The Beginning

Ranil Senanayake

Havana 2011

The year was 1975 living as a part time student and snake collector in California; there were many trips to many places in the world looking for rare or unusual species. I was part scientist as the field associate of the American Museum of Natural History and Research Associate for the California Academy of Sciences, part maverick as the ʻsnake manʼ of Sri Lanka and Redondo Beach, while at the same time juggling the academic requirements of the University of California to maintain a high GPA so that I would not loose my fee deferment. I had just returned from Sri Lanka, fuming because the habitats of some of my favorite species were been sacrificed on the altar of ʻdevelopmentʼ. It was not my inability to easily find these reptiles and amphibians that affected me, but the fact that they were being deprived of their homes.

In Sri Lanka, the felling of rainforests continued apace, the establishment of monocultures of Pinus and Eucalyptus by the Forestry Department as a response to the lostforests, was an abomination that robbed the creatures that I loved of their homes. Discussions and arguments with the ʻpowers that beʼ brought no results. Just amused comments on ʻwhy would one get so emotional about snakes and frogs?ʼ Long hair and a disdain for convention did not help my cause very much either. The only understanding came from my friend Athu ( Vicky Atukorale) who pointed out that many of the forest species that I was concerned about could be found in some of the ʻpurana gamasʼ traditional villages that he knew.

Visiting these villages during my sporadic trips to Sri Lanka in the early 70ʼs confirmed Athuʼs views. But what could one do? If I could not stop the destruction, could I help expand these villages? This was also the time that I was being exposed to the ideas of that great Biologist Prof. Michael Soule. As professor of Conservation Biology at the University of California at San Diego and as my major professor, he began to open my eyes to the possibilities of designing to mimic natural habitats. So began the process of looking for plants that the village could use so that I could get them to increase their diversity and help create more habitats for rainforest biodiversity.

The concept of ecosystem function was becoming clearer, thanks to teachers like Prof. Robert Ricklefs an outstanding ecologist. Every time I went out on my herpetological expeditions, it was always with an eye for utility plants that I could bring back to enrich the village home gardens. The seed was planted in my head. I could make a difference!

Then in 1975, I received another commission to travel to Guatemala. This was to be a turning point in my life. Not only was my doubt of the value of ʻdevelopmentʼ confirmed, but also the value collecting animals in the name of science and zoological research was challenged. My concern for biodiversity could not be fulfilled through, cages, bottles or papers, rebuilding their habitats was the only way! Returning to Sri Lanka in 1976 I recounted my experiences in an article in the national newspaper ʻThe Sunʼ and so began the process of confronting and responding to the ʻstatus quoʼ. 

Guatemala: A Sad True Story

Guatemala city is the showpiece of Central America. With a heavy influx of foreign investment the city has bloom. I visited Guatemala last month after an absence of eight years changes were quite profound. The city was modernized and everywhere there were signs of affluence. Fancy pizza palace were on about every street, whereas eight years ago I would have been hard‐press to find even one.

Stainless steel floor discos and high fashion houses were just some of the handmaidens of development that were visibly evident.

It also seemed pretty impressive. I could not help buy wonder if these were the rewards that we in Sri Lanka were due to receive.

The last time I was in Guatemala I was collecting snakes and spent a lot of time in the mountains and backwoods. I have made many friends in the village and looked forward to meeting with them again. This time I was there looking for new fruit trees, vegetables and fiber crops that I intended to  use in my rainforest analog model for the wet zone village designed in Sri Lanka. So after a few days in the city I began  my journey into the villages.

The city bespoke of growth, massive multi‐story buildings were erected everywhere. The streets were full of sleek luxury vehicles. I visited many elegant houses and the mood was gay indeed. At that time I remember thinking “how lucky these people are, they have gained all the fruits of development in such a short while”.

My friends in the city were mostly businessmen and their days were marked by visits to great restaurants and nightclubs. Everyone spoke of investments, agencies,  imports, exports and of what expensive things they have bought or were going to buy. It was like being in a great roaring tidal wave. One could not help but be carried along by the sheer exuberance, but even at that point I remember wondering about the pre-ponderance of Americans, Germans and other non‐Guatemalans in all the high spots of the city.

Then I began my travel out of the city. At this time I went out with Francisco and Kurt who are basically middle class citizens. As we drove to the suburbs, I began to get a somewhat a different picture of the city. Francisco pointed out what were average three to four bedroom houses.  “When you were here last my friend, those houses cost ten thousand dollars. You know how much they cost now?” I professed my ignorance. “Over 90.000 dollars” he said, and continued thereby “ we cannot afford such accommodation any more, some time ago we could have aspired for a house but now…..The gringos (foreigners) are the only ones who live here”.

I confess that the rosy image I initially had begun to get somewhat shaken. I said so when I come back to the hotel at evening and went out for dinner. My companions reassured me “you find malcontents in every society” they said “what  you have to realize is the enormous gain the investors bring to the country by creating jobs and industries”.

The next day I was out looking for a fruit plant called jocote.  It had the ability to be propagated from branch cuttings and had extremely nutritious fruit. There were two varieties red and yellow. The yellow type was rarer but sweeter and came from the lowlands. On the way down to the lowlands I passed the forest road of Pallim, five years ago this was one of my favorite collecting areas for fish and reptiles, the air of nostalgia was strong and I had to turn my truck to explore the road again.

About 200 yards down the road was a lovely stream. I remembered from my last visit. It had fascinated me with the wealth of fish and by one part being warmer due to a volcanic spring. When I stopped my truck on the bridge the first thing that struck me was a strange odor, pungent and strong. “It is volcanic gas” I thought and proceeded to climb down to the stream to explore. After about 3 minutes by the stream I began to realize that there was nothing alive on it. I was by this time literally sick from the fumes. It was an unnatural, chemical odor, but even then I did not realize the truth. My thoughts were that a new volcanic spring had opened up. I  was curious, so I summoned my Indian guide Bruno and we moved upstream. I was eager to see this new volcanic phenomenon.

A mille upstream the source of the smell was revealed. It was the new complex of the Bayer chemical company. So the stream was being poisoned by its effluents. The stream at this point was at least 400 feet in elevation above sea level.  Consider the insensitivity of the managers. People living by the stream all the way to the sea would be affected by their discharges. The proud of my friends in the city suddenly began to ring hollow.

Then I began to make more penetrating enquiries and found that the “malcontents” ranged from the Guatemalan Chamber of Commerce who were fighting hard to keep the giant American corporation SEARS out of Guatemala to protect their native shop keepers: up to the dispossessed labour who were trapped into complete dependency on the huge agricultural complexes of the multinational.

These complexes grew crops for export and took the most productive farmlands out of the hands of the people. It was as if people did not matter and that only abstract economic goals such as: “growth” mattered. It was disturbing. The images were vivid.

As the plane bringing me home clipped low over the beautiful paddy fields and the coconut small holdings around Negombo, those images came back to haunt me and chilled me to the bone. Wither goes we?

“Hasta la victoria siempre” – ʻEl Cheʼ