In The Press

Science is the best outpost for attack or defense Port City Project


Last week, a respondent in an objection to the controversial Port City project, rebuked the petitioner for orchestrating a 'Maadya Senakeliya' or a media circus. The petitioner was an environmentalist, pleading court to consider massive and negative impacts on the environment should the project is given the go ahead.

Interestingly, the court took up the respondent's observation, mildly observing that typically environmental organizations come to court with the media, and that the cameras are all set up outside court to 'receive' them and their statements once court adjourns or the hearing is postponed.

The exchange is bound to be marginal in the consideration of arguments of course, but it points to thorny issues of 'managing media' let's say that environmentalists have to contend with.

It is good to assume that court pays no attention to the media in deliberations. However, public perception can move decision-makers and thereby challenge environmentalists. In cases where the 'enemy' is the government the fact that the ability to move the media lies mainly with the powerful is a no-brainer. It appears a losing game from the get go but it's a game that has to be played nevertheless.

In the case of the Port City issue, environmentalists are better positioned than usual. The President as well as the Prime Minister, whose United National Party is now the major partner of the 'National Government,' were vociferous in their objections to the project in the run-up to the Presidential Election on the 8th of January 2015. That election campaign against the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa was full of rhetoric amounting to a promise to stop the project. Naturally, civil society objectors, especially environmental NGOs including the Fisherfolk Union (aggrieved on account of possible impact to livelihoods) felt they could petition successfully for cancellation.

The problem is that politicians are good at promising, especially at elections. In this instance, after the euphoria of victory gives way to the sober and tough task of actually delivering the tangibles, other factors come into play.

In the case of the Port City Project, there's the 'China Reality' that cannot be easily dismissed. For all the accolades that Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe received from what could be called the Anti-Rajapaksa Brigade of the international community, naturally led by the USA and Europe, the fact remains that these countries, for all the anti-China rhetoric, need China. Secondly, what they cannot give, China will. You can be in the West's good books and run the risk of pauperizing the population or just go to Mr Moneybags. Either way you are a slave, but the second option might keep your head above the water.

Global politics aside, if it's about the project and only about the project, there's the serious matter of saying no to US$ 1.4 billion being infused into the economy, which needless to say has given and will continue to give Mr Ravi Karunanayake a massive headache. The stoppage means, simply, bucks are held up. The 'economic imperative' is a proven mover for Governments, more so than environmental concerns.

That said, there are laws in this country. This is why even Mahinda Rajapaksa's regime had to 'go through the environmental paces' with regard to the Port City Project. That Government felt it could get away with anything. Given the initial assessments on environmental impacts, this would have been perceived as an easy pass, as opposed to say the removal of Shirani Bandaranayake. Still, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was commissioned for reclamation. It was felt, probably that one was not required for sand burrowing and so what was commissioned was an IEE (Initial Environmental Examination), a 'lower order' certification. It was a life-line for those seeking environmental justice.

Forgetting global political economic realities, forgetting the needs of the Treasury, forgetting the not so stellar reputation of NGOs, this is important. The environment is something that is given on loan to those in the present by those who are to come later. Responsible citizenship requires that things are kept safe and sustainable. That's a notion that has marked all engagements with the natural world for centuries. But even if we forget all that, we have to assess the environmental and social impact of not just the mega projects but all human interventions. The Port City Project is too big not to be seen.

Today, all signs indicate, that the Government is ready to forget election promises. The relevant spokespersons will bend, twist or even play a straight bat and come clean on the issue, with regard to economic and political imperatives and, if more robust studies constitute a green light, with respect to environmental aspects as well.

This is where the media comes into play. The point is that those who do not have the logic of scientific inquiry or rather its product on their side, need buttress. Whether the needy happen to be the project-backers or the objectors, is left to be seen. We are told that a comprehensive EIA is now complete and that it will be made available to the public for comment. Science has to be met with science. There can be different assessments of course, but substantiation of claim is crucial. Vague lines from one element to a claimed outcome cannot be allowed to become less vague due to 'media prominencing'. That would be a disservice to the citizens whose interests objectors claim to represent and demeaning of journalists who wear the Watchdog label.

The new, comprehensive, EIA would in all likelihood have enough science to counter the objections that have already been articulated. If this is dodgy, it must be countered. Scientifically. We would be poor indeed if we lack un-purchasable scientists who can do the needful.

The entire process has some positives for the ordinary citizens. First, even at the cost of annoying a powerful nation and perhaps even having to pay compensation, it shows that the rules stand and cannot be fudged, ignored or circumvented. Therefore, those dreaming of mega projects of this nature in the future will have to get their science right without depending on political backing to obtain approval. If litigation results in the court affirming the need to go with protocols that too is a victory for the petitioners.

The Port City is not the first and will not be the last 'mega project' we have seen. Environmentalists have a role to play. They can shoot themselves in their respective feet if they do the media-circus number in the long run. All it takes is for one sober commentator to take their grand extrapolations apart. This is easily done when you pad up thin evidence with rhetoric, tall stories and indulge in number-fudging.

The Port City issue, regardless of outcome, teaches many people a good lesson, politicians, journalists and environmentalists included. It's the science that should count in the end and even if it doesn't, it's the best outpost for attack or defense as the case may be.