Stories from afar

In what was an unusual week by way of travel, I visited Jaffna, Hambantota and Kandy on work. Amongst other things, each journey and destination brought into sharp focus just how far removed a Colombo, and a Western Province centric news agenda is from the lives, livelihoods, opportunities and challenges faced by communities in these areas. It is one thing to occasionally read about these parts, and then too in the context of a politician’s high-profile visit, a riot, some unrest, violence, a ceremonious opening or enforced closure. It is quite another to visit these cities, and to also be attentive to the journey to them – for what one observes, and does not. Occasional visits do not an expert make, but they do offer at the very least a hint of what lies beyond the usual reportage, and indeed, popular imagination.

Take Hambantota. Wildlife Department officials, living in squalid official quarters and with the most basic of infrastructure, diligently oversee thousands of acres at risk of destruction on a scale that boggles the mind. The threat is two-fold. One, unsurprisingly, comes from entirely corrupt practices of giving private contractors and businesses rights to mine, dig or otherwise harvest the land. The other comes from the complete disconnect between line ministries. The Mahaweli Development Authority, the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Forest Department have no clear lines of communication, coordination and collaboration. This is entirely deliberate, and clearly political. The environmental destruction, in the name of development, occurring in and around Hambantota is in fact largely legal. But it is an open secret that the legality of permits granted under this and previous governments basically support industries and large scale farming that harms the environment and devastates the natural habitat for wildlife. Going well off the beaten path and into the least developed areas in Hambantota, the scale of environmental devastation is quite incredible, in the fullest sense of the word. The landscape, especially when viewed from a drone, resembles in some parts a mining town somewhere in Australia, with vast open pits and heavy machinery instead of a virgin forest present just a few years ago. There are entire hills which are being excavated for soil, leading to the creation of artificial lakes with steep slopes that are a death trap for animals and especially elephants.

And then there is Mattala Airport. Nothing of what you’ve read and heard about the place prepares you for what it really is – a rather beautiful, modern airport in the middle of nowhere, in what was just a few years ago, thick forest. Parts of the building resemble a post-apocalyptic movie set from Hollywood – with art deco sofas that are covered in fine dust, unused lounges, pristine toilets rarely if ever used, a completely empty tarmac and air-bridges going nowhere, sheltering soporific ground staff from the scorching sun. Centrally air-conditioned, with staff including janitorial services, the entire airport services around two to five passengers at most every day from two flights. It is bizarre.

There are other monstrosities. The Convention Centre, in the middle of nowhere. A modern hospital, construction in stasis, also in the middle of nowhere. A vast Botanical Garden, the upkeep of which requires more water daily than surrounding villages have to drink. All along the road to the airport are large plastic drums in front of houses, for drinking water, supplied regularly by the Municipal Council. That’s how unbelievably under-developed the region really is, in stark contrast to massive structures that no one can visit, goes to or wanted. Tellingly, even the most trenchant critiques that don’t venture beyond the vanity projects of the Rajapaksas fail to recognise the degree to which the environment, and wildlife, continue to be eviscerated. Also, while the media focusses on economic aspects around the lease of vast swathes of land in Hambantota to the Chinese, earmarked for development and purportedly a million jobs, there are hundreds of villagers who are already agitated around the potential loss of land they have tilled for generations. Collectively, they own thousands of acres. They are well organised, informed, well connected through mobile phones, aware of their legal rights, have recorded meticulously promises by politicians and other officials being allegedly reneged and extremely determined. Some of the first media reports in the coming weeks focussing on their plight will focus on how if unaddressed, or badly handled, these communities can be easily mobilised by charismatic political leadership (located not too far away), and with swelling numbers, result in a major upset for the current government’s plans and in the near future.

Travel to these regions supports certain assumptions and questions others. For example, in addition to mainstream media, Facebook is already a trusted, well used vector of news and information by those in even remote areas, who all have a smartphone. They are now all deeply worried about data charges, supporting an assertion of mine that the phenomenal increase in taxes for mobile and broadband data is in effect a direct form of censorship, curtailing the ability of citizens to interact with each other, and their government. The tax hike impacts far more those outside of urban centres than those living in them. Not all of government is corrupt – from officials in the Wildlife Department to those at the Provincial level administration – there is visionary, strong, tech-savvy leadership deeply embedded to local communities and organic solutions to local issues. They are very alone, constantly subject to political pressure from higher echelons of power that rob them of agency, authority and ultimately, entirely dulls all initiative. Aside from the media-genic exposes, arrests and drama around the FCID, there is systemic corruption at all levels of government, the scale and scope of which lies well beyond the awareness of the general public fed on a largely commercial media diet, even though locally, villagers and public official know full well who is doing what, where and under whose protection.  But local stories never make it to national news. The narrative of development is being sold, used and abused to fit what are entirely parochial interests. What’s under-reported, or not at all, is the impact it has on people, local communities, livelihoods, the environment and wildlife, beyond just mega-development projects and massive infrastructure.

It is possible even without a public service media culture or institutions to highlight these stories. A modern smartphone combined with a drone is all one needs to effectively capture compelling visuals and sounds to support the plethora of stories from people beyond well-travelled paths and locations. There is a direct link between giving voice to the aspirations and frustrations of communities, and prospects around everything else the government wants to do over the next year, including most importantly around constitutional reform. One ignores these stories from the vast heartlands of what to many is the periphery, and the people who tell and are in them, at their own peril.

Just ask Hillary Clinton.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 27 November 2016.

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