For centuries forests have provided much-needed food, water, wood, firewood, medicine, as well as land for seasonal cultivation for humans. Although the forest belongs to the wild animals, humans never hesitated to reap its benefits and most of the time, in an unsustainable way. Since the rapid development, forest degradation, and deforestation started threatening the existence of forests which are essentially the life force of all living beings on the planet, countries started forming laws and regulations in order to protect the remaining forests which are vital to the future of our world.

Protection of forests

In Sri Lanka the main law pertaining to the legal protection of forests is the Forest Ordinance. As per the Ordinance the subject minister is granted the power to protect certain areas of vegetation by declaring it as forest reserves of strict forest reserves via a special gazette notification. In order to do so, an assessment of environmental and biological importance and uniqueness of the forest areas needs to be carried out following which a special gazette notification can be issued by the subject minister. Once declared as a forest reserve or a strict forest reserve, the area is automatically protected by the Forest Ordinance and as such, entering such forests, removing flora from the forest, allowing cattle to enter the forest, poaching within the forest, setting fire to the forest, removing fauna or parts of fauna from the forest, biopiracy, and adding poisonous substances to the forest environment are listed as things one shouldn’t do. If one is found guilty of one or more above-mentioned crimes, they will be prosecuted and if found guilty, will be fined and/or imprisoned.

It seems as if this is pretty much common knowledge that anyone would know but in reality when the lives of humans are challenged by unforeseen circumstances or forces which they don’t really have any control over, such as the current economic crisis or the pandemic before that, it seems that either the legal definitions regarding forests are blurred in the view of many or they simply don’t seem to have any idea of the legal repercussions of their actions. Not knowing the legality pertaining to forests isn’t an excuse, according to the director of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Attorney-at-Law Nilmal Wickramasinghe. “If someone brings the resources of a reserved forest out of the forest, even without knowing that they are committing a crime, they still will be punished according to the law. Not knowing whether their actions are a crime or not isn’t really an excuse,” she says.

Forests: Not just a bunch of trees

According to Wickramasinghe in many instances entering a forest isn’t really a crime so people tend to be of the belief that if that is so, they can also bring something out of the forest or do something within the forest without having to suffer consequences, which isn’t at all true. “Forests are not just some group of trees grown closer together. They are precious ecosystems and sometimes, there are mini-ecosystems within forests which cannot be restored if some harm were to be done to them. Since Sri Lanka has diverse types of forests, in many occasions, a certain type of a forest ecosystem can only be found in one place and nowhere else in the country. Therefore, it is imperative to protect these types of ecosystems,” Wickramasinghe said.

Since forests play and integral role in our ecosystems, they should be protected, not just for the sake of flora and fauna living in them or for the sake of humans but for the sake of the entire environment, according to Wickramasinghe.

Don’t go by politicians’ words of assurance

During the pandemic when the livelihoods of many were challenged, it was observed that some dairy farmers in the North Central were allowed to enter their cattle into national parks in search of fodder. In fact, some politicians had given their blessing for this act with which, the farmers entered forest with their cattle having no worry over the repercussions of their actions. Ultimately, it resulted in a clash between forest officials and farmers and when the issue was resolved with the aid of law and the verdict wasn’t in favour of farmers.

Similarly, with the on-going financial crisis, some politicians have suggested allowing people living near forests to enter forests and reap fruits in the forest to sustain themselves during these trying times. While this sounds like a noble and a humane action, the law dictates that depending on the type of the forest, it is determined whether on can remove fruits or any such object of the forest from the forest. While politicians might promise sun and moon to the voters, it is the duty of the civilians to take the politicians’ words with a bucket of salt and probe deeper to see if there are any legal repercussions to what they are suggesting because ultimately, it is not them who will be brought before a court of law for doing something wrong but the innocent villagers who tried to make a living by putting their trust on the words of politicians.

Types of forests

Forest Conservation Ordinance (No. 16 of 1907) can be introduced as a law that provides for the regularisation of deforestation and the transportation of timber and forest products, and to enforce the law relating to the use of forest resource conservation and its sustainable management products. “Certain provisions of the Act provide for the protection of wildlife and forests. The establishment of the Forest Department also took place through this act. This Act has been amended 14 times on 14 occasions, including the last amendment No. 65 of 2009,” said Wickramasinhe.

According to this Act, the entire forests of Sri Lanka are divided and managed under four divisions, namely;

  • – Conserved forests
  • – Reserved forests
  • – Rural forests
  • – Other State forests

While Conserved and Reserved forests have a certain sense of protection to them, people tend to think lightly of Rural and Other State forests, thinking they are free to enter these forests and more or less do whatever they please. When the Circular 5/2001 was amended, giving authority over Other State forests to District Secretaries, the CEJ took legal action by filing a case which is still on-going. Similarly, legal action will be taken if anyone enters a forest and removes what is of the forest. “The law dictates people should know what to do and what not to. Once caught, one cannot say they didn’t know about it or that a certain politician said it is okay,” said Wickramasinghe.

By Sanuj Haturusinghe