Forests Fading Fast

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By Sanuj Hathurusinghe 

What do a glass of water you drink, the notebook you use to scribble down lecture notes on, the pill you take as medicine, and the wooden chopping board in your kitchen have in common? The answer is an obvious one but many of us may not be able to guess it right. The answer is that all the above-mentioned are connected to forests, one way or another. Without forests, many luxuries we enjoy in our day-to-day life – including the air we breathe and the water we drink – would not have been afforded to us. Forests play a vital role in our life and unfortunately, many of us are blissfully ignorant of how pivotal the wellbeing of forests to our lives is. 

International Day of Forests 

Tomorrow (21) the world celebrates the International Day of Forests – a United Nations (UN) day of importance –  to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests. The UN day is a relatively new one with this year being only the 10th celebration of it. Officially declared by the UN General Assembly as a UN day in 2012, the day is an opportunity for nations to undertake local, national and international efforts to organise activities involving forests and trees, such as tree planting campaigns.

The theme this year is, ‘Forests and Sustainable Production and Consumption’. The term sustainable development didn’t start to have a real meaning until after the turn of the century when the world realised that our journey towards development is fast-using resources which aren’t necessarily renewable or sustainable. Forests are no different, with the forest cover, world over fast-depleting, owing to the rapid development projects. 

Tomorrow at the live online event to celebrate the day, a panel of experts will discuss how forest-based innovations, resource efficiency, forest-based products and ecosystem services can contribute to a sustainable lifestyle and accelerate a shift towards more sustainable consumption and production. 

Value of forests 

As Sri Lanka is a tropical country blessed with several different types of forest cover it is important to see how Sri Lanka has fared so far in terms of conserving its precious forest cover. To know more about the matter, Ceylon Today contacted the Executive Director/Senior Advisor of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Hemantha Withanage. 

As Withanage revealed, the values of forests – Sri Lankan forests to be more exact – are countless such as the sensitive catchment areas which they hold underground water. The majority of pollinators live in forests and they provide habitat for almost every other animal in the country apart from humans. They are a fine source of food, fruits, medicine, firewood, and timber. Lots of lives depend on forests and lots of families living near forests, depend on them to put food on their tables. 

Forests are not just lands 

This means that forests have a commercial value. However, this doesn’t mean that forests are a never-ending source of resources humans can exploit to their heart’s content. They are more like a goose that lays golden eggs; become too greedy and you will lose the source altogether. This is where the term ‘sustainability’ weighs in. The forests can regenerate but not at the rate the humans are consuming it. Therefore, humans have to make use of the forests in a sustainable manner that doesn’t harm the forest.

This might sound simple enough for many of us to understand and to abide by, but according to Withanage, the reality in the country is actually far from it. “The real value of a forest ecosystem is not recognised by people – especially those who are living near forest areas – as well as politicians. No matter how hard we try to implore the value of forests, people only see them as land, valuable land,” Withanage said. 

Withanage took Kotiyagala – Waththegama Forest Reserve as an example. Since ‘84 the forest reserve has been subjected to slow but steady encroachment. As a result, about 40,000 hectares of valuable forest land has been destroyed over the years. When the issue was raised, the judiciary tried to do justice to both the people and the forest by allowing people to make use of only 25,000 hectares out of the encroached land. However, politicians such as Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera as well as residents of the area demanded another 12,000 hectares of land and the Thera almost went on a hunger strike to acquire the rest of the land. “This shows that people only care about the commercial value of the forest. 

We have a list of 10 people in Siyambalanduwa who owns as much as 300 hectares of illegal forestland. These people lend these illegally-acquired lands to chena cultivation and/or for cattle grazing, and earn quite a large amount of money. The politicians are lobbying to satisfy these people because of the amount of money involved. In Nilgala, about 800 hectares were destroyed to cultivate rubber and rambutan. In Pottuvil, a similar type of encroachment and forest clearing is happening to make way for cultivations,” Withanage revealed.   

Cattle grazing 

“We are saddened and disappointed by the lack of knowledge and the ignorance of politicians about this subject matter,” Withanage said. Seeing people exploiting the riches of the forest out of desperation is one thing but according to Withanage, it is sad to see how politicians – the policy makers of the country – too are acting in a manner that cares the least about the sustainability of forests. A fine example of this took place recently when the President’s ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandarak’ initiative in Polonnaruwa allowed people to enter their cattle into national parks for grazing. 

