07 June 2016

How about including "Heritage Impact Assessment" in the development discourse?

For decades those fascinated with progress were blind to what ‘development’ did to the environment. A tree was, for example, valued for timber, not for the shade it provides, not for its role in maintaining the health of a particular ecology.  It took decades of devastation and all kinds of natural disasters clearly sourced to the unthinking, selfish and greedy actions of the human race and in particular its capitalist tribe for the development discourse to entertain notions such as ‘impact assessment’. 

'Development' destroys.  In this instance a mini-hydro project robs a world heritage site, Sinharaja
There is a perceptible naduth haamuduruwange baduth haamuduruwange (accused as judge, jury) character to EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments) given institutional flaws and embedding interests in the process, but the term is now well known.  In the very least, there is lip-service and at the other end, a push towards better and more sustainable development designing.  Today there is enough awareness to make people wary about chopping trees.  It still happens though.  In massive scale too. 

It was estimated that some 3 million trees would have been cut to make the paper required for all the posters that were put up during the campaign for the Parliamentary Elections in April.  And it is clearly that there is scant regard for environmental concerns in some of the road-building that is taking place in the Northern Province. In particular the road-construction through the Wilpattu National Park violates all ethics and regulations pertaining to the management of such facilities.  Sure, there must be some law, perhaps Emergency Regulations that make this ‘legal’. I am sure there’s some cogent ‘security’ argument that backs the ‘logic’.  I am not buying it though.  Only a person in a mighty hurry and utterly lacking in imagination can decide that the only way to do something is to cut thousands of trees and jeopardize species diversity.

Today, in the 21st Century, we know enough about development, sustainability, repercussions of certain kinds of interventions and climate change to be able to tell President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ‘Mr President, what’s happening in such and such a place is not the kind of custodianship you promised; it is rape and you have no authority, no mandate to sanction it by commission or by looking the other way!’   Many environmental organizations and environmentalists have objected and I salute them.  They have the facts, the theories and the arguments.  The planners and executors do not.  They have power.  Money.  And they are also armed with arrogance and/or ignorance. 

As important is the issue of heritage.  There can be no national development where environmental issues are ignored or footnoted.  Similarly, national development cannot have any meaning where heritage is not factored in.

The Archaeological Department is mandated to carry out Archeological Impact Assessments where necessary.  ‘Heritage’ is however larger than ‘archaeology’.  It refers to ways of being, systems of meaning, cultural practices, customs, rituals etc.  That kind of legislation, i.e. laws which require development proposals to be checked against impact on heritage, is lacking.  Lacking too is awareness of the importance of factoring in heritage as a prerequisite for keeping development ‘national’.  We have to know where we came from, how our ancestors are, what kind of heroism and villainy they embodied etc, if we are to travel to destinations without harming identity to such an extent that development and us are mutually exclusive entities.   This is perhaps why there is a lot of shouting about damage to environment but little about damage to heritage. 

The dominant paradigm of development, we have to recognize, has very little concern about the future, hence the unparalleled destruction of environment that has accompanied ‘development’ in the 20th century. It cares very little about the past. This is why archaeological artifacts have been bulldozed.  Part of that bulldozing, we must recognize, is motivated less by ‘development prerogative’ than by the prerogatives of erasure dictated by cultural preferences.  The fact remains that ‘heritage’ is glossed over in both proposal and implementation while the guardians are severely under-staffed and ill-equipped. 

The defeat of terrorism was a necessary prerequisite to national development, this is indisputable.  But development cannot be an api wenuwen api (us for ourselves) affair if the ‘national’ is taken out of the process, out of every moment of the journey, from conceptualizing to execution to long term monitoring and evaluation.  The national is taken out when trees are taken out, when ecological concerns are factored out, when biodiversity gets depleted, where habitat destruction occurs etc.  The national is also taken out when heritage is wiped out, whether it is archaeological artifact, long-standing tradition, art form or ways of understanding and being.  Some of it will pass of course, with time, but some are integral to who we are and if we are not mindful, they we would have won nothing ‘national’ in becoming ‘developed’. 

If we are talking about ‘Wilpattu’, for example, it is not just about trees being cut, roads being constructed and disruption being caused in that National Park. It is also about archaeological remains dating back to the time of the Vijayagamanaya (the arrival of Prince Vijaya) or the Vijaya-Kuveni legend, the copper sand of the beach, Kuveni’s palace, the remains at Pomparippu and other prehistoric sites.  Erase all that, are we diminish as a ‘nation’ even if we were to secure some kind of creature-comfort we didn’t previously have.  Material comforts there should be of course, but if these are purchased at the cost of culture, being, meaning etc., who do we become?  Have we asked that question enough? 

The notion of Heritage Impact Assessment is not new. It remains underdeveloped in Sri Lanka.  Mr. President, as Custodian, self-confessed and in terms of constitutional enactment, would you mind doing the needful here, especially since you refer time and again to our proud history and our heritage that is second to none, as well you should? 

This article was first published in 'The Nation' on June 6, 2010 under the title '

Development will not be ‘national’ if environment and heritage are absented'

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene.