It is rumored that the Government will set about the task of having 35% of Sri Lanka covered with forest.  If so, that is a laudable goal. But one hopes that this activity will be framed by the knowledge that allowed Sri Lanka to make the following statement at the 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.

Since 1996, addressing forests as a biodiverse reality has been slow. Hopefully, with the current activity, this vision can become a reality and Sri Lanka can show the world the value of our statement.  But we must be cautious on the use of the word forest.

There is an old saying ‘A tree does not a forest make’. It suggests that merely one species of a tree, even if repeated a million times does not make a forest.

Studies on biodiversity indicate that trees account for 1 % of the biodiversity of a forest or less. What is known by science reveals the forest as an ecosystem of tremendous complexity.  Trees, although providing only a fraction of the total biodiversity, provides the essential framework that a forest develops within.   A forest contains a huge array of organisms that continually change in form and function.  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. This complexity is difficult to address with the currently accepted ‘narrow view’ of a forest.

This narrow view of a forest has been exacerbated by the ‘official’ definition by the FAO;  Currently, forests are seen as tree dominated ecosystems possessing tree crown cover (stand density) of more than10% of the area (FAO 1995).  Thus any grove of trees with a crown cover over 10% qualifies as a forest. As such a definition cannot discriminate between forests and agricultural lands the problems of creating an effective policy framework emerges.

Notwithstanding, the irony that allows a forest with 90% crown cover to be reduced to 10% still be termed a forest, This illogical view allowed the proliferation of a great majority of ‘sustainable timber harvesting’ and revegetation programs that only considered the production of wood to be funded and supported by multilateral funds . As the Head of US Forest Service, Mr., Fenrow,  pointed out in 1920;

‘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’

This poorly informed view was brought about by neglect of the ecological and biodiverse reality of a forest.  However, it resulted in the institutions of forestry and their activities being centered around the growing of even aged monocultures of fast maturing trees, with no requirement to attend to the rehabilitation of forests or restoration of Ecosystem Services.

The role of forests and effective vegetation cover in the generation and conservation of water quality has been known by our forefathers for eons, but today there is a lamentable lack of recognition of these Ecosystem Services by those in charge of our forests and forest policy.  It was in 1948 that the Hon. D.S. Senanayake pointed out the importance of forests to sustain water flows down strea  In his book ‘Agriculture and Patriotism’ he notes :

“ it is of importance to remember the part played in the conservation of water by the forests of the country. With the evidence daily accumulating of the wisdom of our forefathers, we need scarcely doubt that it was not merely the idea of making the mountain country difficult of approach by the foreign invader that caused them to preserve unfilled and uncleared the dense vegetation of their mountain slopes. We may readily believe that they deliberately left these untouched in order to provide that abundant supply of water on which they might draw for the benefit of man.”  (D.S. Senanayake)

His wisdom was ignored by our modern bureaucrats and politicians and today we suffer from a deficit of water. For every acre of forest that stands today, hundreds of acres of forest have been lost in the surrounding countryside.  Yet there has been no mention of the need for rehabilitation and recovery of the water functions and biodiversity status of such degraded lands.  If these fundamental issues are not addressed, the loss of water quality and biodiversity in these critical ecosystems cannot be contained.

According to the U.N. FAO, 28.8% or about 1,860,000 ha of Sri Lanka is forested. Of this 9.0% (167,000) is classified as primary forest. What is the rest? Degraded forest? Plantations? Village lands? If only 9% can be classified as primary forests, the restoration activity that is needed to build back the other 19.8% is prodigious.

Perhaps we could begin with the actions required to build back biodiversity as spelled out by the National Climate Adaptation Strategy for Sri Lanka (2011 to 2016). It identifies action 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.

Will these activities become goals for the new initiatives on forestry? This nation desperately needs a well-designed restoration program to build back our forests, but do we have the capacity or the will to do it?