Photo courtesy of Tashiya de Mel

This is a callout to Sri Lankans who have enjoyed our forests. If you have ever spread your picnic lunch in the soft shade of a roadside forest or gazed out from a lookout point over scattered lakes and tree-lined river courses meandering through forested valleys, marvelling at how green our island is… you have enjoyed our forests and the fertility they bless this country with. Today those same shady forests, glistening rivers, lakes and even those panoramic views you have enjoyed, are threatened.

There is a promise hovering over us – a promise of advanced systems of development, directed by technocrats. By the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition, a technocrat is “an expert in science or technology who has a lot of power in or influence with government or industry”. That direction for development would be ideal for our resource-rich nation. As members of a technically skilled elite, their expert knowledge and presumed patriotism would enable our resources to be harvested sustainably, in ways that would benefit the whole nation.

But while we wait for the technocrats to emerge, what is newsworthy is a mind-boggling array of potential environmental depredations. Immediately leading the impending environmental disasters is the Cabinets recent decision to return approximately 500,000 acres of forest lands to the sole jurisdiction of Divisional Secretaries. In 2001, due to careless distribution of forest lands by Divisional Secretaries, the Department of Forests was granted guardianship of these lands by gazette (5/2001). Prompting this gazette was the easy release of forests to every state institution that requested playgrounds and landfills for their family and friends, for garages, poultry farms and even quarries. Amending this gazette and reverting this land mass to the slippery hands of Divisional Secretaries would once again allow irresponsible use of our forests.

In defence of this dangerous decision is an ignorant argument of “residual” forests, suggesting a remnant or useless leftover – there is no such forest. All forests, from high canopy to open scrub and grassland, are vital to maintain environmental equilibrium. The targeted forests are administratively referred to as Other State Forests (OSF), besides Protected Areas (PAs) forests, which are National Parks, Sanctuaries and Reserves. This administrative mosaic exists only for the bureaucracy. Despite all these limiting tags and titles ascribed by human-speak, wiser species and powerful natural elements such as wind and rain understand contiguous ecosystems. Forests function as a single organism. Together, multiple ecosystems minimise flooding and drought. Further, forests are carbon sinks and these extensive acres of natural cover decimates Sri Lankas newest foe, air pollution. Collectively, these functions of natural forests are known as, Ecosystem Services. The true economic value of these services can only be estimated, as they are so extensive. To artificially mitigate floods or droughts or purify air, with equal effect islandwide, would be humanly impossible and the costs cannot be imagined. Then, are we supposed to settle for a tiny portion of these artificially providedservices – only what the government can afford?

If these 500,000 acres of forest are lost, providing water to drought stricken areas of the country will come first. Drought stricken areas will expand rapidly, as Dry Zones are stripped of their forests and groundwater tables fall, transforming them in to Arid Zones. Water on tap for all, was promised. That is, the uninterrupted supply of essential quantities of daily drinking and bathing water for the entire nation of 22 million people. A promise that includes rural dwellers, who have always been self-sufficient, with wells on their properties. Wonderful, even as it checks the modern reach for self-sufficiency. In addition, overriding the general populace, will be water demands for industry; powerful corporate voices, from manufacture to construction.

Besides daily essentials for a nation, there will be a massive requirement of water for the intensive farming proposed. What is currently being peddled is the urgent need for chena lands over a potential 500,000 acres of forest! Europeans who first witnessed chena cultivation perfectly described the practice as slash and burn agriculture. And so it is, as scrub forests are slashed and burnt to sow a seasonal crop. This system works well if it is not intensively applied; when there was enough acreage for rotation, leaving fields fallow for many years and allowing the land to regenerate. Today, as human populations have swelled and land is a precious commodity, intensive chena cultivation is as outdated as smoking cigarettes on an airplane – the whole world knows it is harmful.

