It is time to recognize the fact that much of the investment in “forests” up to date has missed the forest for the wood. We have engaged ourselves in actions that addressed only one aspect of a forest, its wood or timber.  This myopic vision has allowed the massive discounting of all other values of a forest. While the value of a forest in biodiversity conservation is just being appreciated, its value in acting as a buffer for problems wrought by climate change is still poorly understood.  It is urgent that we re-evaluate a forest, so that the institutions of ‘forestry’ act effectively within their mandate ‘the art and science of managing forests’

The forest has long been recognized as an important source of many environmental and cultural needs but a higher relative value being placed on wood by modern ‘forestry’, resulted in their being discounted in national and international economic decisions. The industrial plantation sector has been especially active in promoting monocultures as forestry at the expense of all other forest functions. The negative environmental effects that monocultures have, has been ignored in the promotion of Pinus, Eucalyptus, and Teak etc. This myopia has not diminished as seen by the current attempt to burden us with poorly considered projects such as the 1,000 Ha of bamboo monocultures thanks to UNIDO and Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The involvement of the GEF in this debacle is an especially sorry state of affairs as the GEF arose out of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) committed to protect biodiversity

Studies on biodiversity indicate that trees account for only 1 % of the biodiversity or less.  Modern forestry concentrates only on this 1% and with plantations of monocultures (one species only) reducing this further to .01% while ignoring the reality of what a forest should be.  What is known by science reveals the forest as an ecosystem of tremendous complexity.  The trees while providing an essential framework of a forest, constitutes only a fraction of the total biodiversity.  A forest contains a huge array of organisms that continually change in form and function.  Thus it is the biodiversity of a forest that signals its identity.  It should also be borne in mind that, from the small bushes of an area after a fire to the tall growth fifty years later, the species and architecture goes through many changes, and all these ecosystems are expressions of the growing, maturing forest.

In Sri Lanka, there has been a long tradition of forest knowledge. Thus it was with a sense of national pride that the following statement was made by Sri Lanka at Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP III, in Buenos Aires, 1996

Mr. Chairman,

On the question of forests, our thinking has been greatly influenced by the teachings of Lord Buddha who states ” The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demand for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity”.   Thus we are concerned that the issue of biodiversity of forests have not received the attention that it deserves.  We, with the scientists and traditional peoples of the world appreciate the fact that a forest is comprised of myriad interacting parts, yet is still being dealt with, as an entity comprised only of trees.  It is patently clear to us that the real nature of a forest resides in its biodiversity, thus we see the need for and wish to propose that the conference of Parties develop a mandate on forests similar to the Jakarta mandate on coastal biodiversity and adopt a program of work, This we firmly believe will be the way that we can deal with forest ecosystems as an organic whole.

Sadly, the will to implement such a national vision was found to be lacking in the bureaucracy over the subsequent years and timber remained the only focus of forestry. The delegates who attend subsequent meetings were better at shopping than negotiating and the Sri Lankan request was not followed up.  It seems that the Forestry institutions of Sri Lanka were following the dictum of Fenrow, the Head of US Forest Service. Who pointed out in 1920 that;

‘The first and foremost purpose of a forest growth is to supply us with wood material; it is the substance of the trees itself, not their fruit, their beauty, their shade, their shelter, that constitutes the primary object,’

Ignoring completely the vision of the Buddha, who stated that:

“The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demand for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity”

Thereby uttering the first recognition of ecosystem services in the historical record.

Of course we have been treated to the hypocrisy of the politicians promoting their ‘economic development’ hype, while they enmesh the people of this country with desire, ignoring the advice of the Buddha who said ‘desire will always bring pain and suffering’.   It seems tragic that the so-called Buddhist bureaucrats too seek to follow their foreign masters, accepting the vision of Fenrow and ignoring the vision of a forest that was given to us by the Buddha.

Between 1990 and 2010, Sri Lanka lost an average of 24,500 ha or 1.04% per year of its forests. In total, between 1990 and 2010, Sri Lanka lost 20.9% of its forest cover, or around 417,000 ha. This brings to question the worth of the words used in the Mahinda Chinthanaya which has set a target of 33 per cent of land area of Sri Lanka to be covered by forest by 2016, this was to be accomplished by an investment of Rs. 10,500 Million for the period from 2007/16. It is now the end of 2012 and we are loosing forest not gaining any. Where then, has the Rs 10,500 million gone?

When any adherence to other forestation strategies such as the National Climate Adaptation Strategy for Sri Lanka 2011 to 2016 is considered, the confusion becomes considerable. This strategy seeks to:

  1. Link/restore/conserve. Forests and other habitat refugia to increase resilience of ecosystems and species
  2. Convert monoculture forest plantations into mixed species plantations
  3. Promote land use planning for biodiversity conservation and limit inappropriate vegetation conversion.

But by the end of 2012 all we can see is the decrease of natural forest, increase in monoculture tree plantations and land use planning that completely ignores biodiversity. It seems that we have not only lost our forests, we have also lost our money!