One species of a tree even if repeated a million times does not make a forest.

Today  September 21st has been declared the International Day of Struggle against Tree Monocultures , people around the world will come out, write or otherwise question the wisdom of creating tree monocultures in the name of development. In Sri Lanka we have gone even further, we create tree monocultures in the name of forestry.

It is time to recognize the fact that much of the investment in “forests” up to date, have missed the forest for the wood. We have engaged ourselves in actions that addressed only one aspect of a forest, its wood.  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’

In Myanmar, there has been a long tradition of forest knowledge. In fact the development of ‘Agroforestry’ was based on the Myanmar traditions of ‘Taungya’ where the king allotted land for use in agriculture where teak trees would be grown alongside the crops and protected by the farmers.

The report on Biodiversity by the UNEP to the CSD has highlighted the massive problem inherent in the current discussions on forest, by pointing out that   “Forests can only be sustained if you sustain the richness of forest ecosystems.” they demonstrate the need to have forests as an issue managed by a multi-agency consortium rather that placing it under a single institution.  It is a fact that none of the so called ‘forestry’ practices has been able to sustain the richness of natural forest ecosystems, yet there are innumerable claims that ‘sustainable forestry’ is being practiced.

Studies on biodiversity indicate that trees account for 1 % of the biodiversity or less. 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 biodiversity is what gives a forest 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. The international response to the loss of natural forest ecosystems can be seen in the massive global investment in forestry.  However, a great majority of these tree planting programs around the world do not seem to provide an environment that is hospitable for sustaining local biodiversity.  A situation brought about by neglect of the ecological and biodiverse reality of a forest.  There is no excuse to be found in the argument that there was no information.  Forest Ecology has a long and distinguished history in the scientific literature.  The result of this neglect was that institutional forestry activity was centered around the growing of even aged monocultures of fast growing trees with no requirement to attend to the rehabilitation of forests.

It seems that the Forestry administration of Sri Lanka was 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’

We, as Sri Lankans who respect the vision of the Buddha, still cannot follow the vision of the Buddha, who sitting under a tree said :

“The forest is a most benevolent organism, offering freely of its life processes.  It even provides shade to the axeman who would fell it”

Thereby uttering the first recognition of ecosystem services in the historical record. But we seem to have lost the forest for the trees.

In many non-European societies throughout the world the protection or growing of forests often took on different social or religious meanings.  The example of Sacred Groves or Deorais exist in many traditions.  In India, these forests are usually located at the origins of fresh water springs.  They are associated with spirits, often a mother-goddess, deity.  Their belief system, in the swift and immediate retribution meted out by the deity if the forest is disturbed, has served to protect these forests even today.  The forest in turn provides the social functions by having a place of religious focus and community activity, as well as economic functions such as providing medicines or famine food or the ecological functions of stabilizing water and protecting genetic diversity.  A study of various forest formations in north-east India suggest that sacred groves may be the last refuge for remnant populations of certain species.

A similar concept of sacred grove was seen in the Trobriand Islanders.  This tradition was seen as the only force protecting the kaboma or sacred groves that were the only areas of uncut forest remaining on the Islands. To cut the rainforest species of trees that compose such sacred groves was believed to be dangerous because the angered sprits would bring human illness or crop failure.  The highly evolved traditional responses to forest management as seen in the forest agriculture of Papua New Guinea, where the taller structure of the forest was recognized as a feature to be retained, while the smaller growth was cleared for agriculture.  Further, the social and cultural recognition of the differential planting patterns of village tree gardens in west Java suggest that cultural responses to forestry may contain useful design elements for modern application. In Sri Lanka , the concept of sacred groves has generally been associated with Temples or Shrines.  The Temple Forest or Aranya has been referred to in Buddhist texts as far back as 200 A.D.

Forestry has to be developed within the local context.  Both social and biodiversity needs have to figure prominently in its design, otherwise we will only perpetuate the tyranny of the ‘Monoculture As Forestry Implementation Authorities’.