“The issue went even as far as the Parliament and the debate ultimately resulted in allowing cattle to enter national parks for grazing. In Sri Lanka, there are over a million cows and 90 per cent of them are herded inside forests in areas such as Maduru Oya Yala, Lunugamwehera, and Udawalawe, for feeding. These cattle are either owned by politicians or they have strong ties to the owners. 

About 10 to 15 cows consume the amount of food an elephant consumes in a day. Allowing cattle inside national parks where elephants live will result in a food shortage for elephants and ultimately lead towards human-elephant conflict (HEC). Unfortunately, all the politicians in the Parliament acted in favour of this and needless to say this affects the sustainability of forests. These short-sighted actions have grave consequences. Perhaps in the future, our younger generations might not have a forest or wildlife to look at, only pictures in textbooks,” Withanage said. 

Revocation of Circular 5/2001

In recent times the policy decisions the current regime has taken, have not been in the best interest of forests. The Most damaging of them all, according to Withanage, is the revocation of Circular 5/2001 and implementing the Circular 1/2020 which essentially took 500,000 hectares of forestland under the jurisdiction of Forest Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation, and placed it under the Divisional Secretariat (DS) divisions. 

The pressing concern of this decision is that, although called other forest areas, these forests don’t lack importance and whether the divisional secretaries have the proper knowledge or awareness to take the right decision instead of going just by the commercial drives. Many concerned environmentalists interpreted the decision as the Government’s inviting large-scale cultivators into forestlands under the guise of helping out the poor chena cultivator. If you can remember, in the recent past, there have been numerous new species discovered in Sri Lanka. Lots of these new species were day geckos and other reptile species which were found in these other forest areas. If these forest areas aren’t under the rule of the Forest Department, the future of them is largely uncertain which can lead to the newly-discovered becoming extinct soon.   

Unclear definitions 

As a country that is signatory to the Paris Agreement, Sri Lanka has pledged to increase its forest cover to 32 per cent by 2030. “The Government has always maintained that there is 29.2 per cent forest cover in the country. However, there are reports of research revealing that our country’s closed canopy forest cover is only about 17 per cent. There is a document by former Forest Conservator General, Anura Satharasignhe that can be found on the internet supporting this,” Withanage revealed. 

As things currently stand, achieving the 32-per cent forest cover by 2030 is only a dream so the Department of Forests is trying to include rubber cultivation in the calculation,” Withanage said. 

According to the definition of a ‘forest’ by Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), trees over 4 metres tall can be considered as forests and therefore, the Department is going by this definition to include rubber cultivation in the forest cover count. “This definition is much more suitable for countries in Africa rather than for tropical countries like Sri Lanka. Some countries like Brazil consider rubber plantations as forests because the rubber trees grow naturally in forests there. In Sri Lanka, we have industrial rubber plantations and no natural or wild rubber trees. Instead of conserving true forests in Sri Lanka the Government is trying to find loopholes in definitions to increase forest cover. While destroying true forest cover, the Government is pressing us to recognise rubber plantations as forests, which is wrong,” Withanage opined.  

Urban forestry 

While deforestation is happening at a rate, many Government and private organisations are trying to right the wrong by organising sapling planting campaigns. Tree planting is not a short term solution for deforestation but for it to be a long term solution, the planting of saplings has to be carried out in cleared forest areas, ideally making up for lost forest areas. However, this creates a different set of issues. Trees should be carefully selected after considering the types of trees that were there before in the forest to avoid invasive species being spread. Since these trees are planted in the wild there is no real guarantee that all of them will survive and moreover, it is practically impossible to monitor the growth of each and every tree that is planted. 

Therefore, the Government is taking a rather easy way out by sponsoring ‘urban forestry’ where trees are planted in urban areas where they can be monitored closely. “Although we can plant so many trees through this initiative, we cannot expect the same benefits a true forest gives us through this urban forestry. Therefore, although tree planting efforts are good in general, urban forestry efforts in particular shouldn’t be used to justify true forest clearing,” Withanage said.  

Currently, only about 30 per cent of forest cover is left in the world and that too is depleting at an alarming rate. Despite boasting a World Heritage forest and a number of forest reserves of different types, the situation in Sri Lanka is a dire one with its true forest cover disappearing fast. This International Day of Forests, the policymakers should revisit their decisions to see if they have been taken with the best interest of forests in mind, and the general public too should be more aware of the value of forests that go well beyond their commercial benefits.    

(Pix courtesy Janaka Withanage, Viswa Schitha and file)