.

Those of us who’ve opted for the path less travelled don’t expect crowds or accolades. At least we have each other for company and inspiration. Suddenly it’s getting a bit lonely: long-standing friends and colleagues are dropping dead in the prime of their lives.

First, it was environmentalist, journalist and public intellectual Piyal Parakrama who left in early March. Now, it’s Palitha Lakshman de Silva — journalist, photographer, cartoonist, puppet animator and television professional among other pursuits and talents.

Uncannily, what I wrote upon hearing Piyal’s death applies – word by word – to Palitha too. I just have to change the name and date: Palitha died so suddenly and unexpectedly on the evening of June 11 that it’s hard to believe that he is no longer among us. Another public-spirited individual has left the public space all too soon…

Both men had just passed 50, and were leading active, productive and busy lives. They had no known ailments, and were in apparent good health. Yet in the end, it was the unseen, gradual clogging of the heart’s arteries that struck them both down: the first heart attack was swift and fatal. Neither man reached the nearest hospital alive.

I had known Palitha for twice as long as I worked with him (in the past decade). Although we weren’t close friends, we shared a passionate, life-long interest in using broadcast television and narrowcast video to communicate public interest messages. Some call it non-formal education, but we avoided the e-word for it reminds some people of school that they didn’t enjoy. We believed – and demonstrated too – that the audio-visual medium can blend information with entertainment in ways that make learning effortless and painless.

Having started his career as a reporter and photojournalist at a leading newspaper, Palitha later moved on to TV, where he blazed new trails in cartoon animation, puppetry and documentary making. He was part of Sri Lanka’s first generation of television and video professionals who experimented with the medium, and found new ways of combining education, information and entertainment.

All this made Palitha a natural ally and partner in my work at TVE Asia Pacific. I just wrote a more official tribute tracing our collaborations over a decade, which the TVEAP website published: Tribute to Palitha Lakshman de Silva (1959 – 2010): Photojournalist and cartoon animator

I’ll write more reflectively once I recover from the shock of another colleague signing off for good. For now, I can only echo the lyrical sentiments in this leaflet distributed at Palitha’s funeral by his artistically-inclined friends. The English approximation (below) is mine, and not particularly good (though bilingual, I’m a lousy translator). I’m glad, however, that the original verse captures one intrinsic quality of Palitha: his gentle, soft-spoken nature which often concealed the creative genius inside him.

Goodbye, Palitha Lakshman de Silva

The day has arrived
Suddenly and shockingly
When you’ve gone away
Leaving us alone
All by ourselves
To write a verse
And choose an image
In your fond memory.

Flowers bloom and wither
Lakes flourish and drain
Such is the Circle of Life
Which your hasty exit
Once again reminds us
With a soft, little whisper.

We’ll travel to the end of time
If can we see, just once more,
Your gentle and soothing smile,
And listen to your stories
That you told us so gently.

Just once more…

Green activism at crossroads in Sri Lanka? Assessing Piyal Parakrama’s role in conservation movement

Price of Development, as seen by Cartoonist W R Wijesoma, 1993

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:

Piyal Parakrama on Sri Lanka 2048 TV show

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).

Is this how it all ends? Green activism - a cynical view by Wijesoma

Piyal Parakrama (1960 – 2010): Another hasty departure…

Piyal Parakkrama in Sri Lanka 2048 TV show

Piyal Parakrama died so suddenly and unexpectedly on the night of March 3 that it’s hard to believe that he is no longer among us. Another public-spirited individual has left the public space all too soon.

Piyal combined the roles of environmentalist, educator, researcher and media personality. He was also a colleague who became a friend, and a fellow traveller for many years.

In a public career spanning 30 years, he wore multiple hats, among them: Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies, founder President of the Nature Conservation Group (NatCog), President of the Green Party of Sri Lanka, and consultant to various state and academic institutions. He also worked for the now-defunct Sri Lanka Environmental Congress (SLEC) and now dormant Sri Lanka Environmental Television Project (SLETP).

But Piyal Parakrama was more than an amalgamation of these parts: he was his own distinctive brand — admired, trusted or feared by different sections of society. Even his ardent detractors (and he had a few) would readily agree that he gave far more to the public good than he took back personally.

Piyal’s forte was biodiversity. His interest and knowledge were nurtured first at the Young Zoologists Association (YZA) – where he remained a volunteer for 30 years – and later at the Lumumba Friendship University in Russia, where he studied biology from 1983 to 1986.

In searching for viable solutions for entrenched conservation problems, Piyal collaborated with scientists, educators, journalists, school children and local activists. Some industrialists and investors simply hated his guts, while concerned researchers and government officials sometimes gave him sensitive information which he could make public in ways they couldn’t.

Given our common interests in development issues and the media, Piyal and I moved in partly overlapping circles. Our paths crossed frequently, and we shared public platforms, newspaper space and broadcast airtime. We even worked together for a few months in the late 1990s at the SLETP. His communications skills were invaluable in rendering a number of international environmental films into Sinhala.

Piyal Parakrama (left) on the set of Sri Lanka 2048 - debate on Water Management

The last time we collaborated was in such a media venture. In mid 2008, Piyal joined an hour-long TV debate we produced as part of the Sri Lanka 2048 series. The show discussed the various choices and trade-offs that had to be made today to create a more sustainable Sri Lanka over the next 40 years. Taking such a long term view is rare in our professional and media spheres preoccupied with the challenges of now and here (or restricted in vision by short-termism).

Piyal could speak authoritatively on several topics we covered in the 10-part series, but I invited him to the one on managing freshwater, one of Sri Lanka’s once abundant but now threatened natural resources. With his deep knowledge and understanding of traditional water and soil conservation systems, he was truly in his element in that debate. He was also the ‘star’ among the diverse panel and studio audience we had carefully assembled.

I’m working on a longer tribute where I try to position Piyal’s role in Sri Lanka’s conservation movement. Watch this space…