Intensive agriculture was introduced to Sri Lanka by British imperialists. Their only objective was high yield cultivation systems to maximise exports – invaders, who only saw the island’s potential to be exploited for profit. In the short term, intensive monocultures produce the highest yield. It mattered little to the British that vast monocultures are unsustainable and cause lasting damage to the environment. Maybe two centuries ago they were ignorant of the fact that intensive farming depletes the land and eventually, maintaining arable soil becomes financially non-viable (as tea planters who inherited colonial plantations are now discovering).By the 1820s, after the island was conquered and rebellions quelled, extensive plantation lands were needed for auctioning in London. Shiploads of new planters arrived to fell our finest forests, leaving mountains and valleys bald and bare. The only Montane forests that were spared were the most inaccessible slopes. Still greedy, by 1840 the colonial government devised the Wastelands Ordinance, which allowed the acquisition of privately owned lands. In the pre-colonial era, besides the paddylands, most Sri Lankan farmers employed sustainable agroforestry and rotational chena cultivation – “wastelands” to the British, to justify a massive land grab.

Those were foreign colonists who grabbed our land and devastated our forests, with little care for the impact on Sri Lankans. Then, in addition to the vast unknown numbers of wildlife species and medicinal plants that were lost, streams died and our land began to dry, as root supply to ancient reservoir systems disappeared. Now, if our own elected leaders destroy forests for short term economic gain, justified as “residual” according to some muddled administrative pattern, how is it different? In reality, it will be worse in this era of global climate change. Now, when the whole planet is drying out and water wars are on the horizon, Sri Lanka is still blessed with water, which is available to the majority of her farming and urban societies. Destroying 500,000 acres of forest will ensure that water shortages will become  Sri Lanka’s greatest problem. If these forests are felled, does the government plan to send endless water bowsers to all its constituents in need of water?

And where will all that water come from? If the Cabinet decision is implemented, and the appointed steering committee picks tiles of forest out of the mosaic, the pattern of the forests will be broken and fragmented. Fragmentation produces well-known problems; besides definitely pushing existing human-wildlife conflicts over the tipping point, disruption of surface and subterranean waterways and erosion will be inevitable. As the remaining mountain forests are felled, the exposed streams will dry out. As streams dry and are no longer able to feed rivers… yes, rivers will die, like those that lie beneath the sands of Rajastan, Andhra and Northern Africa. Our beautiful Mahaveli, Malwathu, Kumbukkan, Menik and so many more, which wind through forests, replenishing themselves as they twist lazily beneath sweeping Kumbuk and towering old Mi and Thimbiri, will become dead rivers. Every Sri Lankan has laughed and played in these rivers, lying in shadows as sun-dappled, cool waters wash over us. We have purified ourselves in sacred waters, before praying to our gods; in the Menik Ganga at Kataragama, made mid-river offerings to the powerful Goddess Pattini on the Kumbukkan and braved the icy waters of the Sita Gangula, before attempting to climb the holiest, Sri Pada. If these forests are destroyed by the shortsighted and the greedy, we can say farewell to those blessed waters within a decade… and will the gods forgive them?

It is never too late for wisdom. The wise will recognise that there is more to be won than lost if Sri Lankas existing forests are nurtured and expanded. Our future lies in reclaiming our heritage of agroforestry and rewilding. Our traditional agroforestry (commonly known as the Kandyan home-garden system but practiced island wide in pre-colonial times), which is now hailed by global experts as the finest land use system, should be taught in every school and revived, as elementary knowledge. Depleted plantation lands should be rewilded: planted with indigenous species, as the quickest method of soil restoration, instead of the archaic practice of monocultural forestry with alien Pine, Eucalyptus and Mahogany. Extensive rewilding, with high value medicinal species for niche products, still known only to Sri Lankan traditional medicine practitioners, should be incentivised. Medicinal forests, expanding beyond the slopes of Nilgala to the slopes of Uva and Sabaragamuva, supplying rare herbs to an unhealthy human race, should become state enterprise. Income can easily be generated from any indigenous forest (i.e. Yala Block I, which consists primarily of open-scrub forest), particularly through well designed educational tourism that benefits local communities. Further, expanding catchment forests will rejuvenate our water sources, enabling us to sell water to neighbouring nations, which will soon exhaust their own supply. This would be development, with foresight in the style of Sri Lanka’s ancient kings.