Photo courtesy of Namal Kamalgoda

Today is the International Day for Biological Diversity

Sri Lankans live in a biodiversity hotspot. We may take our lush tropical hinterland and the remaining forests for granted but in these arboreal depths there are still species new to science being discovered. Every year we lose a slice of this paradise to development projects. However, last year has been especially challenging for tree huggers. The rate of deforestation increased exponentially with government repealing a key piece of regulatory protection for state forests and the massive drive for new agricultural production to meet the increased demand created by Covid-19 triggered import restrictions. At the same time, tree planting has become a national obsession. Huge sums are set aside for tree planting campaigns and urban greening. Here we discuss why trees don’t (necessarily) make a forest and why protecting Sri Lanka’s remaining forests, even small clusters, is so important for the entire world.

The Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing, is now used as a de-stress practice in many western countries. The idea is to be in a forest, preferably alone, just sit or stand, do nothing and let nature wash over you. If you have spent time in a forest – not near it or by it but really inside one for any length of time – you would know that there is healing power within its leafy depths. The air cools, the sun dances through the leaves and the wind whispers through the canopy, birdsong or a gurgling stream will fill your ears while you breath deep the oxygenated air. You feel lighter somehow yet grounded and connected to this intricate, inter-connected web of life that surrounds you.

Of all the services that a forest produces, spirituality and stress busting may be two of the most undervalued. To ascribe human-centric values in rupees or dollars to such services that forests produce is virtually impossible. People have tried over the years to argue and prove that forests have ‘economic value’ and should be saved from the axe or bulldozer because they are useful for humans. The real problem begins when we sit down to figure out what that usefulness really means in monetary terms. If we total up the services that forests provide for us, many of which cannot be replicated mechanically or artificially, we would not be able to clear a single square inch of forest land for any other purpose.

Take water, the most valuable commodity for human existence after air. Forests ensure we have water. By intercepting fog high up in the mountains and channeling rain deep underground, forests give birth to rivers. Its complex tree structure purifies water, filters out toxins and keeps the water cycle well oiled. Forests shield people from natural hazards – floods, drought, landslides and even coastal erosion. There are many anecdotal reports of streams running dry when its catchments forests are cleared. Early stream drying is a huge problem for many areas of the mountainous central part of Sri Lanka and can directly be linked to the shrinking primary forest cover in that region. For villagers depending on water from such depleting mountain streams for their daily requirements, there is little use of the debate on value of forests. For them the impact is immediate and direct, and many are left at the mercy of local authorities and dependent on distributed water for several months of the year.

Forests deliver many services silently. For example, pollinators that live in the forest play a critical role in the adjacent agriculture fields by pollinating the crops, without which the yields would reduce drastically. Forests removes carbon dioxide from the air, and this has become the most recognized contribution today as the world battles climate change stemming from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Forests provide us a diverse array of non-timber forest products such as herbs, roots, fruits, mushrooms, leaves, reeds, rattans and exudates that are used for indigenous medicine, as food, construction of dwellings, raw materials for crafts and local rituals. There is great recreation value in forests and the opportunity to earn from eco-tourism especially for a country like Sri Lanka, where a complex climatology and geography has given rise to many unique types of forest ecosystems and scenic wilderness. In addition to these, forests perform a valuable but rarely mentioned service as a living, breathing laboratory for science. This is how a country’s biodiversity becomes a global resource. Forests provide us the opportunity to discover new facets about nature and its complex systems. It yields new material for scientific exploration that could be potentially lifesaving for humans as a species.

In the last two years alone, 84 new species were discovered from Sri Lanka. This included one species of fish, one bird, a lizard, several species of snakes, skinks, geckos, frogs, spiders, scorpions, mites ticks and even a jellyfish. A new orchid discovered in Sinharaja Man and Biosphere Reserve was named after the two of the pioneer forest ecologists in Sri Lanka, Professors Savitri and Nimal Gunatilleke. This amply demonstrates that forests in Sri Lanka harbours large number of species that are yet to be discovered by science and often found only in a confined range or a particular type of forest ecosystem and if these forests are lost many species may disappear before even being discovered. This heightens Sri Lanka’s importance as a global biodiversity hotspot.

