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Need to stop deforestation

Policies are essential to protect primary forests located in LRC lands

by Manjula Karunaratne and Dr Indi Akurugoda

The known truth is about deforestation, which was taken place during the British colonial period to promote export-oriented estate plantations. Large areas of primary forest lands were destroyed in the central highlands of Sri Lanka to plant highly popular Ceylon tea and coffee.However, there were restrictions introduced by the British colonial rulers to protect the primary forests in central highlands situated above 5000 feet. Moreover, the rubber plantation was introduced to the midlands of the country as a commercial crop and consequently, the forest lands were cleared to grow rubber. Still the mountain tops had not been cleared aiming to protect the water catchments and the climatic disorders of the island.

Land Reform Commission (LRC) and destruction of primary forests

In 1972, the land policy had been drastically changed when the government at that time introduced the LRC law to take over agricultural lands owned by any person excess of the ceiling of 50 acres. This resulted in fragmentation of large estates and the increase of excessive government-owned lands. These also include the primary forest lands which the colonial rulers left without clearing to plant commercial crops. Thus, these are not agricultural lands or bare lands. Such primary forest lands belong to the LRC are precious environmentally sensitive areas that definitely need to protect towards facing the environmental and climatic disasters.

Deforest: Curse of nature 

In the aftermath ofthe 1972 LRC law, hundreds of thousands of acres of lands that were taken over by government have been distributed among politicians and businessmen towards promoting investment. If they were willing to pay the tenure, the lands were released unconditionally by providing deeds of ownership. The tragedy is that some of these released lands were not bare lands or agricultural lands, but they were primary forests. The new land owners started clearingthese precious primary forest lands to grow tea and other commercial crops.Also, they have investedin tourist hotels and other commercial activities to earn profits. This can be identified as a disaster because suchprimary forests cannot be regrown. Even if we grow, it will not reach the successive and sensitive levels of a primary forest to control environmental imbalance and to protect the ecosystem and biodiversity as before.

Sinharaja rainforest and its peripheries

Sinharaja rainforest is a UNESCO world heritage site which covers 11,187 hectares. However, there are adjoined primary forest lands surrounded Sinharaja periphery and most of these landscontain sensitive ecosystems that reflect rich biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these lands belong to the LRC and have already been released to investors putting such primary forests on extreme threat due to large scale plantations, hotels and other destructive projects. Despite of proposals emerging from environmentalists to declare these lands as forest reserves,the policy makers intentionally neglect conservation.

It is a compulsory need to connect these peripheral primary forests to the Sinharaja world heritage site to conserve wet zone forests and their biodiversity. Everyday, the situation gets worse due to forest fragmentation. On July 22, 2004, the cabinet decision, PS/CS/26/2004, demanded to obtain a recommendation to arrogate and connect a half kilometer buffer of LRC lands surrounded the Sinharaja periphery into the world heritage site. Although this recommendation was approved by the cabinet at that time, the responsible institutions have not taken any action to implement it. If the Department of Forest Conservation could implement this, more than 2500 hectares of primary forest lands can be connected to the Sinharaja world heritage site.

The Department of Forest Conservation can easily arrogate these primary forest lands and according to the National Environmental Act, the Central Environmental Authority has powers to involve in banning deforestation of primary forest lands of more than one hectare. The Minister of Environment can declare these lands as protected areas. Sadly, nothing has happened, though there is a government policy to increase the forest cover of Sri Lanka up to 32 per cent. If the government is able to protect the primary forest lands, it will be more productive because reforestation can never restore primary forests. Environmental organizations and activists have continuously demanded to declare a one-kilometer wide buffer zone (environmentally sensitive area) surrounding the Sinharajaworld heritage site. These efforts were ended up in failure as a result of the high negligence of responsible authorities. There is no clear reason why the responsible ministry and the authorities are silent regarding such deforestation issues.

Threats to Handapan Ella and Walankanda primary forest areas

A recent example of deforestation of primary forests in the Sinharaja periphery can be found in Botiyathenna in Rathnapura district. Handapan Ella and Walankanda primary forest areas which located in the Sinharaja rainforest periphery are under threat. The lands are located above 3000 feet and no sufficient researches have been conducted about the rich biodiversity in these areas. These primary forest areas are LRC lands and large portions of these lands (50 – 300 acres per portion) have been distributed among private owners to initiate investments. Such land owners are outsiders and according to the villagers, most of the land owners are even unable to find the exact location of their lands. Their behavior indicates that they do not have proper legal documents to prove the land ownership.

Killing nature is killing humanity 

Most of the primary forests have been cleared and still clearing to plant tea, black pepper and cardamom.Some of the precious primary forests were cleared and still clearing to build large-scale tourist hotels and start bottled water projects. Granite projects and mining have resulted insoil erosion destroying the whole balance of the ecosystem. Although only few portions of primary forest lands are remaining, these lands are also under high pressure of rapid clearance. This is due to their private ownership provided by the LRC. It is evident that all the equipment such as excavators and compressors are parked yet in these sites and roads have been built to reach the mountain tops to expand the project sites further. These mountain tops contain sensitive ecosystems with water catchments and rich biodiversity. Illegal hunting and felling continuously contribute to the rapid increase of environmental degradation.

Proposals to protect primary forests

This is not to propose banningall investment in genuine bare lands or agricultural lands blindly and uncritically. We propose declaring primary forest landsbelong to the LRC and primary forest lands which have already been released for investment, as reserved environmentally sensitive areas. At least the government should implement the cabinet approval, PS/CS/26/2004,to arrogate primary forest lands surrounding Sinharaja periphery.

The responsible authorities need to integrate to avoid clashes towards implementing a sustainable environmental policy. Politically-influenced unplanned projects will not fulfill the conservation needs other than selfish profit desires of a few. It is encouraging that the villagers and community-based organizations have a greater interest in protecting primary forests against opportunistic political and administrative forces, and multi-national companies. This trend needs to be strengthened to protect the remaining primary forests for future generations.

Dr Indi Akurugoda
Senior Lecturer, Department of Public Policy, University of Ruhuna

Manjula Karunaratne
Senior Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Ruhuna

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