Measuring Sri Lanka’s Forest Cover

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 7 2021
Editorial Measuring Sri Lanka’s Forest Cover

Deforestation, ecocide, environmental degradation: these have become household words as the public takes keen interest in recent events concerning the environment. It’s clear that Sri Lanka’s flora and fauna are in great danger; conservationist bodies have listed many to be on the endangered species list. 

Forests in Sri Lanka are on the brink of extinction: the Government, Opposition, corporation and activist groups agree to the fact in unison; denial in contrary is seen as wilful or just plain ignorant. 

One local activist group, the Rain Forest Protectors of Sri Lanka, said that the island’s forest cover that stood at 82 per cent in 1881 has dropped drastically to 17 per cent.

In 2010, Sri Lanka had 3.53Mha of natural forest, extending over 54 per cent of its land area. In 2020, it lost 11.2kha of natural forest, equivalent to 2.89Mt of CO2 of emissions, according to the Global Forest Watch. 

The Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) for 2020 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported the total forest cover area by adding rubber wood plantations to comply with the FRA definition of forest, but rubber wood plantations are not categorised as forest in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, the data forecast showed 2113.02 (1000ha) of total forest cover in the country. 

Reports can be cited with data going back to the 1800s showing deforestation trends correlating with development but what the public as well as activists need right now is a conservative estimate that can be used to gauge the actual deforestation of quintessential “forests” in Sri Lanka. 

These scientific studies have many caveats and conditions which might not back the local argument on the rate of deforestation. Taking the FAO report for example, if crop trees are also included in the data how are we to determine the specifics of deforestation according to local compatibilities? 

Yes they are all vegetation, but trees of Sri Lanka’s ancient forests have a larger role to play in the country’s biodiversity. Cutting down an old avocado tree in your back garden is not deforestation nor should 100 people cutting 100 avocado trees in their respective gardens be measured by instruments and included in inventories. Cutting down large swathes of forests, be it in Sinharaja or the little verge along a highway, is deforestation. 

The rule applies the other way around too. We cannot offset deforestation of such an unprecedented rate by “reforestation”. The trees being cut down would not be replaced for many generations, so those little saplings planted in those clearings are not forests for another 100 years or so and we should not be fooled by adopting a kind of attitude that will lead to more deforestation. 

A forest is not a bunch of trees but a sacred biome that is older than human civilisation. One cannot rely on the information of orbiting satellites alone to gain a comprehensive scope of the rate of deforestation. 

The studies should be done holistically with the involvement of non-State, State and private actors, and requires massive level of support and transparency from the Government and its institutions. A study like this will help build a general consensus on the rate of deforestation in Sri Lanka. 

A research done with many tiers of input will provide many perspectives on the rate of deforestation in the country. Once all the data is collected into one report, it should be analysed and proper recommendations implemented that is compatible to Sri Lanka’s sustainable development goals, but authorities should also be open to alternative policies. 

Lastly, the number cited by this research should be clearly observable and prompt urgency in the public. This number should be a modus operandi for all proper authorities and concerned parties and any action to mitigate deforestation should be executed with accordance and coordination with this number. 

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 7 2021

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