There are two reasons why, with just over two million ha of forest cover and only 1.5 million ha in closed canopy forests, Sri Lanka still holds this important global position. Firstly, it supports an unusually high biodiversity compared to any other moderate sized tropical island. The hallmark of Sri Lanka’s biodiversityis  the presence of several species of mega fauna such as Asian elephant, leopard, sloth bear and sambur that do not occur in other moderate sized islands. Secondly, a large proportion of these species are endemic (species that are naturally found only in Sri Lanka). However, many of the endemic species in Sri Lanka are listed as globally or nationally threatened due to a number of reasons ranging from forest loss degradation, fragmentation and conversion of primary forests, alien invasive species, human-wildlife conflict and overexploitation. The impact of these drivers will be exacerbated due to climate change in ways that we are yet to fully comprehend. Impacts would be greater for range restricted species that live in niche eco systems clinging to the last vestiges of a primary ecosystem. Sadly, we may well lose species that we never knew existed as climate change induced threats – longer dry spells, temperature rise, forest fires- hasten forest loss and degradation.

Over 75 per cent of the world biodiversity are forest dwellers. Forest habitats are crucial for the survival of known and unknown species and similarly, if not even more so, forests are critical for Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. However, forest conservation has been severely undermined by a number of recent developments.

In 2020 deforestation became a major conservation issue due to a spate of large-scale deforestation activities spurred on by two key policy decisions of the government. In a bid to save foreign exchange and rescue the treasury from crisis brought on by Covid-19, the government banned importation of a number of food/agricultural inputs that can be cultivated locally. The renewed support for local production and incentives offered, including concessionary finance, generated an increased demand for cultivable land. Further, in November 2020, the government issued the circular MWFC/1/2020 repealing two previous circulars that transferred the management of all remaining forests under the category of ‘other state forests’ from Divisional Secretaries to Forest Department and provided a pathway for the Divisional Secretaries to identify non forest lands for development and get them exempt from the jurisdiction of Forest Department. This new circular effectively undermined the control of the Forest Department over these lands, and therefore snatched away the legal protection granted under the Forest Ordinance and allows district secretaries to release forests for ‘development purposes’. The conservation community argues that this move would lead to loss of an estimated 300,000 ha designated as ‘other state forests’. This would result in loss of biodiversity inhabiting these forests, critical ecosystem services provided by these forests such as watershed protection as well as the escalation of human-wildlife conflict due to loss of habitat and blocking of movements of wild animals. These ‘other state forests’ play an important role in conservation and therefore should not be simply exchanged as cultivable or developable land.  However, following the new circular, forest clearing for agriculture and development projects have been reported throughout the country and in important, ecologically sensitive areas such as savannah forests of Nilgala, montane forests of Piduruthalagala and lowland rainforests around Sinharaja in the south.

This circular has the potential to reduce overall forest cover by about 5 per cent, pushing annual forest loss way above the baseline level of approximately 7700 ha per annum. This type of short-sighted approach is an example of classic dichotomy between commitment and practice by the successive governments in Sri Lanka, who have not only failed to honor commitments made nationally but globally as Sri Lanka has also committed to increase its forest cover to 32 per cent under the Paris Agreement in 2015 and the governments manifesto itself pledges to increase forest cover (29 per cent at present) to 30 per cent. Further, it should be noted that allocation of forest land for non-forest uses without proper Environmental Impact Assessment contravenes the laws of the land, specifically regulations under the National Environmental Act.

On the other hand, the government pledged this year, maybe to deflect the social media backlash to the policy on forest conversion, to plant two million trees in the next three years. A huge budget was allocated to the Urban Development Ministry to create tree lined streets and urban forests in 2021. This exposes another myth commonly propagated by proponents of projects that require forest destruction -that you can pummel a pristine forest that has existed over centuries and replace it with trees. However, science is unequivocal. Trees alone does not make a forest. If that was so, rubber and coconut plantations would also be termed forests.

A forest is a structurally complex, three-dimensional space creating habitat for unique species and groups of co-habiting species; and providing the multitude of services described above. Forests are ecologically diverse both in terms of how it has adapted to the climate and physical characteristics of its geographical situation, but also in terms of the type, number of species and their relationship to each other. In a tropical setting this complexity increases tremendously. Despite the science, knowledge and even resources at hand, it is almost impossible to fully ‘restore’ the full complexity and functionality of a destroyed forest or create a new forest elsewhere. Therefore, when policy decisions favour short term gains accrued from clearing forests to pave way for agriculture, housing and other development projects, they unwittingly are setting in motion a chain of destruction that is so much more that what is visible as charred or bulldozed forests. The reverberations of biodiversity loss will be felt down the generations creating new disasters like the pandemic that has brought the world to its knees.

Devaka Weerakoon is Professor in Zoology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Colombo. Tharuka Dissanaike is an environmental specialist, consultant and trustee of the Federation of Environmental Organisations