Who can conserve our forests? The answer is obvious | Daily News


Who can conserve our forests? The answer is obvious

The entire country’s forest destruction problem should be under the authority of military personnel acting in tandem with police and the Grama Niladharis, said Kamal Gunaratne, the retired Major General, now the Defence Secretary.  

Irrespective of other implications, if any, Army intervention is guaranteed to save the forests, which need saving, perhaps much more than any other naturally occurring resource component of this nation. Forest cover is by and large not replaceable — and though other issues such as the narcotics menace are vexed, the issue of forests has a terminal quality to it.  

The forests represent our collective lungs, and they are also our catchments and the repository of herbal medicines and other varieties, fauna, which if they go extinct are extinct forever. Forest depletion could result in desertification and would threaten our ecosystems that are the lifeline for an island people who depend on agriculture and commodity crops as the primary means of sustenance.  

When the Defence Secretary says that the Army would tackle the issue of forest cover depletion, the only reaction, therefore, could be as if to a prayer that has been answered. This is primarily a law and order issue, and with that disciplinary dimension, the recent experience shows that only the Army can do it.  

That is sad for a civilian mindset, but it’s good. The civilian mechanisms of monitoring and control should have worked. But they did not, for some time now, and there is no likelihood whatsoever that they would work in the future.  

The Army can do it

Call in the military, even though civilian administrative control was the norm. As in a myriad issues that have faced the nation in times of crisis, it appears that only the Army can do it. Only the Army could contact-trace effectively and instill the isolationist discipline that was needed for Covid-19 eradication.  

It’s the military-led Task Force for a Disciplined Society that is taking the drug menace head on. The Army of course ended the war, and that’s almost forgotten in the detail after the people got used to Army efficiency in everything from flood relief to street maintenance.  

This has raised the hackles of many who complain of a creeping militarization, but civilians who see a civilian administration and Army discipline in tandem, are not complaining.  

It’s in this context that the message of forest conservation by military men and women sounds a godsend. It is the military and the military alone that has the manpower, the discipline and the apparatus to meet the issue head on when all else has failed.  

The military can use its network-logistical capability to keep a sweeping watch over our dispersed forest cover, and the civilian and police oversight over forests that we had in the past would look utterly inadequate in comparison.  

It’s also difficult to corrupt the military, and this a vital consideration as it’s known that illegal encroachers often have powerful antecedents. The military of course has other advantages as well, such as knowing the terrain particularly after a long war in which thick jungle played a part in the game of hide-and-seek with a tenacious enemy. Retd. Major General Kamal Gunaratne has spoken of his experience in Menik Farm, for instance, which was earlier part of the Kodikkamam forest before it was cleared and converted into an IDP camp.  

A change of mindset

Anyone who deploys the Army in this mammoth task has conservation at heart. The critics will know that the Army means business.  

The critics by the way are the same people who are now using alleged forest destruction as a weapon against the government. But not a finger was raised against the menace in their five-year tenure, and deforestation took place at a brisk pace in Wilpattu and so on.  

When Kamal Gunaratne says he will combat deforestation, the people can be assured it’s not an empty boast and that he means business. Forest cover will be conserved if the Army seriously challenges loggers and other encroachers.  

But others will see a legitimate issue with this military method. They will say that the Army cannot do this task forever and that the day Kamal Gunaratne is not part of the operation against deforestation, the rate of forest cover depletion would reach its previous levels.  

Those who engineer transformative change must ensure that such change will leave a lasting imprint. A permanent ‘military solution’ against deforestation certainly does not sound viable in this context, but that’s the only solution now. There is always the danger that later miscreants in the administration would come and undo in a few years what Kamal Gunaratne and others could do today.  

A permanent civilian operation that combats the menace of forest clearing for nefarious purposes cannot be in place unless mentalities change among the people of this country. The legal system and, more importantly, law enforcement must work.  

Mindsets have to change, and a collective will must be inculcated among the general populace that makes issues such as deforestation total anathema to the ordinary man. The Army can do its job, but it cannot be the guardian angel over everything on a permanent basis.  

Will public vigilance improve, and will law enforcement become effective in the face of greater demand from among the people for accountability regarding forest destruction?  

It’s an existential poser, in a manner of speaking at least. Will a people — who have a general reputation for indifference, even self-centeredness – realize that denuding forests is a national issue that has a bearing on all lives and not just those immediately affected?  

The indications are that despite all the cynicism — mostly justified — people change once there is an institutionalization of any positive transformation. It may not happen in every instance, but in many instances it happens.  

There was initial resistance to seatbelts, or one-way traffic on Galle Road, for instance. But once habits were formed, they endured.  

It may be argued that the aforementioned are simple issues compared to destruction of forest cover which is carried out by marauders and organized brigands.  

Difference between rhetoric and delivery

The seatbelts are only an example, but it’s a fact that people do learn despite the odds against it. The disinformation during the last general election and the previous presidential election before that, was unrelenting.  

The Opposition tried its tactics of 2015, of vilification, and slash-and-burn negative attacks of a completely fabricated type, in 2019 and 20.  

But the people became wiser to all of that and nothing could change their minds once they had cottoned onto the fact that they were being deceived, however sophisticated the method.  

The people also began to understand the difference between rhetoric and delivery. They learnt that the sweetest sentiments about a just society are all balderdash if these were also used to rule over them and retain power for a worthless elite that can deliver nothing.  

The people therefore, are never beyond redemption, though some politicians definitely are.  

If the Defence Secretary can stop forest destruction — big, small or sustained in scale — he will probably change mindsets fundamentally.

The nation can hope to have sustainable forest cover in topographical terms, and have it permanently in the bargain.