Deforestation in Sri Lanka

The President needs to act, if he wishes to save himself and the government, and the country, before the torrent becomes a damaging and devastating flood 

by Raj Gonsalkorale

Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a forest reserve and a biodiversity hotspot in Sri Lanka. It is of international significance and has been designated a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site by UNESCO. According to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Sinharaja is the country's last viable area of primary tropical rainforest. More than 60% of the trees are endemic and many of them are considered rare. 50% of Sri Lankan's endemics species of animals (especially butterfly, amphibians, birds, snakes and fish species). It is home to 95% endemic birds -Wikipedia

The Sinharaja forest is the country’s most priceless jewel that belongs to the future generations to come. Any person or entity that has destroyed this jewel has committed a crime where punishment is useless as this forest and its bio diversity can never be regenerated by punishing anyone after the event.

However, punishment there has to be, very dire punishment, to deter others from continuing to commit this crime and reducing this jewel to rubble. It is not only some official or a businessman or woman who has to be punished, but the politicians and the government who are the temporary custodians managing the country. 

The UNESCO states that, quote“Sinha rajaencompasses the last extensive patch of primary lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka, and it is situated in the south-west lowland wet zone of Sri Lanka.  Covering an area of 8,864 ha and ranging from an altitude of 300 – 1,170 meters, it consists of 6,092 ha of Forest Reserve and 2,772 ha of Proposed Forest Reserve. This narrow strip of undulating terrain encompasses a series of ridges and valleys that are crisscrossed by an intricate network of streams. Draining to both the south and north, this detailed matrix of waterways flow into the Gin River on the southern boundary of the property and Kālu River via the NapoliDole, Koskulana Ganga and Kudawa Ganga on its northern boundary. Annual rainfall over the last 60 years has ranged from 3614 - 5006 mm with most of the precipitation during the south-west monsoon (May-July) and the north-east monsoon (November- January).

Sri Lanka is home to 830 endemic species, of which 217 trees and woody climbers are found in the low land wet zone. Of these, 139 (64%) have been recorded in the reserve including 16 rare species. Faunal endemism is particularly high for birds with 19 (95%) of 20 species recorded in the property being endemic to Sri Lanka. Endemism among mammals and butterflies is also greater than 50%. A number of threatened, endangered and rare species occur within the reserve including: leopard (Panthera pardus), Indian elephant (Elephas maxiumus), endemic purple-faced Langur (Presbytis senex), Sri Lanka wood pigeon (Columba torringtoni), green-billed Coucal (Centropus chlororrhynchus), Sri Lanka white-headed starling (Sturnus senex), Sri Lanka blue magpie (Cissa ornate), ashy-headed babbler (Garrulax cinereifrons) and Sri Lanka broad-billed roller (Eurystomus orientalis irisi)” unquote. 

Alarmingly, there appears to be credible evidence that unauthorised deforestation is occurring within, on the periphery or just outside the Sinharaja forest reserve, an elsewhere.

If this is true, it is a crime against the future generations of Sri Lanka.

If short term gain, and avarice in some cases, is destroying a priceless treasure like Sinharaja, the rulers of today need to be taken to task for allowing this to happen.

If reports made, photographs published (not the fake photos doing the rounds on social media, but credible ones published in the Daily Mirror), and the impassioned plea of a young women, Bhagya Abeyratne and that of a respected Buddhist Monk like Omalpe Sobitha Thero, are untrue or they are misinformed, it is the responsibility of the President himself to assure them and the public that the reports are untrue or the voices of a rising tide of protests are misinformed, and that all is well.

If no action is taken by the President, people may justly or unjustly form their views that this is due to possible complicity or due to indebtedness to political supporters and financiers who worked to ensure his election as President.

The President cannot do this by listening to the very parties who might be involved in this alleged destruction. He needs to get an independent, credible and impartial investigator to investigate and report back to him, and do so soon. That report needs to be made public, and if it reports that the allegations are true, then action should be taken against anyone responsible for this degradation and a vile crime.

The President is urged, in the strongest possible terms that he should appoint such an investigator without delay, to investigate and submit his or her report, with photographs, to prove or disprove the allegations, and to do so within a period of a month.

If this potentially very damaging crime is indeed occurring, and the future of Sinharaja is threatened, it is the future of the country that is at stake, as there will not be a country that could sustain itself without forests, and without bio diversity in those forests. Such a crime, if it’s happening, is something that can, and should be referred to the UNHRC as it is a very genuine crime against humanity and a violation of human rights of the people of Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, if these allegations are a storm in a tea cup, and orchestrated by political opponents of the President and the government, that needs to be exposed as well. If this were the case, it would be in the Presidents interest and the interest of the government, and indeed in the interest of the country, to expose such a fraudulent campaign and take those responsible to task according to the law of the land.

It appears that at the centre of the alleged forest destruction is the government gazette notification 05/2021 which permits Provincial and District Secretaries to allow “residual land”, land lying in between protected lands like wild life reserves, protected forests, which by themselves are not protected, to be used for agriculture or for cattle grazing etc.  While the intent of the gazette notification may have been honourable, it does leave room for dishonourable acts.

This writer highlighted this in an article titled“Sri Lanka desperately needs a strategic, transparent and comprehensive State land management policy” that appeared in the Daily FT, the Sri Lanka Guardian and Lankweb in November 2020.

It is the gazette notification 1/2020, which revokes previous notifications ‘05/2001,’ ‘02/2006,’ ‘5/98’ issued for the protection of the remaining remnant forests for the acquisition of lands required for the National Physical Plan, that is at the centre of this controversy as the enabling tool that opens the doors for misuse of protected land. In all likelihood the provisions of this gazette notification have been and are being misused. 

If not, it is the duty of the President and the government to demonstrate it is not being misused.

Cutting down forests in one area and planting trees in another area is not a solution to protect the environment. It is the bio diversity in a forest, along with the forest, that protects the environment of the country. An existing bio diversity, once destroyed by cutting down forests, will be destroyed forever, and planting trees elsewhere will not give rise to bio diversity in such an area perhaps for thousands of years.

If the allegations relating to deforestation and environmental damage is proven to be true, the government seems to be moving towards a self-destructing trajectory. The alleged sugar scam, where the reduction of import duty from Rs 50 per KG to 25 cts per KG, resulting in a revenue loss for the government to the tune of some Rs 15 Billion, and a windfall for some importers, appears as the beginning of this journey. 

The President needs to act, if he wishes to save himself and the government, and the country, before the torrent becomes a damaging and devastating flood