Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Foundation

“Ever since we arrived on this planet as a species, we’ve cut them down, dug them up, burnt them and poisoned them. Today we’re doing so on a greater scale than ever.” David Attenborough

Forest conservation is primarily about the survival of people, of us, as a species, of protecting ourselves from the detrimental consequences of our own actions. Yet we seem to be having a great deal of trouble in comprehending that. The human species evolved into a world that it shared with millions of other species; a system that was always changing, never in permanent balance but always seeking a new equilibrium. That is the basis of evolution, ‘the survival of the fittest’, with the best to adapt to these changes proving the survivors. These variations, however, took place gradually over very long time intervals in the approximate 3.7 billion years since life first evolved on this planet.

In the relative short time that so-called Homo sapiens – that’s us – have developed we have, it can be argued, mastered this change better than most others and, in so doing, evolved a proportionately larger brain and the ability to think in the abstract, that which most differentiates us from the rest. We can imagine and create and destroy the very Earth itself!

Creative destruction?

Can you imagine the Earth without life? Yes, we all can, and it is a vision that is far from pleasant. Well this is what we are doing at the moment, changing the Earth, making it uninhabitable, in a span of time so short that nothing, even ourselves, can adapt to this change. What it took evolution billions of years to achieve, with each species using just the right amount of resources they needed to survive, we are destroying in a mere two hundred or less, by consuming more and more resources for the same functions. And we accomplish all of this in the name of development!

According to R. Pearson, development represents “An improvement qualitative, quantitative or both – in the use of available resources.” (Pearson, R. (2000). “Rethinking Gender Matters in Development”). The key word here must be ‘qualitative’. Development must bring about worthy change, an improvement on that which existed before, and for the greater good of the many.

The phrase “…the use of available resources” is of great importance in achieving development. If agriculture is to continue to be one of Sri Lanka’s major industries, then it is blessed with the resources it needs – sun, water, clean air and fertile soils – and a vast wealth of indigenous knowledge that led to the development of a world renowned cascade system of irrigation. The key today, however, is to improve the productivity of the existing farming practices rather than just open up more and more areas for continuing low productivity while destroying the environment with these clearings. It is estimated that one quarter of the approximate 62 per cent of the land mass of this country that is used for agriculture lies unproductive due to a lack of necessary resources and lack of institutional initiative.

A spring of water will replenish the land for thousands of years provided it is fed by the rains. The rains will water the Earth for eons if it has trees to draw its moisture down. Forests have greened the Earth for millions of years in harmony with the multitude of animal and insect species that have contributed to their pollination and dispersion. All work together in rhythm with the teeming oceans whose heaving tides keep the seasons alive, and the land renewed and reformed. A disruption in this intricate network can destroy the whole, and we seem intent on aiding such destruction, a suicidal intent as without them, we face annihilation too.

Planning for the majority?

Sri Lanka desperately needs development but of planned development that benefits the majority of its peoples while sustaining life-giving ecosystems. Most importantly, it must not destroy the livelihoods of others, or the natural resources of the land. Projects that bring short term gain for a few, with a lasting legacy of suffering for the many, are to be avoided. Sadly, such initiatives are regularly proposed, especially by some policymakers who seem to believe that ours just might be the final generation, and the future is of no consequence.

A prime example of such a project was one that was mooted just over five years ago on the mountain slopes below Haldemulla, on the heights above the Uda Walawe National Park. This was for the construction of an 18-hole golf course and hotel, of several hundred rooms, to support it. For whom?

Over 620 acres of forest was to be cut for this construction, with loopholes in the law exploited to grab pristine acres of temple lands. Local farmers who tilled the land in the glades between the trees, benefiting from the crystal clear waters that flowed through this valuable water catchment woodland, were tempted into parting with their lands with the promise of jobs and unceasing wealth for them and their families. A few certainly stood to benefit from this project, but these tillers of the soil would not be of those few.

Golf courses require water, thousands of gallons of it, to keep the grasses of their greens and fairways healthy and alive. Then there is the water requirement for a large hotel, as well as for the aesthetics involved in keeping the immediate landscape attractive, with flower beds and decorative ponds. This would have to be pumped from the streams running down the hillsides, or from wells to tap the water tables below.  The result would be little water for those living downstream, trying to eke out a living from the dry zone land, and for whom every drop of water is precious. Incredibly, one of these streams is the Weli Oya on which millions of rupees were spent, just a decade ago, on a project to collect its waters to improve cultivations further downstream.

A golf course also requires large quantities of fertilizer to keep its grasses healthy, and of pesticides to keep the multitude of insects of the forests from consuming the green swards, the pride of every green and fairway keeper. So now the trickle of water flowing downstream would contain high levels of toxic chemicals in it; poisoned water for drinking and agriculture.

These are old forests that are filled with life; ancient life. From the big animals – the elephant, leopard and bear – to those creatures smaller – they have all lived here for thousands of years in perfect balance with each other, keeping these forests alive. In fact, apart from times of drought, these forests host more wild elephants than the Uda Walawe National Park below. One of these forests is the Bogahapattiya Proposed Forest Reserve, which along with the Dahaiyagala Elephant Corridor, connects Uda Walawe to the rest. It is one of the most important elephant ranges in the South. If they are blocked, no elephants will be able to move in and out of Uda Walawe, spelling their doom, as well as of the livelihoods of the hundreds who make a living from the thousands of tourists who visit that park every year.

It is of interest to note that in the 1970s, Sri Lanka was lauded throughout the world for its policy of ensuring connectivity between its protected areas, vital not only for the availability of food and water, but also for the exchange of genes between populations. If this genetic exchange is prevented, extinction of species will be the inevitable consequence of that too.

