The plea is directly to the most powerful person in Sri Lanka – none other than President Maithripala Sirisena himself.
Put a stop to the rapid deforestation of the country, otherwise the consequences would be disastrous, is the urgent request going out from top environmentalists, as already the impact of such deforestation is being tragically experienced in the nook and crannies of the country, in the form of debilitating droughts and incessant rains.
With the main government agency allegedly responsible for the destruction of forests being the Mahaweli Authority, this strong plea was sent out to President Sirisena to rein it in, as he holds both portfolios of Mahaweli and Environment.
The time is right now, with the President’s laudable commitment to increasing the forest cover to 32%, to immediately halt the denudation of the precious existing forests, was the consensus among the four environmentalists at a media briefing on Tuesday.
The in-depth description of the forest-cover destruction and the mere fact that no one really knows exactly how much of Sri Lanka’s forest cover is left and what exactly is defined as forest cover were also highlighted at the briefing.
To show that they ‘walk the talk’, the organisers of the media briefing, the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) and the Federation of Environmental Organisations (FEO) sent all invites digitally and also printed the handouts on already-used paper, said FEO’s Coordinating Trustee Praveen Abhayaratne. True to their word, there were also no plastic bottles of water on the tables but glass jugs of water with glasses.
The briefing titled ‘Deforestation in Sri Lanka – Water security, food security and habitat security’ was all encompassing.
Specific instances of forest destruction and proposed deforestation by the Mahaweli Authority were brought into the spotlight by the Director of the Environment Conservation Trust (ECT), Sajeewa Chamikara.
Here are the areas under threat due to the Mahaweli L zone, according to him:
* In Mullaitivu, 6,000 acres of jungle, bordering the Andankulam Forest Reserve and the Kokilai Sanctuary are being cleared and destroyed. A majority of those who have got land in this area are big businessmen and not small farmers.
* Nearly 32,000 acres of land in the Padaviya Forest Reserve are being cleared for potential development. This Forest Reserve covering 48,451 acres was declared by Gazette No. 1793/21 on January 18, 2013, but soon after, 31,875 acres were de-gazetted by Gazette No. 1808/4 on April 29, 2013.
* Around 22,500 acres of forest in the Medirigiriya-Bisopura area have been handed over for development.
A few other areas where forest destruction is taking place:
* Around 20,000 acres of forests in Welikanda have been handed over to big businessmen for massive commercial cultivations.
* Around 5,000 acres from the Karunkalipuram Forest Reserve have been released for the settlement of people.
* There are major intrusions into the Proposed Elephant Management Reserve in Hambantota, in the form of large-scale soil excavation, metal-quarrying, setting up of solar power plants and commercial crop cultivations.
Quoting the famous saying of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on the three kinds of lies, “Lies, damned lies and statistics”, the President of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), Rukshan Jayewardene stressed that the Forest Department is “cooking up figures” to suit the occasion.
Referring to the percentage of forest lands, he stressed that statistics can be used to falsify information and give a wrong picture of ‘facts’ that are dubious. “People don’t challenge statistics but statistics are used to obscure and obfuscate the truth.”
In Sri Lanka, according to Mr. Jayewardene the percentage of forest lands goes up or down, depending on whose statistics they are. Pointing a finger directly at the Forest Department which is expected to be a responsible government agency, he was categorical that the figures given by it are confusing and perplexing.
He also questioned what the actual definition of ‘forest cover’ is. Does it include closed canopy natural forests, sparse forests, forest plantations, dense forests, mangrove forests, savanna forests, primary forests, naturally-regenerated forests and planted forests? Should forest cover include scrub jungle and natural green cover? Sometimes forest cover could be green cover because everything looks alike. Would this include coconut and rubber lands? Plantation forests are unequal to natural forest cover in the role they play in terms of water and soil conservation. Monoculture forests such as pinus and eucalyptus may be a substitute to forest cover, but will never be its equal.
“Baseline data on forest cover is vital,” he said, adding that while satellite imaging could identify such areas, this would just not be enough. Field officers need to be sent to these areas to match such data with old maps.
Making an “educated guess”, he estimated that the forest cover in Sri Lanka is below 20%.
Another allegation levelled by Mr. Jayewardene was that the Forest Department logs the forests, but no one really knows what happens to all that valuable timber.
Regarding the use of land for development, Mr. Jayewardene was quick to point out that although there is a lot of wasteland (mudu bim), development projects were always earmarked for areas where there was valuable forest cover.