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Sunday, 15 March 2015

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International Day of Forests - March 21:

Why are Lanka's forests fast disappearing?

Sri Lanka's forest cover which has taken a severe beating over the years is posed to plunge further.

Environmentalists and conservationists believe this precious natural vegetation, currently teetering precariously at below 20 percent of the total land area, (none of the authorities we contacted seemed to know the exact figures) will practically disappear - unless intervention measures are not forthcoming in the immediate future.

This gloomy scenario offers a strong contrast to the luscious green country which this tiny island once was. Then, in Colonial Ceylon, jungles, mangroves, swamps, grew abundantly and thrived with gay abandon. Then there was little or no encroachment by greedy timber merchants or so called development projects. According to statistics way back in 1881, our 'green paradise island' could boast of over 84 percent forest cover. With the exception of the few buildings that housed government departments in the main cities and towns and allowed some space for residential structures, most of the island was jungle and forests. In these forests roamed a host of unique animals, birds, reptiles, insects. Indigenous plant life grew abundantly, making the country one of the world's biodiversity hot spots.

The value of these natural resources was not lost on our Colonial rulers. In 1887 they established the office of the Conservator of Forests which precluded the Forest Department.

By 1885 the first Forest Ordinance was passed and both forest and wildlife management was carried out by the Forest Department till the establishment of the Department of WildLife Conservation in 1949, one year after we got our Independence. So what has brought about this drastic loss of forest cover in a country that has one of the highest bio densities in all of Asia?

Jagath Gunewardene a lawyer and environmentalist spells out three reasons - the three D's if you like: Degradation, Deforestation and Development, mainly the result of activities by self motivated people.

Today, he says, "We have to import timber in a country where forests once abounded. "We may have to do this in the future as well unless the picture is reversed."

Global reports

Reports by Environmentalists both here and abroad, have further added to this gloomy picture. Underlining the danger of our rapidly dwindling forest cover, (Global Forest report network), has made the shocking statement that from 1090 - 2005 Sri Lanka had one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, losing around 35 percent of old forest growth and 18 percent of its total cover. When those who were displaced by the war returned to their homes, they found their homes overtaken by the jungle. When they started to clear the land and began to farm on them, the elephants and other jungle creatures lost their secondary homes, the report pointed out. In reply, a conservationist says, the only solution is to grow back the lost forests with community forests. Re-forestation is the answer, he says adding that the government should have a conservation plan overlapping any re-settlement plan.

Population versus environment

What about our ever increasing population? Could it also contribute to this rapid decline of our forest cover?

To give you some idea of our rapid population growth, in 1900 Sri Lanka's population stood at 3.5 million people. By 1956 it had risen to a little over eight million with a density of 103 persons for every square mile and the growth rate more than double at 2.8 million. In 1992 the population had soared to over 17 million despite a fall in growth rate to 1.0. Today, it has reached an all time high of 20 million and is expected to arise to over 23 million by 2035.

What do these figures signify in terms of our environment degradation?

Simply that the human population of this country, by sheer numbers, appears to have taken over most of the limited land and natural resources of this small island of 65,608 square miles, destroying in the process some of the greatest treasures: it's once rich bird life and animal life, its forest cover which has dwindled from 70 per cent in 1900 to 24 per cent in 1990 and to a new low of 20 per cent today, and its unique eco system.

Much of this deforestation has taken place as a result of man's dependence on the forest and on forest land for his basic needs, his food and shelter. This dependence may not have been a problem, the population was small and the forest was sustainable. But today, because of increased population, forests are being cleared at a faster pace than they can regenerate, and forest products collected in excessive quantities, The result is an alarming decline in natural forest canopy to its present low, conservationists point out.

It is this dependence on the forest and its products that has made forest conservation in Sri Lanka more than just an environment problem, and to view it in the context of a larger issue as a socioeconomic problem. Hence environmentalists and conservationists are now urging authorities in charge of our natural resources and in particular the forest Department, to look beyond the forest to surrounding lands and address the socioeconomic problems of the people living in those areas ' at risk'.

Bio diversity in peril

One must realise that forests are not the only natural resource that have been endangered because of the massive rise in population. The rich bio-diversity of the island is at peril.

Ranked 11th in the world in terms of rich biodiversity, Sri Lanka is said to have a greater biodiversity per unit area than any country in Asia. Our unique eco systems, wetlands, the rich variety of bird life (many of which are endemic species), plant life, our ocean beds, marine life have all been endangered as a result of man's desperate search for arable land and food and his environmentally unfriendly lifestyle habits.

Conservationists have also pointed out the need to protect the rich marine biodiversity in the seas around Sri Lanka which have received scant attention upto now. These include coral reefs and sea grass beds, of which we have little accurate information. Our coral beds have been depleted and damaged and even endangered sea creatures. Like the dolphin and turtle have not escaped man's greed.

Former Director Population Planning division of the Health Ministry Dr ATPL Abeykoon reiterated this fact when he said, "Population and Environment are closely linked. With every increase in population the strain on our limited resources becomes greater and more unbearable. Take for example the first half of the past century when our population was a fraction of what it is today. In that period, traditional practices in agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining were carried out to a degree that was well within the absorptive capacities of different eco-systems.

With the rapid expansion of population since 1945, these practices began imposing increasing environmental stress resulting in a continuing environmental degradation." Yet even with this increasing population, there still could be room for sufficient open spaces and eco friendly habitats where man and those who inhabit our jungles can co-habit if there was better planning in future development projects , he added.

A recent statement by a top official of the Environment Ministry has raised fresh hopes when he said that they hoped to increase Sri Lanka's forest cover to 35 percent by 2030.

Examples of significant increases in forest cover has already been seen in other parts of the world. It is not too late for our own authorities to emulate such programs and bring back our lost forests.

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