The residents of the area had been promised jobs and perpetual prosperity from the golf course. It is true that a few, or maybe a hundred or two, may be employed in the multitude of manual tasks involved, in the hotel and on the golf course, all at the expense of thousands of their fellow Sri Lankans further downstream.

Fortunately, based on local opposition to the project and a major landslide in the area, which clearing of these mountain forests will inevitably increase in frequency, the Government wisely refused permission for the furtherance of the project. Recent developments, however, seem to indicate that this project may be back on the table.

The importance of Other State Forests

Not all forests fall within the boundaries of areas placed, by gazette, under the direct protection of the Forest Department (FD) and of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). Some of these, almost five per cent of the total forest cover of Sri Lanka, are termed as ‘Other State Forests’. They, too, provide essential services to wildlife and people, especially in aiding water catchment and retention in the dry zone in which most of these forests lie. Research conducted by the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) has shown that over 60 per cent of the wild elephant population of Sri Lanka range, either continuously or at certain times of the year, outside of the protected areas, largely within these State Forests. In addition, they also provide important connectivity between the protected areas, and host populations of indigenous species not found anywhere else.

The importance of these forests was recognised in the early 2000s and a Governmental Circular 5/2001 later strengthened by 2/2006, placed them under the protection of the Forest Department. This was, however, overturned in July 2020 when a Cabinet paper (Government Circular 1/2020) was tabled to abolish the protections afforded in these two circulars and to hand these forests over to District Secretariats for them to be given out for chena (slash and burn) cultivation and undefined economic development.  Inevitably, this resulted in large scale protest from environmental and conservation groups, and announcement was made that that paper, and its intentions, had been withdrawn. Yet, in a directive released by the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife in November 2020 (MWFC/1/2020), this seems to be back in operation, though with certain safeguards.

Will they walk the talk?

These safeguards are to be welcomed as they imply not only the importance of these forests but also the fact that their use and distribution is open to misuse. As per point 4.1 of this circular (as translated from the Sinhala original):

“… care should be taken not to include the following lands for release for economic and other productive purposes.                                              

  i.    Ecologically sensitive land areas bordering rivers and streams 

 ii.    Areas with steep slopes  

 iii.   Feeder areas

iv.   Wild elephant migration landmarks

v.   Areas of historical cultural and archaeological significance 

vi.  Proposed sites for the task of conserving biodiversity in line with the environmental policies contained in the ”Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” and to achieve the objectives of enhancing forest cover

vii.  Areas to be conserved for the purpose of conservation of endangered plant and animal species

viii. Areas identified for future development activities of the Government

ix.  Areas not suitable for development activities on other special grounds

x.  Proposed areas for future community participation/social forestry use.”

It is proposed that District Secretaries set up a review committee, including officers from the FD and DWC, for their approval prior to releasing lands. It is however, well known that Government officials can be subject to political pressure and lack of integrity. As such, if the Government is serious in its intent, then all of these recommendations should also be forwarded to a central committee set up of representatives not only of the statutory stakeholders, but also of independent experts from the relevant sciences, and conservation organizations, so that every avenue is explored, in a transparent way, before such lands are declared as being suitable for release.

The alternatives 

What would happen if a golf course is built on the slopes below Haldemulla? Much monetary gain for a few, an immediate influx of income for a few more, and long-term hardship for the rest downstream and downhill, as waters are reduced and poisoned, human-elephant conflicts increase with the displaced animals, elephants and other species, searching for food and water in neighbouring home gardens and cultivations, and the real danger of the whole mountain slope, now denuded of trees, landing on top of those below. Yet, these are communities that deserve an opportunity for permanent, and sustainable, social and economic improvement. The secret for their success lies all around them, in the forests that border their homes. The potential for responsible wildlife and nature based tourism is enormous. In fact, it will play a key role in bringing foreign visitors back to Sri Lanka once the restrictions in travel caused by the pandemic are over. Prior to this, over 50 per cent of tourists to Sri Lanka visited at least one of its protected areas. This was in such numbers that the popular national parks and forest reserves were beginning to buckle under the pressure. If there was greater choice, and this country is blessed with such variety of habitats, and if emphasis is placed on quality of experience and not just quantity, then these State forests would offer destinations for wildlife enthusiasts away from the overused dry zone national parks. In addition, these mountain slope forests host not just exotic wild animals but terrains and scenic views that are breathtaking in splendour. In 2015 /2016, it was estimated that the Yala National Park earned Rs. 7.5 billion for the local economy. In this same period, the Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks generated Rs. 1.5 billion in just the four months of the world renowned annual gathering of elephants that takes place there, according to a study by Srilal Miththapala, former Chair of the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka. They provide a sustainable and recurring income for the majority of the community rather than just the privileged few.

A future for all

Just a few miles further down the hill, Uda Walawe, what was a mere three decades ago a simple hamlet on the borders of a newly created national park, now hosts over 120 hotels and guest houses of varying sizes, many restaurants and other food outlets. In addition, over 600 safari jeep drivers earn a living from taking visitors into the park. All of this income is earned due to them living in an area neighbouring a national park where the sighting of a wild elephant can be guaranteed at any time, 24 hours of the day, on seven days of the week! Why not give more such communities the opportunity to earn such added prosperity by protecting the forests and wild animals that they neighbour? Sri Lanka needs development, of that none can disagree, but not of the kind that will lead to the ultimate destruction of the future health and wealth of this island nation. Most importantly, as global droughts and famines are being predicted within the next decade, we must conserve our water catchment areas for without them, we will all wither away. We already have the means of achieving this, lasting wealth to the people and perpetual water for the future, all gifted to us by nature.

“There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive.” David Attenborough