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."
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
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 '
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
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
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.